American Humanist Association | Humanist Network News Ezine Archives

Welcome to the Future
Jan. 3, 2007

By now most of you have heard about the Federal Drug Administration's approval of cloned animals as livestock. The approval was a "welcome to the future" message just in time for the New Year.

Remember when the concept of cloning was strictly confined to the realm of science fiction? Throughout history, scientists, writers and artists have made predictions that the public ridiculed until the predictions became reality. I wonder if Leonardo da Vinci dared share his idea of a "flying machine" with anyone, or if anyone knows that H.G. Wells' concept of a "world government" predicted the United Nations. Even some elements of the dystopia Aldous Huxley presented in Brave New World have modern-day analogies, for better or worse. While most of us still reproduce the old-fashioned way, we have in-vitro fertilization and surrogate parenthood. While we don't have Soma, we do have Prozac.

In-vitro fertilization is a good example of a scientific procedure that, while initially greeted with horror and disgust, has become accepted and unexceptional by most of the public. What would have happened to in-vitro fertilization if society had used its initial feeling of revulsion as a reason to ban the procedure? While there are some who still believe the procedure is unethical (mainly due to religious convictions, of course), most accept it as a life-giving opportunity for those otherwise unable to conceive.

Bioethicist Dr. Leon Kass, who chaired the President's Council on Bioethics from 2002-2005, introduced the use of the "yuck factor" or "the wisdom of repugnance" as a means of deciding whether a scientific procedure should be legal or not; basically, if something makes you say "Yuck!", it should be banned. If this philosophy had been applied to science in its earliest forms, imagine what the state of medicine would be today; surgery would be only one of the many procedures banned.

The moral of this morality tale is not to commit a form of the naturalistic fallacy when judging whether something is "ethical" or "unethical": just because something appears repugnant to our senses or emotions does not mean that it should be banned. The development of morality, from which we extrapolate our legal system, cannot be based upon our initial reaction to a new development or situation. Remember that "an eye for an eye" sounded ethical to our ancestors, and is still used as the basis for law in some societies.

Personally, I am for the cloning of livestock, but not for the same reasons as livestock producers or consumers (lower production costs or prices), and am not in favor of cloning an entire animal. As one working to reduce cruelty in the livestock industry, I hope that eventually scientists can use cloning techniques to produce livestock products without having to create a sentient animal. There has already been discussion of only cloning the animal tissues used as meat in the future.

Although my initial reaction to livestock cloning was indeed "Yuck!", I put aside my emotions to think through its possibilities rationally. I will use the same technique when thinking about the myriad scientific developments that await us in the New Year.

Elaine Friedman is the editor of Humanist Network News, the weekly e-zine of the Institute for Humanist Studies.

Appignani Bioethics Center