Balkinization  

Friday, January 24, 2003

JB

Roe and Human Cloning


In an earlier post, I explained that I did not think that Roe v. Wade would be likely to be overturned, although it was quite possible that future Republican judicial appointments would chip away at it severely.

The long run future of Roe as a precedent, however, does not simply concern abortion but also new reproductive technologies like cloning. Congress is currently considering legislation that would ban human cloning. Roe is important to this debate, because it is relevant to the constitutionality of any legislation affecting cloning.

Roe builds on Eisenstadt v. Baird, which tells us that “[i]f the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child..” It also builds on Skinner v. Oklahoma, which held that the state could not sterilize convicts for certain crimes because the right to procreate is fundamental.

Proponents of cloning could use Skinner, Eisenstadt and Roe to defend the right to clone. They would use Roe in two different ways.

Prospective parents wish to create new children through cloning. This is the decision whether or not to bear a child. It does not matter whether the method of producing a child is traditional, so the argument goes, because in vitro fertilization does not use traditional methods, and it should equally be protected by Skinner, Roe and Eisenstadt. Especially for couples who cannot have children any other way, the right to clone is constitutionally protected. And even for those who could produce children the old fashioned way but choose not to, Roe still protects that choice.

But Roe is important in another way too. The decision to clone is also the decision to end the life of embryos, because it is likely under current technologies that some number of embryos will be discarded in the process of cloning. (And some fetuses may be discarded in the process too, if the results go awry later in the process.). But, the advocates of cloning might say, that is ok because of Roe v. Wade.

To be sure, the proponents of cloning might argue, the right to clone is not absolute. The state may impose requirements, even stringent requirements, to ensure that the children produced are healthy, and to avoid damage to the gestational mother who carries the cloned baby. But the basic choice whether to use cloning or not, these proponents would say, is beyond the state’s power. The state may not prohibit cloning because it thinks it immoral; it may only legislate to protect health and safety of the DNA donors, the cloned baby, and the gestational mother.

That’s how Roe might be used in a very simple argument for cloning. (I think the argument could be improved with a bit more effort, but that's a first cut). Could Roe v. Wade also be used in an argument against cloning? You bet.

First, opponents of cloning might point out that Roe is premised on the notion of forced motherhood. Women who get pregnant are subject to the social stigma of putting a child up for adoption, and so they will keep the baby and this will completely change their lives. But the prohibition on cloning has nothing to do with forced motherhood. Prohibiting the creation of human clones forces no woman to become a mother against her will.

Second, Roe is really a case (and should have been originally viewed as a case) about women’s equality. Abortion rights are necessary for women to be equal citizens in American society. But human cloning doesn’t substantially contribute to women’s equal citizenship. The inability to clone babies does not subordinate women. Indeed, one could argue in precisely the opposite direction: Cloning will lead to selection of boys over girls, or the selection of traits that will reinforce stereotypes that undermine women’s equality.

Third, Roe is premised on the idea that in order to guarantee women’s liberty and equality, a painful choice must be made to end the life of the fetus. But in the case of cloning, the discarded embryos (or fetuses) are not discarded in order to keep women from forced motherhood. The balance between liberty rights and the life of the embryos or fetuses is completely different in the case of cloning, and therefore should tip the balance against the procedure.

Now these three arguments don’t make Roe *necessary* to the case against cloning. They show that the case against cloning is entirely consistent with the principles behind Roe. But they do so by interpreting Roe as a case about forced motherhood and women’s equality.

This is ironic for two reasons. First, the forced motherhood/equal citizenship argument is the interpretation that feminists and liberal constitutional scholars have been pressing on the courts for years. Second, it is also the interpretation that has been most powerfullly resisted by pro-life forces, who tend to see Roe as a misguided application of a right to privacy that they don’t accept in the first place, and who tend to regard feminist and liberal arguments about abortion as destructive of family values.

But every argument, if invoked often enough in enough different contexts, eventually becomes useful to a different group of people. This is what I call the principle of “ideological drift.” It turns out that the best arguments for not extending Roe to the case of human cloning are based on liberal and feminist justifications for Roe. That doesn’t mean that pro-life forces need to become liberals or feminists. But it does mean that changing contexts may reveal some wisdom in arguments they have rejected for years.

The converse, I think, is also true. As new reproductive technologies like cloning develop, people on the left who are concerned about equality and social hierarchy will increasingly see the value in pro-life arguments about the misuse and abuse of human life. As Mr. Huxley says, it's a brave new world, folks, and that world will surely upend the political certainties of the past all across the political spectrum.


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