Two years into his first Presidential term, George W. Bush formed a council of scientist, ethicists, doctors, lawyers, and other intellectuals to debate the rising concerns of human cloning. Given six months to deliberate, this council approached the issue in an organized, professional manner, reaching policy decisions and providing explicit rational for each choice. While this approach to bioethical policy creation was not new (the report explicitly mentions the “National Bioethics Advisory Commissions…report on the subject of cloning-to-produce-children in 1997” (2)), the historical and topical context of Bush’s Council is a comprehensive dive into the ethical considerations of a developing technology with immense implications. The President’s Council on Bioethics’ report provides a scientific and ethical approach to a topic of increasing prevalence, providing new information and a surprising amount of pre-established ethical reasoning.
To first understand this report, one must look at the Presidency of George W. Bush. Without delving into his politics, it is commonly agreed that Bush saw himself as a leader of a Christian nation in a complex world. Whether it was his creation of ‘Jesus Day’ while he was the governor of Texas (Goodstein) or his referral to the war on terror as a “crusade” (Archives), Bush’s traditional view of religion is widely accepted public knowledge. This perspective adds a great deal of complexity to understanding this report; while religions have repeatedly grappled with the morality of reproductive technology, these arguments are usually based in interpretations of biblical parables rather than intense scientific reasoning. Yet, even among this group of ‘secular’ scientist and doctors, a shared idea of morality begins to form between religious rulings and those of the Council. One of the most prevalent examples of this link is in the Council’s ethical considerations of the “child to be” (xxvii).
Early in the report, the Council establishes terms to describe different forms of cloning. Of these forms, the two most debated are cloning-for-biomedical research, described as “production of a cloned human embryo, formed for the (proximate) purpose of using it in research or for extracting its stem cells” (55), and cloning-to-produce-children, defined as “production of a cloned human embryo, formed for the (proximate) purpose of initiating a pregnancy” (54). This distinction at first glance seems like a harsh departure from literature such as Donum Vitae, which explicitly states that “the human being must be respected as a person from the very first instant of his existence” (Shannon, 147), yet I argue that this divide instead represents a merging of scientific and religious ideology. After the group’s deliberation, they formed majority and minority opinions, differing on their views of cloning for biomedical research. Yet, both groups adamantly agreed on a “ban on cloning-to-produce children” (xxxv), sighting issues with the wellbeing of the child and how in “transgressing the natural boundaries between generations, cloning could strain the social ties between them” (xxix). Anyone familiar with Donum Vitae can immediately identify the shared argument of a muddling of ‘social ties’, due to an upheaval of the natural order of the creation of life. This fear of societal issues is explicitly mentioned as an ethical consideration in the report, as these academics join with the Catholic Church in pondering the implications “for all of society” (7). An even more obvious connection between the Church’s rulings and the Council’s pondering appears in their shared view of procreation and the natural order. Donum Vitae‘s extended title references “Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation” (Shannon, 140), suggesting that the act of procreation has as much relevance in debates on reproductive technology as pregnancy and childbirth. This idea is directly shared with the Council, who question how cloning for children would “challenge the basic nature of human procreation and the meaning of having children” (7). Much like how Bush was a modern leader with firm religious roots, the ethical considerations of this Council contain many parallels to the religious rulings of the Catholic Church.
Despite the wide range of connections between Vitae and the report, the scientific writing of the Council clearly presents the different paths each group took in arriving at these conclusions. An early distinction is the specific definition the Council uses of when an embryo can be used for research, “strictly limited to the first fourteen days of development—a point near when the primitive streak is formed and before organ differentiation occurs” (xxxii). A departure from the Church’s definitive stance of life at conception, the scientific background of the Council allows them to present firm reasoning on how they differentiate human from zygote. Additionally, the report gives primary information on the processes involved in cloning, with full diagrams on natural and cloned reproduction on page 61 , and a diagram on the collection of stem cells on page 68. It is in these diagrams and definitions that the most apparent difference between Donum Vitae and this report emerge. While Vitae’s stated purpose is to provide “some specific replies to the main questions being asked” (Shannon, 140) on the general topic of reproductive technology, it is ultimately a list of rulings by the Church, and the reasoning behind said rulings. The report instead presents itself as “an ethical inquiry” (i), with the purpose to provide a “worthy contribution to public understanding of this momentous question [of cloning]” (ix). This report was first provided directly to the President of the United States, a man with immense political power, to best educate him and the public on the scientific and ethical considerations of the specific reproductive technology of cloning. As such, despite providing policy recommendations, this report does not lay down ultimate rulings, but rather gives council to a man capable of such rulings. This report and its authors can thereby be interpreted as a modern form of the king’s advisors, noted academics gathered to give an educated perspective on an issue, and this principle is echoed in each diagram and explanation throughout the report.
One final point is the exact considerations and issues that the report grapples with. While Vitae is concerned with the child to be, the Council shares that concern with the “conflict of competing sets of concerns and priorities, each in the service of vital human goods” (16), with goods referring to the medical advances that cloned-biological research could provide. In framing the argument as a tug-of-war between bioethics and the advancement of medical science, the Council looks to reach a middle ground between the two issues. It is easy to see how the Council reaches “full agreement that cloning-to-produce-children is not only unsafe but also morally unacceptable, and ought not to be attempted” (xxix), yet cloning’s use in biomedical research presents a complicated moral quandary of potential life versus established life. In my midterm, I wrote on how Vitae limits the positive rights of the parents to preserve the negative rights of the fetus through rulings such as the “child’s right to be conceived and brought into the world in marriage and from marriage” (Shannon, 159). In this way, the President’s Council on Bioethics acts a mirror image, reducing the negative rights of the cloned zygote, fetus, human, or whatever you define it as to increase the positive rights of people who are suffering. It is therefore understandable how the disagreement between the Majority and Minority opinions originates not in the permissibility of cloning-for-biological-research, but on the “regulation of the use of cloned embryos for biomedical research” (xxxviii). In this gray area the majority recommends a “four year moratorium” (xxxv), with a federally-funded review of the practices of said biological research, while the minority calls for no such moratorium, and only for less defined ‘regulations’. Much like each question we’ve discussed in class, and at all levels of education and academic expertise, issues of reproductive technology are debated not for definitive answers, but to increase the reasonings with which we comprise our perspectives. This report represents a pure form of these debates, presenting two respectively researched and debated recommendations for the purpose of advisory to the President, and the nation as a whole. The report acts as a meditation on conception, scientific and religious ethics, and the value of life, both pre and post birth. While the lack of a unanimous answer to these questions may seem like a failure on the part of the Council, it is instead a perfect indication on the incredibly complex and varied topic of reproductive technology.
Bush, George W. “Remarks by the President Upon Arrival.” National Archives and Records Administration. September 16, 2001. Accessed April 07, 2019. https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010916-2.html.
Goodstein, Laurie. “Bush’s ‘Jesus Day’ Is Called a First Amendment Violation.” The New York Times. August 06, 2000. Accessed April 07, 2019. https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/library/politics/camp/080600wh-bush-jesus.html.
Human Cloning and Human Dignity: An Ethical Inquiry. Report. July 2002. Accessed April 7, 2019. https://repository.library.georgetown.edu/bitstream/handle/10822/559368/pcbe_cloning_report.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.
Shannon, Thomas A, et al. “Religion and Artificial Reproduction: An Inquiry into the Vatican ‘Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Human Reproduction.’” The Thomist: A Speculative Quarterly Review, vol. 53, no. 1, 1989, pp. 141–175. Emory University Library, Canvas, doi:10.1353/tho.1989.0058.