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Welcome to Our Brave New World: An Interview with Wesley J. Smith
Will the cost of biotechnology's alleviation of human suffering be our acceptance of a ‘Brave New World,’ where scientists wield godlike power to refashion our biological nature? If so, we will not get there in one giant leap. Rather, we will descend into the darkness in small steps, all but unaware that the shadows are lengthening.
John Zmirak : What got a nice progressive like you involved in the crusade of the religious right to hobble the progress of modern science? More seriously — can you explain why the Left is so silent on what seems like a profound human rights abuse fueled by corporate capitalism, while it's left to the Vatican (along with some concerned scientists and ethicists) to speak out?
Wesley Smith: I know the first question is facetious. But it is amazing how many people, particularly in the mainstream media, believe that opposing human cloning is the same thing as opposing science itself. Of course, that is nonsense. These aren't science issues so much as they are ethical and moral issues in which everyone has a stake. This means that every one of us should participate and have an equal say.
Actually, some in the Left are opposing these agendas, although you wouldn't know it from the two-dimensional reportage in the mainstream media. Those who walk on the left side of the street who oppose human cloning do so primarily because they perceive it correctly as transforming human life into a mere instrumentality, and because it could lead to eugenics and the exploitation of women. For example, Judy Norsigian, one of the editors of the feminist manifesto Our Bodies, Ourselves, is a prominent opponent of human cloning. So too are leftists Jeremy Rifkin, Todd Gitlin, and Norman Mailer. Unfortunately, these folk do appear to represent the minority position on the Left, which seems to have bought the nonsense that to be modern, one must support embryonic stem cell research and human cloning.
You argue in your book that American biotech companies are piggy-backing on the "pro-choice" rhetoric of American feminism to prepare a nightmare for the women of the developing world. What do you fear will happen?
Here's the very real danger to women that I discuss in Consumer's Guide to a Brave New World: Each attempt at human cloning requires three ingredients: A body cell from the DNA donor, an electrical charge, and a mature human egg. Getting the cells is no problem since each of us has trillions. The electrical charge isn't an issue. But obtaining human eggs is another story altogether.
One study published by the National Academy of Sciences reported that it would probably take 100 eggs just to obtain one cloned stem cell line, per patient. The author estimated the cost of these eggs per patient — which now sell for between $1,000-$2,000 apiece for use in fertility treatments — at about $200,000! And that is just for the eggs!
Now consider that the National Academy of Sciences has suggested that about 100 million Americans could benefit from regenerative medicine such as therapeutic cloning. If it takes 100 eggs per patient, that comes to 10 billion eggs! There are never going to be that many human eggs available. Even if the therapeutic cloning were limited to the sickest 100,000 patients on a strict rationing system, that is still 10 million eggs! Where are you going to get them all?
Certainly not from American women. Egg procurement is onerous at best. True, some donate now, often for a price. But I doubt that millions of women of child bearing age would be willing to go through the discomfort or risks of egg procurement.
This means that biotech companies would be likely to buy eggs from poor women in impoverished countries such as Kenya or Bangladesh, who could be paid a relatively small fee to have their eggs harvested. This would be the worst sort of exploitation. Moreover, since these women would not be likely to have ready access to medical treatment in the event of complications, some could die or become sterile. That is why I assert that therapeutic cloning would be rich men's medicine facilitated with the body parts of poor women. This potential for the most crass form of exploitation is one reason some notable feminists oppose these technologies.
You point out repeatedly that seemingly innocuous "stem cell research" is really a proposal for growing human beings for harvest, experimentation, and dissection as spare parts — turning human lives into a crop. What other implications do you think this technological leap would have for human rights and the dignity of the person?
"Stem cell research," per se, doesn't pose those problems necessarily, since that term also encompasses adult stem cells, which have no moral problems associated with their use.
But if you mean embryonic stem cells and therapeutic cloning, there are two moral problems. First, for pro-lifers, an embryo is a fully equal person from the moment it comes into being. Thus, destroying it is to destroy human life. But even people who don't accept that premise recoil at the notion of turning nascent human life into a natural resource to be exploited for profit. Indeed, Jeremy Rifkin calls cloning the "new slavery."
Moreover, embryonic stem cell research is the gateway to human cloning, which is the essential technology for all of the Brave New World consequences that using humans in this way is likely to bring about. The reason for this is that ES cells from leftover embryos would likely be rejected by the body's immune system. One way scientists hope to overcome this problem is to create human clones of every patient for use in stem cell therapies. Indeed, that was what Ron Reagan called for in his speech at the Democratic Convention. But as stated above, not only is that immoral-creating human life for the purpose of destroying it — but wildly impractical and expensive. And if we ever get to the point where we countenance cloned babies, it would mean the end of unconditional acceptance of our children since we would be special ordering them to have a specific genetic makeup.
Do you find it fitting that China — which executes political prisoners and sells their organs for transplant, and forces women to have abortions — is the site of the most "advanced" biotech experiments, including the mixing of human genes with those of mice? Is America far behind China in its growing disrespect for human life?
Well, I do think we are very far behind China in this regard, thank goodness. China's public policy has little regard for the sanctity of individual human life. I believe that the sanctity/equality of life ethic, while under sustained assault, remains the backbone of the value system of the United States. Secondly, we are engaged in a robust and important ethical and moral debate about these issues. You will not see that in China.
That being noted, there is a drive in the science and bioethics establishments to unfetter science from almost any meaningful societal control. Some even assert that there is a constitutional right to conduct scientific research. There is even a quasi-religion that seems to be forming, known as "scientism," that views science as the materialist salvation of humankind, and hence, asserts that only scientists have the right to determine what is and is not moral in science. If this mindset, which explicitly eschews the sanctity/equality of human life ethic prevails in these debates, then we will be in danger of becoming a science-ocracy in which science would not serve society, but come to dominate it. In such an amoral milieu, then yes, we could be in danger of falling into the moral abyss into which China has already plunged.
You note in your book that some "cutting edge" bioethicists have suggested purposely breeding less-intelligent humans, or human-animal chimeras, to perform dangerous, dirty jobs. Is there really a prospect of this?
That was Joseph Fletcher, who was the philosopher who came up with situational ethics. I doubt whether the technology will permit such abominations, at least not in the next few decades. But that should not make us sanguine. The anti human attitudes that would foster such desires are alive and well in society.
In this regard, I urge your readers to check out the "transhumanist" movement, to see what I mean. (Just Google the word "transhumanism.") These folk want to genetically engineer us into a "post human" race. Such thinking is not only explicitly eugenic, but it represents a profound nihilism and pessimism about the importance of being human. Such attitudes can cause great harm to society regardless of whether the technology ever makes their dystopian nightmares possible.
You've written in the past of the dangers of animal-rights ideology. Is there a connection between the ethics promoted by, say, Peter Singer, and the rationales given for human cloning?
Absolutely. The predominate view in bioethics, biotechnology, and animal rights/liberation is that human life does not have intrinsic value simply and merely because it is human. In other words, these movements, for differing reasons, reject human exceptionalism. But we need to believe we are unique and special. Otherwise, what will happen to universal human rights, or indeed, our obligation as moral beings to treat animals humanely? I mean, if we are merely another animal in the forest, that is precisely how we will act.
If human life does not matter simply and merely because it is human, this means that moral worth becomes subjective and a matter of who has the power to decide. History shows, that once we create categories of differing worth, those humans denigrated by the political power structure as having less value, are exploited, oppressed, and killed. Hence, as biotechnologists assert they can use nascent and even fetal human life as marketable commodities, many bioethicists are also suggesting that we should be able to kill cognitively devastated people for their organs. So, all of these sanctity/equality of life issues are not discreet. They are connected. We just have to stand back far enough to see the whole picture.
Could you explain what some have called the "partial-birth abortion cloning act" which recently passed in New Jersey?
Here is the problem: New Jersey has legalized human cloning, permits implantation of the cloned embryo into wombs, and allows gestation through the ninth month. If a woman actually allows a cloned child to be born, she becomes a felon. But she does nothing wrong under the law so long as the cloned child is killed even a mere moment before actually being born. Therefore, to avoid committing a crime, she would have to have an abortion, perhaps even a partial birth abortion, if she allowed the cloned fetus to survive into the late stages of gestation.
This radical law, which other state legislatures have also had before them, demonstrates the unlimited ultimate agenda of Big Biotech. In the end, researchers have no intention of limiting their experiments with cloned humans to the early embryonic stages. In this sense, they are unwilling to accept any meaningful limitations to their endeavors over the long haul.
I noticed in your bio that you were a long-time associate of Ralph Nader. What is the common factor uniting your work with him in the past with your current efforts?
That's an interesting question that I haven't been asked before. I co-authored four books with Ralph and got to know him quite well. Ralph's motivation, whether one agrees or disagrees with him on the particulars of policy, is to empower the individual to stand against exploitation by powerful institutions. I certainly see my work in opposing euthanasia, resisting the utilitarian agenda inherent in the modern bioethics movement that eschews the sanctity/equality of human life, and my expose about the almost unlimited agendas of Big Biotech, in the same light.
Moreover, Ralph understands that too often, our values follow our pocketbooks, and that sometimes, corporate agendas, unless countered with effective democratically-enacted checks and balances, can dehumanize society and oppress the defenseless. I perceive the same concern as being germane in all of my work, whether it is warning that euthanasia could become a profit making procedure for HMOs, since those to be killed usually be the most expensive patients to care and HMOs make their profits from cutting costs, or in my opposition to permitting the patenting of human life. Ralph is a humanitarian and a (small d) democrat. I like to think that I am, too.
What is the difference, ethically, and scientifically, between adult and fetal stem-cell research?
The idea behind all of these different biotechnologies is known as regenerative medicine. In regenerative medicine, stem cells or other body tissues or substances are used to regenerate body systems or organs that have degenerated due to illness or injury. The hope is that by regenerating these systems, symptoms will abate or perhaps, cures will be attained.
Fetal tissue is one potential source of these tissues. Fetal tissue comes from cadavers resulting from abortions or miscarriages. To date, fetal tissue therapies have not performed well, and in fact, when tried in patients with Parkinson's disease sometimes caused awful side effects. Pro life adherents oppose the use of fetal tissue therapies because many of the tissues were derived from abortions.
Embryonic stem cells are another potential source of stem cell therapies. These are derived by destroying an embryo at approximately one week of development, and then, isolating stem cells and maintaining and multiplying them into the millions in culture. This differs from fetal tissue research in that embryos are destroyed toward the end of obtaining these cells (as opposed to using tissues from fetuses that have already died). Embryonic stem cell research is viewed as morally problematic on two counts: First, pro- lifers believe that destroying an embryo is akin to killing a full human person. Others, along with pro-lifers, object to treating human life — no matter how nascent — as a mere natural resource to be harvested like a soy bean crop.
Adult stem cells identify the use of stem cells or other body tissues and substances taken from the patient's own body. Stem cells have been found in bone marrow, blood, fat, brain, and many other body tissues. Using these body tissues and substances is not controversial. Indeed, it is akin to a surgery patient donating his blood for use in a later planned surgery.
Stem cells can also be found in umbilical cord blood and placentas. This means that the birth of every baby brings with it a cornucopia of cells that can be used to cure terrible maladies. This too, is utterly uncontroversial.
Given its relative uncertainty, and the moral horrors it suggests, why are so many companies and activists lining up to support human cloning?
Most companies aren't, actually. Most private investors have avoided funding human cloning or embryonic stem cell research — which is why the biotech lobby has now gone after so much public funding. Moreover, we must keep in mind that most of biotechnology is not controversial in the sense that it does not threaten human dignity or moral worth. For example, if biotech companies can develop anti-cancer drugs that are tailored to each patient's genetic makeup, how wonderful that would be!
