Fetal Positions

In the debate over cloning, it's still pro-choice vs. pro-life. It shouldn't be.

Earlier this year, when the Senate debated his bill to ban human cloning, Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) was given 20 seconds to summarize the issue. "Science has given us partial-birth abortions and Dr. Kevorkian's assisted suicide," he declared. "We should say no to these scientific advances and no to the cloning of human embryos."

The next day, a bioethicist testified at a House committee meeting that cloned zygotes—egg cells activated by a DNA transplant from body cells—were human beings. "Do you believe that a woman should have a right to an abortion?" asked pro-choice Rep. Greg Ganske (R-Iowa). "I am very proudly pro-life," the witness snapped back.

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It's not surprising that politicians and activists are treating the cloning debate as the next round of the abortion war. Few of them have a clue about the mechanics of cloning, much less the ethics. But they know their positions on abortion—pro-life or pro-choice—and their first instinct is to apply the same arguments to cloning. They don't yet understand how treacherous the new terrain is.

Pro-lifers are obsessed with legislation sponsored by Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that would permit the production of human zygotes through cloning but would ban their implantation in a womb. The National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), which takes no position on cloning per se, lobbied senators to reject the bill, saying that it would require researchers to "kill the embryos." The principle at stake, according to the Christian Coalition, is "the sanctity of each human life from conception until natural death."

But in cloning, there is no conception. The criteria by which pro-lifers define a new person—fusion of egg and sperm, a unique combination of genes—are never met. Applying these criteria, pro-life Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) calls cloned zygotes "asexually produced totipotent cells" and questions whether they are really embryos. That implies that fully born clones aren't people, a position the NRLC rejects. But to escape that nightmare, pro-lifers will have to rethink their definition of when life begins.

Pro-lifers also reject the assertion of human freedom over nature. In the abortion context, this is an argument for life. But in cloning, it becomes an argument against it. Cloning a human "for the purpose of bringing new life into the world is intrinsically evil and should be absolutely prohibited," declared Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) in support of the Bond bill. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) agreed: "We should not be in the business of taking away life or creating life unnaturally." One of the "unnatural" practices forbidden by the Bond bill is the transfer of a nucleus from a fertilized but fragile egg to an enucleated healthy egg. This technique enables a woman to give birth to a child conceived by the fusion of egg and sperm, rather than suffer a spontaneous abortion. Yet pro-life senators supported legislation to ban it.

In the abortion debate, pro-lifers treat procreation and sexual responsibility as twin values: You had sex and got pregnant, so you should carry the child to term. But in cloning, the twin values come apart. The cloned zygote originates in a test tube, not a womb. So when NRLC legislative director Douglas Johnson says that embryos must not be "allowed to die without being implanted in a womb," it's not clear whose womb he has in mind. Foreseeing this dilemma, pro-lifers condemn asexual reproduction as a moral offense. In other words, if you want a baby, they insist that you have sex.

Pro-lifers further protest that cloned babies might be deformed. Bond told his colleagues that creating babies with "abnormalities" was "entirely unacceptable." Even if the child were physically normal, other pro-lifers objected, its family structure would be ruined by the nature of its creation. "Every child has a right not to be so born," a pro-life theologian told the House committee. Pro-lifers used to stand for equality, rejecting the view that children with physical disabilities or unfortunate origins (i.e., rape or incest) should never be born. Now they are embracing that view.

Pro-choicers, too, are in danger of wandering astray. Two months before the Senate cloning debate, pro-choice legal scholar Laurence Tribe, writing in the New York Times, renounced the anti-cloning movement as an assault on "unconventional ways of linking erotic attachment, romantic commitment, genetic replication, gestational mothering, and the joys and responsibilities of child rearing."

In the Senate, Feinstein submitted a letter from the libertarian Cato Institute suggesting that cloning could eventually be accepted as a solution to infertility. She urged her colleagues to heed a plea from the nation's leading advocacy group for infertile couples, which demanded: "Avenues for further research to help couples must not be halted." She also submitted a letter from the biotech company Genentech, which cautioned would-be cloning regulators not to tamper with "the legal rights of persons to free expression and inquiry in the private market."

In the abortion debate, the "choice" argument is anchored by the obligation to defend a woman's bodily integrity. But in cloning, she needs no such defense, because she isn't pregnant yet. Absent that anchor, the ideology of an unbounded right to replicate oneself in an "unconventional" arrangement of procreation, eroticism, and commitment—or lack of commitment—leads to chaos. Some pro-choicers pretend that cloning is just a small step from gay parenthood and in vitro fertilization, but it's not. Cloning abolishes the genetic difference between parent and child. If gay parenthood means that Heather has two mommies, cloning doesn't just mean that Heather has one mommy; it means that, genetically, Heather is her mommy. So if Heather's mommy has a husband and daughter, then genetically, Heather is her sister's mommy and her daddy's wife.

The argument becomes even more pernicious when coupled with the view, advanced by some abortion rights advocates, that bodily integrity is a property right. "Every person's DNA is his or her personal property," Randolfe Wicker of the Clone Rights United Front told the House committee. "To have that DNA cloned into another extended life is part and parcel of his or her right to control his or her own reproduction." If that's true, then you own your clone. And if you and your spouse conceive a child normally, don't you collectively own that child?

Furthermore, if DNA is property, it can be sold. In abortion, this is moot, because the embryo dies. But in cloning, it lives. Who will end up owning the clone and its DNA? With that in mind, you'd expect progressives to be wary of entrusting cloning to private interests. You'd think that Ted Kennedy, the scourge of greedy health insurance companies, would be last to deflect questions about the commercial cloning schemes of "our great research pharmaceutical companies" by equating their interests with those of the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association. Yet there stood Kennedy at the climax of the Senate debate, boasting: "If they are special interest groups, we are proud to stand with them."

As cloning grows from an embryonic curiosity to a mature political issue, advocates of choice and of life are increasingly finding themselves in such awkward positions. They ought to ask how they got there, and where they're going.

William Saletan is a Mother Jones contributing writer and author of a forthcoming book on the politics of abortion.