The Virtue of "Playing God"
By Alex Epstein (Philadelphia Inquirer, June 18, 2002)
Thanks to infighting in the Senate, it appears that voting on legislation that would destroy the lives of life-saving heroes will be delayed until next year. Americans cannot afford to leave the fate of these individuals to legislative chance, however; in the name of justice, we must defend them by proclaiming their virtue.
The heroes in question are the scientists developing human-cloning technology--technology with the potential to cure heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Politicians have responded to their life-saving efforts with moral denunciations and the Human Cloning Prohibition Act--a ban on all forms of cloning which passed overwhelmingly in the House, but thankfully is now being stalled in the Senate.
Opponents of cloning perversely condemn it as "anti-life." Senator Sam Brownback, the ban's sponsor, says cloning is "creating human life to destroy." President George Bush calls it "growing human beings for spare body parts." Congresswoman Sue Myrick smears it as the "most dangerous and ghoulish enterprise in human history."
In fact, human cloning is a highly pro-life technology for actual human beings, since cloned embryos can be used to extract medically potent embryonic stem cells. A cloned embryo is created by inserting a human body cell into an egg, which is then induced to divide until it reaches the embryo stage. These embryos are not human beings, but microscopic bits of protoplasm the width of a human hair. They have the potential to grow into human beings, but real human beings are the ones dying for lack of this technology. The embryonic stem cells extracted from a cloned embryo can become any other type of human cell. They can develop into pancreatic cells for curing diabetes, into cardiac muscle cells for curing heart disease, into brain cells for curing Alzheimer's--or even into new organs for transplantation. "There's not an area of medicine that this technology will not potentially impact," says Nobel laureate Harold Varmus.
Opponents of cloning know all this, but are unmoved. This is because their fundamental objection is not that cloning is anti-life, but that it entails "playing God"--i.e., remaking nature to serve human purposes. "[Human cloning] would be taking a major step into making man himself simply another one of the man-made things," says Leon Kass, head of the President's Council on Bioethics. "Human nature becomes merely the last part of nature to succumb to the technological project, which turns all of nature into raw material at human disposal." Columnist Armstrong Williams condemns cloning as "human egotism, or the desire to exert our will over every aspect of our surroundings," and cautions: "We're not God."
The one truth in the anti-cloning position is that cloning does represent "the desire to exert our will over every aspect of our surroundings." But such a desire is not immoral--it is a mark of virtue. Using technology to alter nature is a requirement of life. It is what brought man from the cave to civilization. Where would we be without the men who "exerted their will" over their surroundings and constructed the first hut, cottage, and skyscraper? Every advance in human history is part of "the technological project," and has made man's life longer, healthier, and happier. These advances are produced by those who hold the premise that suffering and disease are a curse, not to be humbly accepted as "God's will," but to be fought proudly with all the power of man's rational mind.
The mentalities that denounce "playing God" have consistently opposed technological progress, especially in medicine. They objected to anesthesia, smallpox inoculations, contraception, heart transplants, in vitro fertilization--on the grounds that these innovations were "unnatural" and contrary to God's will.
Our lives depend on recognizing that human cloning, like all forms of "playing God," is a moral, life-promoting endeavor. This applies not just to extracting stem cells from cloned embryos, but also to conceiving cloned children (notwithstanding the ridiculous, horror-movie scenarios conjured up by hysteria-mongers). Parents should have the right to "play God" with the genetic makeup of their children, whether to prevent them from getting genetic diseases or to improve their physical appearance--just as they have the right to vaccinate their children or to fit them with braces.
The individuals now developing human cloning technology do not deserve to be condemned and shackled by their government. Instead, they should be celebrated as the heroes they are.
Alex Epstein was a writer and a fellow on staff
at ARI between 2004 and 2011.