At various points in U.S. history, issues and events come along that make old ideologies obsolete, that make existing coalitions untenable, that make the contradictions within parties too pressing to ignore. When this happens, the old assumptions about politics no longer hold. The old battles begin to make little sense.
The genetic revolution--like slavery, civil rights and the Cold War before it--is such an event. In time, it may overshadow them all.
In the past few months, committees in both the House and the Senate have heard testimony on the now very real possibility of human cloning. Nearly all who testified agreed that initial attempts would bring horrific results--including spontaneous abortions, deformed children and grave dangers to the women who carried the first clones. With the exception of a few fringe cloning advocates, there is near universal consensus that cloning human beings with the intention of bringing them to birth ought not to be tried--at least not yet.
The politics of cloning are complicated by the closely related issue of stem-cell research. Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that many scientists believe may someday cure many of our worst diseases and injuries. While there has been some promising research on stem cells harvested from adults, most scientists say the greatest promise is in embryonic cells--and that cloned embryos may be a key resource in this effort. Until now, this research has been barred from receiving federal funding.
But federal funding is only a small piece of a much larger set of moral and political issues: whether allowing human cloning to produce stem cells for research is the first step toward the cloning of newborns; whether the possible benefits of the new genetics justify the potential horrors; and whether we want to create whole new biotech industries that depend on a ready supply of human embryos, to be created, used and destroyed.
These questions are entangled in the politics of abortion--with the mostly pro-life Republicans treating embryos as sacred, and the mostly pro-choice Democrats seeing them as collections of cells that only have moral status if pregnant women choose to give them one. But the stakes, interests and complexity of the new genetics transcend, though certainly do not eclipse, the long-simmering abortion standoff. Stem cells and cloning, however significant, are only the beginning.
The mapping of the human genome raises the prospect of not just new genetic therapies for disease but genetic enhancements, or so-called germ-line interventions, that would affect all future generations. Eventually, the line between therapy and enhancement may become too difficult to draw--with genetic backwardness one day becoming the social equivalent of disease, and genetic equality becoming the next social egalitarian crusade.
Some research already underway, including the creation of genetic hybrids of human and animal embryos, raises the specter that our worst science-fiction nightmares may soon become possible. As of now, such experiments remain perfectly legal.
This brings us to the first wave of political and moral controversies in the new genetic age: Who regulates and what is regulated? What is allowed and what is banned? What guidance, if any, do prevailing ideologies and parties--conservatism and liberalism, Republicans and Democrats--supply for this next war of the gods?
There are many interests in this debate: religious conservatives and pro-life groups who see the new genetics as an affront to human dignity; biotech companies that stand to profit from the unregulated science of the future; reproductive-rights activists who see cloning as a personal choice that the government should not meddle with; and patient's rights groups who see in the new genetics a new source of hope.
The first faction, led by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), wants to ban all human cloning research. This group is made up of mostly Republicans and social conservatives, though it includes some members of the egalitarian, naturalist and environmentalist left, who remain skeptical of technological progress and open to government regulation. This pro-regulation movement has tried to separate the debate over human cloning and embryonic stem-cell research from the politics of abortion, hoping that the nation's near-universal horror at the idea of live human clones will give them an easy legislative victory.
Another new alliance of interests is that of reproductive-rights groups and biotech companies. This faction is willing to accept a temporary ban on reproductive cloning, on the grounds that the technology is still untested and unsafe. But it seeks to legalize and expand the use of cloned human embryos for medical research. It includes nearly all Democrats, who have been the most vigorous defenders of embryonic stem cells, and a sizable number of Republican capitalists, who believe free markets and technological progress are what defines their party, not religious conservatism and defense of the unborn.
The American middle, as usual, is somewhere in the uncertain in-between. Most Americans think abortion is wrong but should remain legal. They also believe that if embryos are available from abortions or in vitro-fertilization clinics, then using them for medical research is acceptable. They believe that the idea of live human clones is repugnant--just as most Americans once found the idea of test-tube babies repugnant. But they seem likely to tolerate the cloning of embryos for research if there are clear medical benefits of doing so. They want both moral seriousness and scientific progress, but seem to put initial moral concerns aside once experimental science shows itself to be safe.
Taken together, this coming battle will bring a sea change in American politics. If no ban or only a partial ban on human cloning is passed, then research will proceed in two directions. Those who seek to actually clone live humans will experiment on cloned human embryos to perfect the safety of the technique, so that they can eventually claim that human cloning is simply a reproductive choice. At the same time, scientists will attempt to use cloned embryos to develop revolutionary medical therapies. If successful, they might well create a whole new industry and perhaps even a new economy: the economy of genes. This new capitalism will be, by its very nature, pro-choice. The pro-life, pro-business, anti-regulation alliance that has long shaped U.S. conservatism will become tenuous, if not impossible.
If the Republican Party casts its lot with the new capitalism, it will likely drive committed pro-lifers to revolt. The moral repugnance that spawned the influential conservative magazine First Things to declare 'the end of democracy' in 1996 because of the institutionalization of abortion will return in earnest. Those who believe that the sanctity of life is violated--by the manufacture of human embryos, by the manipulation of man's genetic make-up, by the legalization of human cloning--may one day find America impossible.
But even if a ban on human cloning is achieved, it will remain precarious. Such controversial research is likely to go ahead in other countries, and if it is shown to be medically and economically successful, the floodgates of advocacy and protest from the biotech industry will be only that much more powerful. When and if this happens, the genetic capitalists will look to the Democrats, not the Republicans, as the anti-regulation, pro-industry party.
Where this is all heading is still unclear. That it will mean the end of liberalism and conservatism as we know them seems likely. There will be new coalitions, new divides. In the end, an America that often flees hard choices will have to make a very difficult one: between the new science, with its remarkable powers and unforeseen dangers, and the old faith or wisdom, with its humbling demands and veil-shrouded mysteries.
It seems likely that it will be our generation that must make this choice--a decision upon which the future of the American experiment, and perhaps the fate of mankind itself, may ultimately hinge. That we are unprepared is the understatement of the pre-genetic age.