Snake Oil Legislation

We've all heard the expression "truth in advertising." We have laws that require advertising to be "truthful" and "non-deceptive." They prohibit claims that are likely to mislead consumers when they're making a decision about buying or using a product. Unfortunately, the laws that govern selling toothpaste and detergent don't apply to the most important issue of our times: the sanctity of human life. That's why I'm so glad we have Wesley J. Smith of the Discovery Institute. Unlike Procter & Gamble, you see, politicians are legally free to mislead consumers, that is, voters, about what their products, that is, legislation, will do. An example is a bill pending in the Washington state legislature, Senate Bill 5594. It "purports to outlaw the cloning of human beings." Good. Since most Americans find human cloning repulsive, this sounds wonderful. But, as Wesley Smith recently wrote in National Review, the bill doesn't outlaw cloning at all. Instead it takes advantage of the public's confusion about cloning to sell the moral equivalent of snake oil. To understand why this is the case, we need to understand cloning. It's a process known as "somatic cell nuclear transfer," or SCNT. In SCNT, a "biotechnologist removes the nucleus from a mature human egg." He replaces that nucleus with "nucleus of a body cell from [a] DNA donor. . . . A little shot of electricity comes next, and if all goes well, a new human cloned embryo comes into being." While all of this is much easier said than done, the important part is that "there is no more cloning to be done since a new human organism now exists." The Washington bill, like similar legislation in New Jersey, does nothing to prevent SCNT. All it would do is prohibit implanting the cloned embryo "with the purpose of producing a human being." But since a human being has already been produced, when they use the words producing a human being, what the sponsors mean is bringing the cloned embryo to birth. Anything short of that is permissible under this bill. You could clone human embryos and harvest stem cells, or you could grow fetuses for medical experiments, or let embryos gestate for nine months, abort them, and harvest the organs. Smith gives these moral horrors a fitting name: "fetal farming." People in the state of Washington have been misled into thinking that the bill would prevent the advent of a "Brave New World." Instead, as Smith says, it ushers it in. This kind of deception makes Smith's Consumer's Guide to a Brave New World a must-read. The technical complexities of biotechnology make it easy to mislead the public. But euphemisms like "therapeutic cloning" are only effective when people don't know the truth. Since what's at stake here is ultimately about redefining what it means to be human, this ignorance is potentially lethal. When the stakes are the "scientific manipulation" of "human nature," be skeptical about what the politicians claim, especially when they have often been bought and paid for by the biotechnology industry. In the ongoing debates about cloning and biotechnology, don't expect truth in advertising. It's up to us to educate ourselves, recognize false and misleading claims, and call them by their right name: snake oil.


Chuck Colson


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