After approving limited federal funding for research into stem cells already extracted from human embryos, George W Bush will soon have to make what is arguably the most fateful decision ever to face an American president on an issue with far-reaching moral, ethical and practical implications for the entire human race: cloning.
At the end of July, the US House of Representatives voted by a wide margin (265 to 162) to ban any type of human cloning, not only for reproduction but also for medical research. In the first week of August, an international meeting of embryologists was organised in Washington by the National Academics of the United States for the purpose of presenting informed recommendations on cloning to Congress at the end of September. After an impassioned debate, participants voted nearly unanimously against cloning, with the exception of three scientists led by Professor Severino Antinori of the University of Rome, who was bold enough to accuse his colleagues of standing against progress. He noted that we are on the eve of a dramatic scientific breakthrough, and that cloning humans will soon become technically possible. Indeed, in the opinion of some scientists, it may prove to be easier than cloning animals. Ever since Scottish biologist Ian Wilmut cloned Dolly the sheep in February 1997, scientists have been grappling with the moral and ethical implications of human cloning, then only possible in theory. Now that it is fast becoming feasible in practice, what can we expect?
The debate on this highly controversial issue now centres on two alternative courses of action: either to impose a total ban on human cloning or to allow cloning only for purposes of replacing damaged human tissues in life-threatening situations. The second course would accept therapeutical cloning on condition that it does not become generalised and a means for human reproduction in general.
But scientists fear that this red line will be crossed, that experiments will not be limited to therapeutical cloning only but will extend to procreational cloning, raising the nightmare spectre of an artificial human species existing side by side with the natural human species that has evolved from human reproduction over the ages.
This is the difficult dilemma that Bush now faces. It would be enough for him to demand that the bill passed by the House of Representatives be revisited, or that a sum be allocated to research in the field of embryology without insisting that it be devoted to therapeutic cloning only, for a door to be opened never to be closed again. Overcoming sterility, for instance, draws a wide constituency in search of loopholes in the legal interdictions on cloning. This is an issue facing humankind as a whole, with the first step depending on the American president.
Bush is under enormous pressure from every direction. There is first the pressure of the conservative milieu to which his Republican Party belongs. He is also facing pressure from the Vatican, which has intervened resolutely to try to convince him to not allow human cloning whatever the reason. Bush faces ethical, religious and social pressures that he cannot ignore.
On the other hand, not all conservative forces are opposed to all types of cloning, especially when it comes to therapeutical cloning in cases where no other remedy is available. It is not true that only secular, progressive and left-wing forces are receptive to the idea of cloning. It should also be remembered that following the resignation of a Republican senator from the party, the Senate is no longer dominated by a Republican majority. His resignation shifted the leadership of the Senate to the Democrats, a development that is certain to be reflected in the decisions of the upper house. So even state institutions might be divided on the issue of cloning.
The US administration’s passive line has left the field open to Britain, which has become a leader in the field of embryology and has gained a considerable head start on America. Bush will find it increasingly difficult to stick to his conservative line in face of pressure from the American scientific community, whose members will eventually realise that they have no choice but to enter the race. In other words, preventing human cloning will not be easy, as Professor Antinori pointed out in his address to his fellow scientists.
We are thus faced with an intriguing question. Humans have often dreamt of projects they wanted to achieve, but were unable to implement because of the lack of technical know-how. Now we face the opposite dilemma. Cloning humans is in the eyes of many scientists technically possible, but comes up against obstacles which are of an ethical and religious, perhaps also social, nature. Can people resist the temptation and abstain from experimenting because of ethical, religious and social constraints? This is the critical question that will have to be faced.
It is a question that applies not only to cloning but to many areas of human endeavour. We are facing achievements in the fields of embryology and genetics, indeed, in a variety of fields that touch on our understanding of life itself, which raise philosophical problems that can no longer be dismissed.
Professor Antinori displayed great courage when he faced scientists in the field of embryology with the real problems at stake — problems that will not go away if we ignore them. They will impose themselves again and again, not only in the field of embryology but otherwise, as science goes on progressing and opening new vistas. That is why the fundamental questions must be addressed in absolute transparency, now that we have reached a threshold where such questions are raised in what appears to be a very different context.
Thanks to the technological revolution, we can now probe new areas of knowledge and new worlds ranging from the infinitely small to the infinitely large, worlds that lie beyond the scope of our five senses and were hitherto inaccessible to us. The most extreme forms of science fiction that audio-visual techniques have produced cannot begin to match the variety and complexity of the real world now gradually unfolding before our eyes.
One theory that has been proposed recently is that life on earth originated in outer space, but not according to the scenarios of different models of extra-terrestrials that many movies have suggested. According to this theory, life forms were engendered when radiation from the sun and other stars interacted with the cosmic dust that falls in enormous quantities on earth, thus producing complex molecules, some of which are closer to organic than to inert matter. The lines of demarcation between inert matter, organic matter, life and intelligence are far more complex than we ever imagined. Day after day, new scientific evidence is emerging to confirm this complexity and to underscore how little we really know about the workings of the universe in which we live. It is only by giving free rein to our imagination, or at least by keeping an open mind when faced with ideas that go against our basic beliefs and instincts, that we can one day hope to reach a better understanding of our place in the universe.
If Professor Antinori displayed great courage when he forced his peers to face up to reality, so too did Dr Nawal El-Saadawi when she engaged in the time-honoured Islamic tradition of ijtihad, or independent interpretation, of sacred texts to challenge traditional readings of those texts and call for a more enlightened approach. Fortunately, she was acquitted of the ridiculous charge of blasphemy by the judicial system, which recognised her endeavour for what it really is: a realistic, albeit daring, interpretation of our Islamic legacy by a devout Muslim, and an attempt to place it in a contemporary context.
The challenge of moving with the times without betraying our beliefs is not an easy one. But we are increasingly faced with situations where a rigid adherence to traditional attitudes places us in contradiction with rising global trends. A case in point is the trial of the Queen Boat homosexuals, which has been condemned by international human rights organisations as well as by a number of US congressmen, who are demanding that US economic assistance to Egypt be made conditional on ending the trial. This might seem outrageous in Egypt, but not necessarily so in a very different cultural and scientific context, where homosexuality is looked upon not as an abnormality but as a preference. Our attitude towards this issue is shaped by values inherited from human history and the need to ensure the reproduction of the species, as well as by moral considerations closely related to the teachings of all monotheistic religions. In liberal societies today, these constraints are no longer as imperative as they once were.
The rapid pace of scientific and social change is imposing great challenges on all of us, not only on the US president as he ponders the moral and ethical implications of human cloning. Attempts to rise to the challenge of a new understanding of the world cost the lives of many of humanity’s greatest thinkers in the past, such as Al-Hallaj, Giordano Bruno and Galileo. As we stand on the threshold of a new millennium, it is depressingly clear that not much has changed. What the Taliban are practicing is an extreme form of the intellectual terrorism that is, unfortunately, still very much a part of our lives.