Did Obama Allow Human Cloning? Part 5 of an E-mail Debate

Catholic scholars Robert P. George and Douglas Kmiec on Obama's new embryonic stem cell research policy

By SHARE

By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

Here's the final installment of the E-mail debate between conservative Catholic legal scholars Robby George and Doug Kmiec over whether President Obama's executive order on embryonic stem cell research authorizes federally funded human cloning.

In the first E-mail in this post, Kmiec responds to George's point-by-point analysis of Obama's new embryonic stem cell research policy, arguing that Obama's policy will very likely outlaw human cloning. In the second E-mail, George closes the debate by decrying Kmiec's definition of human cloning and invites him to debate the matter in public.

See the earlier installments of this debate here.


From: Kmiec, Douglas


Sent: Saturday, March 14, 2009 2:28 p.m.
To: Robert P. GeorgeCc: Gilgoff, Daniel
Subject: RE: Cloning Robby:

President Obama stated: "We will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse. And we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction. It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society."

The President, therefore, is strongly against "cloning for human reproduction."

You dispute the President's definition of cloning, even as the President employs the definition used by the National Academies of Science (NAS).

Even if your definition were employed in place of that of the NAS, I have no reason to believe the President's action would still not amount to a ban on reproductive cloning, since it would only be logical to prohibit SCNT for the purpose of creating an embryo for implantation and gestation, and not merely to prohibit the latter, which I agree would be contrary to an ethic in favor of life.

So the answer to your questions are:

(1) President Obama did not prohibit human somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), which is the scientific name for cloning. (This is true, is it not?)

False; while the administrative regulation remains to be drafted, there is no reason to believe based on what the President said that his ban on reproductive cloning would not include the process of SCNT where its intent was implantation and gestation.

(2) Human cloning (SCNT) remains perfectly legal under the President's policy. (This is true, is it not?)

False; see Number (1)

(3) What the President opposes (and refers to, following the NAS usage, as "reproductive cloning") is the implantation and gestation of a human embryo produced by cloning. (This is true, is it not?)

False; see Number (1)

(4) President Obama supports the practice of cloning to create living human embryos for purposes of scientific research in which they will be destroyed to produce stem cells. (This is true, is it not?)

I suspect this is true, but until the administrative regulations are written, it may be that they will permit research in relation to embryos that were created, not for "purposes of scientific research," but by couples who as a result of an infertility/IVF effort have produced embryos that would otherwise be discarded.

(I know you are interested the President' thinking and not in my view, but let me note that the core ethical difficulty is not avoided by concentrating on the IVF category of embryos, though I must say my confidence in this is perplexed by Cardinal George's reliance upon similar argumentation—the availability of embryo cell lines from the Bush policy—as satisfying the need for embryonic scientific research. As you well point out, either the pre-implanted embryo is a human being or it is not).

(5) President Obama's executive order has made research using cells and cell lines produced by destroying cloned human embryos eligible for federal funding. (This is true, is it not?)

True, utilizing your definition of cloning as opposed to that of the NAS, which as you know, recommended federal funding seven years ago.

(6) This is an unprecedented step inasmuch as it makes federal money available for research using materials derived from human embryos created and destroyed specifically for research purposes. (This is true, is it not?)

Not clear. Since it is not clear whether the embryos will be created "for research purposes" (see Number (4), and since the recommendation for federal funding that is being implemented by the President has been around for some time, and since I assume state and privately funded research of this type exists in and outside the United States, "unprecedented," it may not be.

I hope this is fully responsive, Robby. I am not dodging any additional questions you may have, but I think our time going forward can be more prudently directed. Prayerfully, I remain optimistic that with your participation some responsible ethical boundaries can be stated clearly in the NIH directives to follow, especially since I don't believe the President has any desire to disregard ethics. Yet, as I stated at the very beginning of our colloquy, "as with other topics in this area, disagreement across Judaic and Christian and other traditions on the significance of the embryo pre-implantation remains an early point of disagreement which troubles all that follows."

At this point, I respectfully request that we agree to allow this back-and-forth to cease, but that both of us continue to explore together and apart how scientific inquiry can be fully governed and informed by the truth of the human person. In this respect, given the deep philosophical and religious differences, it would also seem responsible for the leadership of our Church to engage the President, through the NIH, to explore how objective, ethical boundaries must be at least conceded by all to be necessary—a point which unfortunately gets glossed over by the expression of separating politics from science, since as we know from Aristotle, politics is (or at least in its better sense) is ethics, and not merely rank partisanship or ideology, which I suspect all would agree with the President should have no part in scientific endeavor. In this regard, perhaps you saw Peter Steinfels very thoughtful column in today's New York Times.

