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Embryonic Assumptions

Philip Burrowes

Ever stopped to wonder what makes you “you?” You know if you lose a body part, the lost organ is no longer part of “You.” But when is the separation between you and the part no longer distinct? Some might draw the line at death, as in the loss of a heart or brain tissue. Others may believe that each cell in their bodies is a life, and that “They” are only indefinite composites -- albeit perhaps gestalts -- of numerous, separate beings. Most people don’t bother to question the nature of their existence or lack thereof.

The problem with arguing an assumption is that chances are, if it could be proven, it wouldn’t have been assumed in the first place. An advocate asked to explain his position will often end up doing little more than insulting his opponents’ stance. Paradoxically, the only people who could speak sensibly on such topics may be those without an opinion. Politicians who often resort to empty rhetoric might be forgiven for doing so in spite of -- or even because of -- the sensitivity of the issue. In late July, when the U.S. House of Representatives voted to ban cloning of human embryos, Rep. J.C. Watts (R-OK) remarked, “This House should not be giving the green light to mad scientists to tinker with the gift of life,” which nobody could deny. On the opposite side, Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-Pa) mocked the religious convictions of his colleagues by saying, “Some would say once you put Mr. Greenwood’s cheek cell in and it divides, it becomes a soul.” Apparently, the House equates cloning with bacteria cultures or Frankenstein’s Monster.

In all fairness, Congressman are not among the most technologically or theologically knowledgeable people on the planet. Perhaps experts in the respective fields would be much less inflammatory with their remarks. Dr. Panayiotis Zavos, who plans to clone a human being in the near future, described a critical study published in Science as, “...not accurate and extremely hypothetical.

Charles Chaput, Catholic Archbishop of Denver, denounced an admittedly biased Denver Post editorial (7/14, “Zealotry vs. Science”) as “the kind of Know Nothing bigotry perfected by the Ku Klux Klan.” Neither of these scathing condemnations, even if accurate, will do much to foster reconciliation from the opposing sides.

Journalists have not done much in that direction either. Besides the aforementioned Post article, which decries a research ban as tantamount to a modern-day Inquisition, a column in the July 20th Toronto Star (“The Case for Funding Research into Stem Cells is Strong”) accused the opposition of a “refusal to accept where science and destiny are taking us.” The House’s cloning ban did find support from such papers as the Tampa Tribune, which ended an August 4th editorial with, “creation and destruction of human life for scientific research is an evil the government must never tolerate.”

Such stark division of opinions is nothing new. While, abortion debates may have mellowed with age, this country is certainly not far (if it all) removed from the murders of several abortion doctors.

Worldwide opinion has been no more consolidated,and many nations have no laws on cloning. Britain has established a policy of limited embryo cloning while Germany, perhaps fearing the specter of eugenics, has banned it altogether. Japan banned human cloning late last year but allows the use of excess embryos from fertilization procedures.

Amazingly, one of the more empathic voices on this matter has been George W. Bush, who didn’t cater to either side of the debate when he supported federal funding for research only on existing stem cell lines.

Furthermore, Bush didn’t exactly shy away from controversy by announcing his policy during a prime-time address.

While his position may or may not be the right one, a universally acceptable evaluation cannot be reached when dealing with assumptions. Would politicians disavow their voting constituents’ opinions, researchers ignore science’s evidence, Catholics disagree with an infallible Pope? Maybe, but not without only making new assumptions.