Peter Singer, Princeton's notorious bioethics professor, has finally weighed in on the Korean cloning scandal and started joining the dots of the Brave New World.

Singer became famous for accusing the rest of us of "speciesism," the racist-like idea that just because we are human beings, we are special. In the process, he has sought to pull up the standing of animals and push humans down—all along providing a rationale not just for the usual pro-abortion, pro-euthanasia arguments, but specifically for killing handicapped babies.

Singer may be the world's most influential living philosopher, but he is not the bioethicists' favorite. He has a disturbing tendency to come clean when they would rather muddle along. Still, not many rent-a-quote bioethicists have argued that being human means nothing unless we have "morally relevant characteristics." Characteristics like rationality, Singer claims, give evidence of our being persons (though they could also be evident in animals or, indeed, machines). And the idea that killing the handicapped could be okay has not yet caught on among the elite who run the editorial boards and set the tone of public debate.

So what does Singer have to say about Dr. Hwang, who could soon become not only South Korea's "top scientist" (a special title heaped on him by his government a few weeks before the scandal broke), but, perhaps, "the world's most influential living fraud"?

For those who have not been following along, Australia is embroiled in another round of cloning controversy. Not many people know that Australia, like France, Germany, Canada, and other nations that try to take ethics seriously, has actually banned cloning for research. But unlike these other countries, the ban was designed to be re-examined after the passage of several years. The re-examination is now in progress, and—surprise!—the pressure is on the Australian government and parliament to lift the ban and usher in the golden age of cloned embryos for stem cells and cures for all. Singer, as it happens, is an Australian, and it is in the pages of the The Australianthat he makes his case.

Following an article entitled "Why we all need stem cell research" by Anna Lavelle, Singer argues an ethical case in support of cloning embryos to get stem cells. He takes the argument further, in an effort to undermine the case that President Bush made in his August 2001 speech on stem cells. Singer notes the President's reference to the uniqueness of the individual embryo and responds that cloning demonstrates that every cell in the body is capable of being developed into another genetically identical organism. What price uniqueness?

Article continues below

It is precisely this reasoning that is threatened by what Hwang and his team claimed to have achieved. If it is the uniqueness of human embryos that makes it wrong to destroy them, then there is no compelling reason not to take one cell from an embryo and destroy the remainder of it to obtain stem cells, for the embryo's unique genetic potential would be preserved.

Well, whoever said that genetic uniqueness was the whole point? It is one component in a pro-life defense of the embryo against cloning, though the defense remains even if the embryo ceases to be unique. Monozygotic (identical) twins don't become disposable just because there are two of them, and if someone somewhere does one day succeed in cloning humans, the clones are no less human and no less precious just because there are two—or three, or four, or four hundred. They would retain their human dignity.

Singer moves on to another point about uniqueness, which he sees as an Achilles' heel of the pro-life movement:

This possibility highlights the weakness of the argument that abortion, too, is wrong because it destroys a genetically unique human being. By this reasoning, a woman who finds herself pregnant at an inconvenient time could have an abortion, as long as she preserves a single cell from the fetus to ensure that its unique genetic potential is preserved.

Such a focus on genetic uniqueness entails genetic reductionism: the idea that all you are is your genes, so if we can come up with someone else with the same genes, we still have you. This argument looks worse the longer you wait—twin embryos may share genes, but they are not interchangeable with each other, and we are not better off with only one of them. This is more plainly false later in pregnancy, as even in the womb the unborn twins develop in different ways. But Singer is making a wider point. He goes on to ask why the uniqueness lost when one child is aborted will not be replaced when another is conceived—who otherwise would not have been. Yet the argument has never been about uniqueness itself; it is about the uniqueness of human beings. And if the human species is denied a special status that transcends our genes, his argument shows how little dignity remains.

But Singer's intervention is interesting. He has largely preoccupied himself with the older ethics issues—what I call "Bioethics 1," the abortion/euthanasia questions we have debated for centuries. Here he moves into "Bioethics 2," from taking life to making and manipulating it. His is a radical challenge to the view of human nature that has long determined the best in Western culture. Once he has finished, it is difficult to see what will be left.

Article continues below

More on "Hwanggate" …

Korean doctors are starting to investigate the use and abuse of human eggs by Dr. Hwang.

Tests are now complete on the cell lines he claimed to have created, and 9 out of 11 are confirmed fakes; there are suspicions that the others may be also.

There has been good reporting on the Hwang debacle in the English-language Korea Times—most recently, a story about an 8-year old boy who had idolized Hwang.

Related Elsewhere:

Previous Life Matters columns include:

Bethlehem's Bioethics | Christmas in the early 21st century. (Dec. 22, 2005)
A Common Cause for Our Common Humanity | Left and right come together in defense of us. (Dec. 14, 2005)
Face Off—and Back On | Face transplants raise more questions than answers. (Dec. 8, 2005)
Bioethics in Narnia? | C. S. Lewis was way ahead of the curve. (Nov. 30, 2005)
Inventing Ethics | A collaborator walks out on the South Korean cloning genius, citing ethical lapses. (Nov. 18, 2005)
The Killing Fields of Holland: Next It's the Kids | From the Netherlands to California, from stem cells to nanotechnology, how we treat life matters. (Nov. 9, 2005)
Nations United on Bioethics | But is anybody in the West reading the new declaration? (Oct. 19, 2005)
Dr. Frist's Dilemma | The Majority Leader's contradictions mirror the opinions of the public at large. (Oct. 11, 2005)
Cloning Still Haunts California | Remember Prop. 71? Stem-cell research supporters hope voters don't remember the promises they made. (Oct. 5, 2005)
Leon Kass, a Bioethics Legend, Steps Down | The man who led the President's Council on Bioethics brought protests from the industry and directed groundbreaking studies. (Sept. 21, 2005)
A Manufactured Womb of One's Own | The commodification of children and an admission of stem-cell hype. (Sept. 8, 2005)
The Stem-Cell Conspiracy | The Washington Post muddles a major breakthrough in adult stem-cell research, while the U.K. marches blindly on. (Aug. 29, 2005)

More CT articles on bioethics are available on our Life Ethics page.

Life Matters
Nigel M. de S. Cameron is now president and CEO of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies. His "Life Matters" column, a commentary on bioethics issues, ran from 2005 to 2006.
Previous Life Matters Columns: