by Richard M. Doerflinger
March 23, 2006
On March 7, a House Government Reform subcommittee heard testimony on the South Korean human cloning fraud and its implications for this country. Amazingly, subcommittee members who support cloning human embryos for research actually used the scandal to argue that U.S. taxpayers should be forced to subsidize such research.
If the federal government does human cloning, they claimed, this will ensure the highest scientific and ethical standards, so there will be no more fraud.
Setting aside the fact that cloning humans is inherently wrong, this simply ignored the facts. Testifying before the panel, I noted that Dr. Woo Suk Hwang and his team did not start out as frauds. They started out trying to make human cloning work, to obtain genetically tailored embryonic stem cells for research and treatments. After $43 million in government funds, the bribing and/or pressuring of over a hundred women for their eggs, and hundreds of cloning attempts, the project was a total failure. The researchers had become so focused on the goal, and so indifferent to the ethical character of the means, that they finally resorted to outright fraud to show success.
The key word here is "failure." No matter who tries it, how much money goes into it, or who is exploited to serve it, "therapeutic cloning" has been a dismal failure. So now Congress should say: "Aha! The very sort of thing we like to make Americans put their tax dollars into!"?
At one point the Tuskegee syphilis experiment came up as an example of unethical human research. In that study, hundreds of poor black sharecroppers in Alabama were deliberately left with untreated syphilis from 1932 to 1972, long after reliable treatments were available, so the disease's course could be observed for 40 years. A panel member reminded her colleagues that government must guard against such disregard for ethics today as well.
Two other panel members reacted angrily to this analogy. One member insisted that Tuskegee was only about racism in the Old South. Another said Tuskegee just proves his point that cloning should be publicly funded, because that abuse happened due to the lack of "oversight" by a public agency.
Actually the Tuskegee study was conducted by a public agency, the U.S. Public Health Service. The researchers even used their official clout to ensure that subjects enlisting in the Army during World War II did not receive the mandatory syphilis screening and treatment given to other recruits. And while racism was surely a factor, black physicians and nurses were among those conducting the study. One of them, Eunice Rivers, had the most direct contact with the subjects and was lead author of the researchers' self-congratulatory "follow-up" article in Public Health Reports in 1953.
What Tuskegee and cloning research have in common is an ethic that treats some humans, before or after birth, as lab rats – as mere means to a higher end. Creating and destroying early human lives, harming and coercing women, falsifying results, cynically promising "miracle cures" to vulnerable patients – all have been defended as the price we must pay for progress. The question is: Why should we call that progress?
(Mr. Doerflinger is Deputy Director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.)