Responding to the Standard View of Biotech

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Letter published in The Weekly Standard July 29, 2002

Eric Cohen points out some tensions though not actual contradictions in pro-biotech arguments ("Biotech Loses Its Innocence," June 24). He notes that biotech defenders claim the benefits of therapeutic cell-cloning are imminent while the possible horrors of radically altering the human gene code (or "eugenics," as Cohen puts it) remain far off. This is no rhetorical ploy on the part of scientists but an accurate summary of the state of research. We are far from understanding what trait is caused by each component of the human genome, but experiments in the replacement of diseased cells with newly cloned ones are well underway in animals and may soon help humans.

Surely one could play Cohen's game with anti-biotech arguments, pointing out seeming contradictions in order to cast aspersions on the whole movement. When mammalian cloning was first announced, Rush Limbaugh and others argued that scientists would never be able to create anything in a lab that has a soul. But now anti-biotech activists say that even single cells sitting in petri dishes, cells that will never gestate in a womb, are people with souls and with the rights of fellow citizens indeed, with rights that outweigh the needs of Parkinson's and diabetes sufferers.

Anti-biotech activists tell us not to define human life in reductionist, materialistic terms. But then they tell us that adult stem cell research is morally acceptable even though the presence or absence of an egg cell membrane is the only discernible difference between the cells used in adult stem cell research and the cells used in embryonic stem cell research. That microscopic barrier, sitting in a petri dish and fused to a DNA packet by an artificial electrical stimulus, makes the difference between a fellow citizen and mere medical supplies? One might think there was just a bit more to human nature than that.

And surely anti-biotech forces have been quicker than pro-biotech forces to spin current research in order to bolster their political arguments. William Kristol now argues that therapeutic cloning, even if it works, will be so inefficient that it might as well be banned (though many scientists seem to disagree with him and a capitalist should know that inefficient practices tend to disappear without the need for bans anyway). Wesley J. Smith ("Cloning and Congress," July 1/July 8) expresses the oft-heard conservative confidence in adult stem cell research, while most scientists remain uncertain that adult stem cells will have the plasticity of embryonic stem cells.

Cohen is right to want thorough and thoughtful debate about biotech. Defenders of science have long shown their willingness to debate topics such as the atomic bomb or the proper protocols for experimental surgery. But a good debate means contending with your opponent's best arguments, not concocting apparent contradictions in order to avoid the real arguments.

New York, NY