So to begin the thinking on how to influence the administrative process for the good, what measures might you propose, realistically, beyond what I have previously raised with Obama advisors or in our conversation; namely:

—Building in a preference for the research to concentrate on adult stem cells; and

—Ensuring that the ban on human cloning for reproduction that the President has articulated includes limiting SCNT for purposes of implantation and gestation;

Would you also think there would be a need—borne out of the desire not to directly or indirectly cooperate with evil — for the Catholic Church to advise the faithful against utilizing any pharmaceutical product or medical treatment regimen that has been advanced by SCNT involving a human embryo? If so, is there a need now for Church leaders to advocate strict disclosure requirements that will permit faithful Catholics to discern which aspects of medicine or medical treatment may or may not be pursued? While the workability of such a limitation seems doubtful, perhaps it would be possible for disclosure requirements at least to identify the pharmaceutical firms or research universities that the faithful should avoid patronizing or supporting?

Thanks, Robby, for this thoughtful and courteous interchange. I hope we get to see each other again soon, and I look forward to your thoughts on how he NIH process might best be approached and what ethical considerations, in light of the President's directive, should be pursued.

Respectfully,

Doug


From: Robert P. George


Sent: Saturday, March 14, 2009 10:57 p.m.
To: Kmiec, Douglas
Cc: Gilgoff, Daniel
Subject: RE: Cloning Dear Doug:

Thank you for replying to my questions. I appreciate that, though I am astonished and saddened by what you say. I gather that you intend to stand by your published statement that President Obama prohibited human cloning. That is a shame, for it will no doubt leave readers deeply misinformed.

If I've understood you correctly, your justification for continuing to allow Dan Gilgoff's readers to believe that President Obama "prohibited human cloning" is the possibility that the administrative regulations will include a ban on SCNT for one particular purpose, namely the creation of an embryo with the intent to permit it to live. Of course, even if this possibility is actualized, which I strongly suspect it will not be since it is not in line with the "reproductive cloning" legislation that the President supported and co-sponsored when he was in the Senate (the proposed bills ban transferring the embryo to a uterus or artificial endometrium; they do not ban SCNT with intent to transfer), it will not amount to a ban on SCNT, even if one accepts the NAS's concept and definition of "reproductive cloning," anymore than a ban on fully automatic weapons would amount to a ban on guns.

I can't fathom how you can say that statement (3) is false in view of the fact that Senator Obama co-sponsored the Feinstein-Hatch-Harkin-Specter cloning legislation.

I'm glad that you concede the truth of statement (5), which is the most important fact about the Obama policy. You qualify the concession, though, by saying that it is true only if we use my definition of cloning, as opposed to that of the NAS. I would contest that based on the definitions contained in the Glossary of the NAS report, but there is no need to quibble. The meaning remains the same if we use the technical scientific language of "embryos produced by somatic cell nuclear transfer" instead of saying "cloned embryos." So the incontestable (and morally central) fact is that President Obama's executive order has made research using cells and cell lines produced by destroying human embryos created by somatic cell nuclear transfer eligible for federal funding. This means, as bioethics writer Will Saletan (a supporter of embryo-destructive research) candidly puts it, "the mass production, exploitation, and destruction of human embryos."

You say that the truth of statement (6) is unclear, observing that recommendations of the permission and funding of cloning to create embryos for research have been around for some time and private and state money may be available for it. But what I said was unprecedented was "making federal money available for research using materials derived from human embryos created and destroyed specifically for research purposes." There is no need to take my word for it, since you can easily check, but I can assure with certainty that it is true and not a soul on either side of the embryo research question will contest it. The Clinton administration did not fund "therapeutic cloning," nor did President Clinton's National Bioethics Advisory Council (chaired by my Princeton colleague and friend Harold Shapiro) recommend funding it.

Since you have asked that we allow this back and forth to cease, I will, of course, honor your wishes and request no further responses from you to my points. Since you have, despite my pleading, decided to leave on the record your statement that President Obama prohibited human cloning, I will have to do my best to correct the record by publishing a full and accurate account of the President's position. I hope you will have no objection to my quoting from these e-mail exchanges or making them available to readers.

Given what is at stake for the cause of human life in President Obama's new policy, Doug, I invite you to debate me on the question: "Did President Obama Prohibit Human Cloning?" I would be happy to host the debate here in Princeton, and pay all expenses for your travel, etc. Alternatively, I will be happy to come to Pepperdine at your convenience and at my own expense, if you would prefer that. Or I could make arrangements for us to debate the question in Washington, DC or any other city that is convenient for you (again, covering your expenses). Perhaps we could hold the debate at the USCCB [United States Conference of Catholic Bishops] or at CUA [The Catholic University of America], where we both have many friends and where our discussion would, I'm sure, draw many of our fellow Catholics. I will be happy to take care of the arrangements; all you need do is show up and present your arguments. It is very important for our fellow citizens to know whether or not President Obama prohibited human cloning, and to understand exactly what his policy is on the creation of new human beings by SCNT and other methods to be destroyed in federally funded biomedical research in the embryonic stage of development. A public debate between us would, I'm sure, help to enhance public understanding. I sincerely hope you will consider and accept.

Best wishes,

Robby

PS: I owe you answers to your questions. First, I agree that building a preference for research using adult stem cells is highly desirable. I also think you should ask the President to rescind his revocation of the 2007 Bush executive order regarding the promotion of non-embryo-destructive sources of pluripotent stem cells. If you have a look at the 2005 report of the President's Council on Bioethics entitled "Alternative Sources of Pluripotent Stem Cells," you will find a good discussion of the possibilities. Here is a link to the report: http://www.bioethics.gov/reports/white_paper/index.html. Of course, the science has moved so rapidly, that the report is somewhat dated. The most important development is in the area of Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell (IPSC) technology, which was pioneered by Shinya Yamanaka in Japan and James Thomson at the University of Wisconsin. You can try, but I suspect you will fail, to talk President Obama and his administration into banning SCNT with the intent to implant. There are reasons why the "reproductive cloning" bans sponsored and co-sponsored by those (such as the President) who favor cloning to create embryos for research make transferring the cloned embryo into a uterus the crime, rather than making it a crime to create a cloned embryo with intent to transfer to a uterus. Dozens of arguments will be thrown at you (I can tell you this from experience), such as "what about someone who creates the embryo for research in which it is destroyed, but later decides to do implantation?" The truth, as Leon Kass has frequently pointed out, is that no ban on creating embryos with an intent to implant will really be enforceable. The value of such a ban would be mainly symbolic—which is not to say you shouldn't get it if you can. But I strongly suspect you won't be able to. The Democratic establishment now in control of the White House and Congress will push through a bill very much like, if not identical to, the Feinstein-Hatch-Harkin-Specter legislation, i.e., a ban on implantation and gestation which they will hail as a prohibition of "reproductive cloning." Remember, they do not share our belief in the inherent and equal dignity and right to life of every member of the human family, including human beings in the embryonic and fetal stages of development. To us, a ban on implantation amounts to "clone and kill." It is, as you say, "contrary to an ethic of life." But they see it differently. That is why they have no problem with the industrial production of human embryos for research in which they are destroyed. So a ban on implantation for them is nothing to worry about. If they were going to worry about that, then they would have been worried about mass producing human embryos for research in the first place. Once you adopt the view that the embryo is mere disposable raw material for scientific research, then what's the big deal with banning implantation of cloned embryos (especially in view of the likely adverse health consequences for the cloned human being later in life)? So, again, you might want to try, but based on my own experience in making the argument I doubt that you'll get very far. The lethal logic of the position that President Obama has adopted is against you. On your question of the Church's advice to the faithful, I'm not quite sure what you mean by "SCNT involving a human embryo." Do you mean "embryos created by SCNT"? Assuming that is what you mean, then, yes, there are issues that the Church needs to be thinking about—and as developments unfold some are likely to be very difficult, both theoretically and practically. For the most part (though not exclusively) it will be problem of benefiting from evil rather than strictly cooperating in it. The same basic considerations apply, though. As you know, this often raises thorny issues of "remoteness," and it certainly will do that here, at least in some cases. Sure, labeling requirements are a good idea, but they won't get us around the tough questions. Of course, the fundamental moral evil of the President's decision is the injustice to the embryos who will be created and deliberately destroyed as a result of his policy. But there will be other bad consequences, too, for Catholics and other pro-life citizens who want to avoid participating in the injustice. It would be good if the Obama administration were sympathetic to conscience protection for pro-life health care workers, pharmacists, and employees of universities and other research institutions, but they are headed down the wrong road on the conscience issue, too, alas.

  • Follow Dan Gilgoff on Twitter.
  • Read more about the Obama administration.