Human cloning is being sold to patient advocacy groups as a potential source of cures for their children, spouses, siblings. Some, including self-described pro-lifers who are worried about the suffering of their loved ones find it hard to care as much about unborn life or the moral consequences that might flow from permitting human cloning. Some pro-choice activists support cloning in the desire to ensure that embryos do not have moral status, which they fear, would threaten the abortion license. Some cloning supporters are either paranoid that if society prevents human cloning would be akin to imposing a theocratic straight jacket on science, and/or they have fallen victim to scientism's belief in "Science über Alles." For these folk, supporting cloning is to be a modern person. And, of course, we must not forget that many scientists genuinely hope that these technologies will reduce suffering and advance scientific knowledge, and find it utterly mind boggling that the entire society doesn't simply follow their lead.
Do you think it's too strong to call the practice of cloning embryos to provide spare parts for adults a form of cannibalism?
I think the use of the word cannibalism is overly provocative, and is more likely to cause people of good will who are struggling with these serious moral issues to be repulsed but not convinced. It is not too strong a term, however, to point out that creating embryos (or indeed developing them into fetuses, since the biotech agenda is not limited to embryonic stem cell research) for use in research or medical treatments — whether through fertilization or through cloning — is to dehumanize and commoditize human life. All human life should, in my view, be viewed as a subject, never an object. Not only does the objectification of cloning reduce the creation of new human life to a matter of mere manufacture, but it threatens to change our own perceptions of what it means to be human and whether that status is, per se, important.
What do you think of the so-called "compromise" proposed by Stanford scientist Bill Hurlbut, who thinks he can finesse the question of embryonic life by developing a means to clone human-like creatures which cannot ever fully develop, and therefore are not technically "embryos?" This proposal has gained support in some surprising quarters — such as leading neoconservative Catholics Robert George and Deal Hudson. One of the leading opponents of human cloning, Sam Brownback, seems concerned that this "compromise" could derail his otherwise promising initiative to ban all human cloning in the U.S.
I think that Professor Hurlbut is striving earnestly to "bridge the gap," between the science community and those who find it immoral to destroy embryos for use in research. However, even if Hurlbut's proposal works, increasingly radicalized scientists would never agree to limiting their research to cells obtained from the "artifact." Indeed, I am convinced that the scientists and bioethicists are not willing to agree permanently to any meaningful research restrictions, including reproductive cloning and conducting experiments on clones that are developed far beyond the Petri dish stage.
Does it strike you as ironic that the successful California initiative to pour $3 billion of taxes from a bankrupt state into the cloning and harvesting of human beings was led by a man who made his name playing a robotic terminator, created to foster the technological destruction of the human race? Is God just messing with us?
Governor Schwarzenegger never pretended to be concerned with social or moral issues. However, I do believe his embrace of what will be $6 billion in extra debt through the issuance of state bonds to fund highly speculative and morally controversial research, was a betrayal of his promise to be a fiscal conservative who would help lift California out of the mire of red ink. I was very disappointed in his endorsement of Proposition 71 and believe it was the primary reason the measure passed. As far as I am concerned, the Governor's moniker should be changed from "The Terminator" to "The Bondinator."
Wesley J. Smith, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, is an attorney and consultant for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. He is an international lecturer and public speaker, appearing at political, university, medical, legal, bioethics, and community gatherings across the United States, Canada, Europe, South Africa, and Australia.
In May 2004, National Journal named Smith one of the nation's top expert thinkers in bioengineering because of his work in bioethics.
John Zmirak. “Welcome to Our Brave New World: An Interview with Wesley J. Smith.” Godspy (December 15, 2004).
This article reprinted with permission from Godspy.
John Zmirak is editor of Choosing the Right College, author of the upcoming A Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living (Crossroad, 2005), and a contributing editor of The American Conservative, and GodSpy.
Copyright © 2004