An Open Letter to Peggy Noonan

Dear Peggy

I've always looked forward to reading your columns in the Wall Street Journal. You have been a consistent source of information and inspiration. I was therefore extremely disappointed to read your most recent piece, ("Bada Bing? Bada Boom."), dated May 13.

While I agree with and share your fears about the dangers of terrorism on US soil, I found your views on the (completely unrelated) subject of human cloning to be both ill-informed and wrong-headed.

Specifically, you wrote:

Whenever I think of cloning, I think of Sam Ervin during the Watergate hearings. He quoted the Bible to Richard Nixon's malefactors: "God is not mocked." Indeed he is not. Once we can have cloning, we will have cloning. Once we can have cloning we'll be cloning replacement-part humans to make new hearts for aging baby boomers. We'll throw the rest away, or mine these beings for other organs and elixirs. Once we have cloning, we'll start growing cloned armies. Why shouldn't they fight for us? Once we have cloning, a lot of things will happen, including that we'll be opening the mouth of hell.

As scary as the "dirty nuke in Port Newark" scenario is, I find that I am nearly as chilled by the scientific illiteracy displayed in the above quote. It would appear that you have learned everything you know about the subject from watching the Star Wars movies.

Cloned armies, indeed.

There is an enormous difference between reproductive and therapeutic cloning. The latter need not require the production of an entire "replacement human;" it may be possible to grow "replacement organs" on their own, or to develop stem cell lines that can be used to treat a wide variety of illnesses and injuries. How precisely this will open up the "mouth of hell" is unclear.

Reproductive cloning raises serious moral and ethical issues, but "cloned armies" is not one of them. The ability to produce armies would require not cloning, but a technique popular in (uninformed) science fiction movies that might properly be called Rapidly Growing Large Numbers of Sentient Adults in Vats. That I know of, no one is currently working on developing that technology — not even in New Jersey.

Peggy, you are too serious a journalist and too valuable a voice to entertain such nonsense. If you would take some time to learn what cloning is really all about, I'm sure that you would have something significant to say about both the potential risks and the potential benefits of this technology.

In the mean time, I suggest you stick to subjects you're more familiar with.

Your Faithful Reader,

Phil Bowermaster

(Originally published on The Speculist.)

Comments

Sadly, what we really need is an army of Phils to pointedly correct all the bad journalism relating to therapeutic cloning and stem cell medicine.

Nice piece, though, and thanks for posting it.

Posted by: Reason at May 13th, 2004 1:38 PM

Unfortunately, this "correction" is itself in need of some correction. Specifically, these two sentences: "There is an enormous difference between reproductive and therapeutic cloning. The latter need not require the production of an entire "replacement human;" it may be possible to grow "replacement organs" on their own, or to develop stem cell lines that can be used to treat a wide variety of illnesses and injuries" I'm sorry, but that's simply not true. Therapeutic cloning does require the creation of a whole human embryo, and whatever you think of the moral status of human embryos (I happen to think it's ok to use them in research) it is dishonest to claim they are not whole human beings: they are developing human organisms, that's plain fact. There is no method currently in existence or on the drawing board that would let you grow organs directly, or that could get you to stem cells without an embryo--a replacement human. Let's not lie to ourselves, folks. We need to argue about human embryos are and are not, rather than pretend they don't exist at all.

Posted by: Robert M. at May 14th, 2004 10:00 AM

Robert:

Thanks for your comments.

You are, of course, correct in stating that therapeutic cloning requires starting with an embryo, and my assertion that organs might one day be grown "on their own" would require a viable line of stem cells which (at the present) cannot be obtained without an embryo.

However, I don't think it's dishonest to make a distinction between a "developing human organism" and a "human being." As Stephen Gordon pointed out in his comments on the Speculist, it would appear that, for Peggy Noonan (and for many others), these two definitions overlap perfectly.

For me, they do not.

There is a significant difference, in my mind, between a four year old human organism and a four-hour old embryo. Asserting that both are "whole human beings" raises its own set of problems. To wit -- if you think it's okay to kill a four-hour-old "human being" for research, why not a four-year-old human being?

You wrote:
We need to argue about human embryos are and are not, rather than pretend they don't exist at all.

I agree. In my view, they are living human organisms (a biological definition) but not human beings (a developmental/moral definition.)

Posted by: Phil Bowermaster at May 14th, 2004 11:27 AM

It should be clear that an "embryo" used for stem cell research is a ball of undifferentiated cells. It has no organs, no brain, and certainly no mind. It most certainly is NOT a "whole human being." While I understand there are many who believe it is a human for religious reasons, I suspect most of them are unclear about the biological details, and are thinking about recognizable fetuses. Aside from culture, why should there be more concern over an undifferentiated embryo than sperm and ova, or a flake of skin?

Peggy Noonan is a perfect example of the "Unclear on the concept" issue. For someone this dense, you might have wanted to specifically point out that a reproductive clone would have to gestate for the same nine months, be raised like anyone else and at best would only be as similar to the original as an identical twin raised in a different home. He wouldn't have any memories of the other's life, and if he were going to be a soldier, he'd have to go about it just like everybody else.

Posted by: VR at May 14th, 2004 6:09 PM

you are so weird. cloning is wrong

Posted by: shabash at March 17th, 2005 11:40 AM

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