November 29, 2001
Entering the New World
Brave New World, here we come.
A Worcester, Mass., biotech company reported this week that it had created a human embryo directly from human cells. A cell implanted with adult DNA split into six cells, then died, stopping far short of the 150-plus needed to create viable stem cells, critical for gene therapy.
Though the experiment by Advanced Cell Technology was considered a failure, it was immediately regarded as a breakthrough, for good or ill. Governments may stamp their feet, refusing to fund the cloning experiments. But a free science won't put its laboratories behind bars.
Maintaining free science is up to us. President Bush, responding to what The New York Times called a "storm of protest" and a Congressional call for cloning to be outlawed, promptly called cloning immoral. "We should not as a society grow life to destroy it," he said. "And that's exactly what's taking place."
Not to me. Exactly what I think is taking place is the grand possibility that life can be preserved and health enhanced through human ingenuity. I hope you see it that way too.
Didn't Aldous Huxley have it wrong? Don't you know someone whose family was enhanced by fertility drugs, let alone test-tube babies? Would you really close science down now, at the very portal to the healing world?
We must say no to the pessimists, the religious and political negativists who would use anything -- the Bible, Frankenstein and fables of the Golem -- to keep humankind in the grip of pain and fear. Science can be for the good. The human spirit of creativity is something to praise, not fear. A clone does not an evil Golem make.
What's taking place, to me, is that scientists are continuing appropriate scientific inquiry into the beginnings of life. As Jews, we understand that humanity is permitted to learn from nature, and encouraged to use our knowledge to save lives. We're getting there fast, but scientists as of this week have developed only a few cells equivalent to the first day or two of fertilization. Bush would close down the lab even before it creates a blastocyst large enough to be implanted in a uterus.
But Bush is wrong: The goal here is not to destroy life, but to save it. Though cloning may be controversial, the basic science upon which it is based is not new. Similar experiments into the origins of human life, and the capacity of embryos, were conducted in the preliminary stages of in vitro fertilization. Many failed embryos were created on the way to what is now routine: test-tube conception. Half a million test-tube babies have been raised in loving families -- a testimony to how science aids the human heart.
I spoke on Monday with Laurie Zoloth, director of the Jewish Studies Program at San Francisco State University and an associate professor of social ethics and Jewish philosophy. Sounding quite astounded by the news of the newly cloned embryo, she said, "It gives one pause how fast we are crossing into the new era."
Many observers speak of cloning as a "slippery slope." Zoloth, however, believes it is possible -- and necessary -- to draw a boundary between "reproductive" cloning and "therapeutic" cloning to save lives. "I don't believe we should ever implant these early embryos into a human," she said. "I don't believe we should try to duplicate human life."
At the heart of the matter is what we think religion -- and life -- is for: a tool to liberate the spirit, or a way of controlling the future. In December, Zoloth will convene a panel of leading American and Israeli Jewish scientists and ethicists, including Los Angeles' own Rabbi Elliot Dorff, to study problems of human genetics.
Stand strong. Defend pekuach nefesh. Save the living, not six cells. Free science and scientists. Pass it on.