The Raelian clone story has everyone dusting off old arguments, for and against, and giving them another trot around the track. Someone on “The Corner” at National Review Online recommended a piece by Ramesh Ponnuru that offers a “non-theological” argument against therapeutic cloning. It’s old (from last August) but worth responding to, especially since at least some conservatives apparently still find it persuasive.

Ponnuru’s main argument goes like this:

(1) “…the early embryo is a living member of the human species…”
(2) “…all entities that meet this description have intrinsic worth such that it is wrong intentionally to destroy them.”

Ponnuru does not spell out the various supplementary premises necessary to support his implied conclusion (that therapeutic cloning is wrong) but I suppose they are clear enough.

Another thing he doesn’t spell out is that his argument applies equally to therapeutic cloning and to any form of abortion whatsoever. So if we outlaw cloning, on these grounds, we must also outlaw all abortion—from the moment of conception on.

Fair enough—just so long as everyone understands that point.

Ponnuru rightly recognizes that the sticking point for most cloning enthusiasts will be his second premise: that all living members of the human species have intrinsic worth, etc. His opponents will simply deny this.

Rather than defend the premise directly, Ponnuru shifts the burden of proof to the other side. If mere humanity isn’t enough for intrinsic worth, then what is? He mentions several possibilities but finds them all wanting:

“The candidates most commonly proposed…are consciousness, mental functioning, making choices, and the like. But if the right to life is tied too closely to these characteristics, it is not only embryonic human beings that will be found not to deserve protection. Infants lack the immediately exercisable capacity for mental functioning as well. So do the comatose and the severely retarded, not to mention people who are sleeping.

“Also: Since the acquired characteristics on which human rights are said to hinge typically come in varying and continuous degrees, it is hard to see why human beings should be considered equal in their rights.”

So if mental functioning, say, were a precondition for intrinsic moral worth, then smart people would have a greater right to life than stupid people, and we would all lose the right to life every time we fell asleep.

Ponnuru is right to think that this is an effective reductio of any position that makes intrinsic moral worth dependent on some “immediately exercisable capacity.” Moreover, his opponents cannot get around the objection by leaving out the phrase “immediately exercisable.” If they try to rescue the sleeping by pointing out that they will have the capacity in question when they wake up, Ponnuru can simply point out that an early embryo will have the same capacity when it develops. If they complain that it takes much longer for an embryo to develop than for a sleeper to wake up, Ponnuru can resort to the case of the comatose. Suppose someone is in a coma from which he is very likely to awake, but only after a lapse of—to choose a number at random—nine months. Would we pull the plug? Surely not. So why are we so ready to sacrifice the embryo?

Defenders of cloning (and garden variety abortion) need a better argument. Luckily for them, they have one. It depends on the idea of a threshold.

A threshold is like a hoop you have to jump through before you can move on to a new level. Once you jump through that hoop, you’re on that new level, no matter what happens next. Maybe you could never do it again. Maybe you couldn’t even come close. But once is enough: you’ll never be the same person again.

Thresholds play a large and familiar role in all our lives. Once you’ve graduated high school, you’re a high school graduate—even if you’ve forgotten everything by the time you get your diploma. Once you’ve passed the bar exam, you’re a lawyer. Once you survive internship, you’re a doctor. And you stay that way, come what may.

Is it crazy to think that humanity is like that, too? That there is a threshold, somewhere, beyond which you count, morally speaking? Even if you later fall asleep, or into a coma?

I don’t know what the threshold should be: ability to think? to suffer? to care whether you live or die? But whatever it is, I’m pretty sure that blastocysts have not crossed it yet.

At any rate, such a position immediately answers both of Ponnuru’s serious objections.

Sleepers and the comatose may not be thinking now, but they have long since earned their stripes. Early embryos have not. That is a big moral difference. In fact, it is all the difference.

Moreover, “having crossed the threshold” is not a matter of degree. Either you have or you haven’t. So there is no room here for some to be more equal than others. You don't have to be an elitist to defend therapeutic cloning.

Ramesh Ponnuru needs to think again.



Andrew Sullivan rightly commends a short memoir of a trip to Jerusalem by our finest living playwright, David Mamet. It’s a wonderful piece, but it includes what seems to be an unfair criticism of (not our finest living) novelist, Tom Clancy.

Mamet takes umbrage at a passage in Clancy's The Bear and the Dragon, in which an "American operative," "rightfully...horrified" by the "Chinese custom...of female infanticide," remarks that "if it were the Jews, the world would be Up in Arms."

"What can he mean?" asks Mamet, before trying out a couple of interpretations that would attribute to Clancy anti-Semitic intentions.

But presumably what Clancy meant was that if it were the Jews who were practicing infanticide, the world would be horrified--yet they look the other way when the Chinese do it. In other words, Clancy is not expressing anti-Semitism, but pointing it out—and rightly so. One could even go further, and observe that the world (especially the Arab world) habitually makes up lies about Jewish infanticide in order to justify its hatred, yet ignores well-attested evidence of actual infanticide amongst other peoples.

In this case, at least, I think Clancy can plead "not guilty."