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California Clonin’

December 14th, 2002 · No Comments

Stanford’s bold decision to proceed with stem cell research is heartening, though the attempt to defuse criticism by claiming that somatic cell transfer isn’t “cloning” struck me, at least initially, as silly. Of course, it’s not reproductive cloning, but the term “therapeutic cloning” has long been the accepted one for this sort of procedure.

But then I thought: accepted by whom? By policy geeks and scientists and others interested in the issue, certainly… but probably John Q. American flips on Fox News, hears “cloning,” and thinks of some Brave New World scenario with huge vats containing identical six-packs of full grown human beings. So it’s not entirely off base to say this is “not cloning” in the sense that it’s not what most people probably associate with the term. Does it matter? Well, sure. Lots of pro-life folks are swayed by images of later term fetuses with more developed, recognizable body parts — the sort of thing one might “clone.” A lot of people who are, perhaps understandably, upset by the destruction of that wouldn’t necessarily react in the same way to the destruction of some barely differentiated cluster of cells, lacking anything resembling a brain. You almost never see a real independent argument for treating little cell balls as people; the cellball typically gets accorded moral status because people think “well, I don’t know how to draw the line between the fetus-stage I think is a person, and this cellball, so we’d better draw a wide boundary.” But when the research in question is really only destroying those very early stage cellballs, I think even a lot of those who oppose abortion would be prone to think: “y’know, we may not be able to draw a clear line between person and non-person, but this is really obviously on the non-person side of whatever line (or gradient) there is.”

There’s a more general problem here I’ve noted before of what you might call linguistic hypnosis. We have a healthy enough tendency to think about “human life” in a certain way, but then we overextend our attitude towards “lives” in the sense of “how’s your life?” to the technical, biological sense of “organism with human DNA.” Then we might go back and rationalize our attitude, but the initial reaction is conditioned by the application of the same word to quite different underlying things. I think plenty of libertarians hit the same stumbling block with “intellectual property.” The Constitution, of course, never uses that phrase — it talks about “exclusive rights,” which is to say, monopoly rights that the government may grant. But we’re accustomed to calling it “property,” and libertarians are all for “property” and “markets,” so a lot of us reflexively defend these monopoly rights before we stop and ask: “well, is this really like property in, say, land? if there are differences, what are they, and how might they make a difference?” Or recall the sudden flight from the term “privatization” as applied to Social Security, which in some circles seems to have been replaced by the contentless “modernization.” Will Saletan gave a great talk about this at the San Diego seminar I attended a while back, to be excerpted on the next Cato Audio. Among the examples he cited were “affirmative action” (what the hell does that have to do with race preferences?), and “campaign finance reform” (“reform” is always an improvement, right? are you against “reform”?).

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