Rafaela Hillerbrand’s Posts

Lights out! For our Climate! For what else?

Last Saturday, people in Germany, Austria and Switzerland were asked to switch off the lights for five minutes between 20.00 and 20.05. “Lights out! For our Climate!” was the motto. Similarly, on February 1 this year –  the day of the publication of the latest scientific report of the IPCC – people all over the world followed a call of a French initiative to turn off the lights for five minutes. The recent call to arms was widely supported by the German-speaking media, including the internet portal Google.

Luckily, not too many people followed the call. Luckily, not because I want to doubt that present forecasts on the future climate provide a need to worry –  they clearly do! But had 10,000 homes participated in the campaign, then it is likely that the the Power supply system would have broken down – in all of Europe. Hopefully the worries of the power generators will have been heard the other side of the Pond, when the campaign “Lights out in America" calls for a similarly rash reaction to global warming in March 2008.

These campaigns do not seem to be the only hasty reaction to global warming.

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Unjustified asymmetries in the debate on GM crops

In his valedictory speech as Government’s chief scientific adviser on November 27th , David King said there was a "moral case" for the UK and the rest of  Europe to grow genetically modified crops as the technology could help the world’s poorest.

A research paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences only one day after encourages this hope that GM crops might offer a solution to word poverty. New drought-tolerant plants are reported to grow with only one third of the usual water.

Nonetheless, antagonists of GM continue to point to the possibly severe side effects of the release of GM crops outside the lab. These unintended side effects might indeed outweigh the benefits, albeit such secondary effects seem very unlikely. But the keypoint overlooked in these debates is that the uncertainty is not only on the side of the harms from GM. The benefits of GM may also be unlikely to be realised – though not on scientific grounds. Overlooking these uncertainties raises an untenable asymmetry as the debate seems to suggest that the benefits are opposed by highly unlikely risks. This stands in the way of a rational evaluation of the use of GM crops.

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Reproductive Cloning Reconsidered

News

The first
successful cloning of primates makes the headlines in the scientific press
today.
(See also
yesterday’s contribution by

The
researchers were successful in cloning a primate embryo by inserting a skin
cell of a grown-up rhesus macaque into an egg of the same species which had the
DNA removed. The same basic procedure gave birth to Dolly the sheep in 1997.
The cloned rhesus macaque embryos are then used to make embryonic stem-cell
lines.

http://www.nature.com/news/2007/071114/full/news.2007.245.html

 

General Ethical Concerns

As is the
case in most research which can be classified as `basic’, cloning might yield
benefits we would not wish to jeopardise. The rhesus macaque clones lead to
heated speculations about the potential of somatic cell nuclear transfer in the
curing or alleviating of degenerative diseases.  But such basic research most often also
threatens us with hazards, related to, for example, the (hard-to-control) misuses
and unwanted and unavoidable side effects of its technological implementation.

In both advertising
its benefits as well as worrying about its hazards, the so-called `therapeutic
(or embryo) cloning’ like the one reported yesterday has to be distinguished
from `reproductive cloning’ on the one hand and from `DNA cloning’ (or
`recombinant DNA technology’) on the other hand. The latter is less
controversial and in use since the 1970s. All three types of cloning raise
different ethical questions, but also are distinct empirically – though, of
course, progress in one field, might also advance the other. This might be the
case for the recent breakthrough in the cloning of primate embryos: For example
the reported progress made recently with primate embryos might yield a break
through in reproductive cloning. Presently these are just
dreams of the
future, even for the reproductive cloning of monkeys, as S.M. Mitlipov points
out, who was the leader of the recent research on rhesus macaque.

 

Reproductive Cloning

Nonetheless,
the discussions on cloning are often blurred. News like the above raises in some
the hope, and in some the fear of reproductive cloning of humans. These hopes
and fears, though they might be experientially unjustified at present, do influence
our attitudes towards cloning as a whole. They thus in turn influence the
research funding from public sources.

That is why
it is important to raise at this early stage the question if and why a state in
which reproductive cloning is allowed is really the bugaboo it is commonly
taken as. Thereby we focus on an ideal-type of cloning in which the clones do
not show deficiencies in comparison to natural offspring, for example in terms
of life expectancy.

The raised question
then takes us to the central question of the function and purpose of a state. This
is not the place to discuss this question in depth. Just to note that it is not
the cone-end of modern, liberal or even very liberal thinking that choosing
ones offspring is seen as a very private affair, with which the state has to
infer as little as possible. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but
these must be well grounded. The primary function of the state is to serve for the people who live in it. It is not
up to the people to provide the state with a certain kind of order (unless it
is in their interest) and the even lesser it is up to the people to secure that
the state can survive in its status-quo by providing the right type of
citizens. Whenever individuals, groups of individuals, nations etc, subrogate
some of their rights to the corresponding higher institution,
it is up to the higher level to vindicate this step.

In
political theory this principle is sometimes referred to as subsidiarity when
it comes to the subrogation of rights from one (local) institution to another
(usually national, super-national one). However the roots of this principle are
much older and can be traced back to what Aristotle characterized as
`justitia
commutativa’ (in English roughly: exchange of justice).

That is to
say: When the state wants to forbid some kind of offspring, as this is what
clones might represent, it must provide us with good reasons why it interferes
in such genuine private decisions. And even if we do not want to count a clone
as an offspring, some people might just believe that cloning is the ultimate
way for them, and possibly for others, to achieve happiness. They might be utterly
wrong about that. But in modern heterogeneous societies, the state as a
national or super-national institution does not seem to be the right place to
address what happiness means for the individual.

 We can
imagine scenarios where the above argument breaks down. For example, the
currently known animal clones live significantly shorter than natural offspring.
Hence the principle not to deliberately harm humans (or animals) forbids in
this case the cloning. The above argument also breaks down for a society which
becomes highly unstable as the genetic human pool is drastically reduced due to
excessive cloning. This might yield similar threats to the future existence of
mankind as the green revolution, which by reducing the gene pool for many seeds
makes them vulnerable to rare and harmful events. However the latter is a
scenario which, firstly, seems very unlikely. Although some people might find
or think to find their ultimate happiness in cloning themselves or in cloning of
dying loved ones – a child killed in accident, to give a dramatic example – this
will not be the majority. Many people are clearly aware of the fact that the
personality of their dying child is more than the sum of its genes and so
neither witchcraft nor wizardry and not even molecular biology can compensate
them for their loss. Secondly, people have offspring for the sake of having
children and all that which goes with it, and quite often of the wish to have
children involves having them together with a partner. The availability of
reproductive cloning devices will not alter these wishes. The slope we enter
with a society which leaves the decision to make or make not use reproductive
cloning facilities is not necessarily slippery: Suitable institutions can
prevent the slope from becoming slippery. For example, the misuse of cloning,
just as the misuse of other technologies, has to be regulated.

 The dangers
of a society which ignores the rights of the individual in such a personal
matter outweigh the harm of a liberal attitude towards reproductive cloning.
The latter harm includes the hurt moral feelings of people opposed to cloning
as well as the injustice which might arise due to the fact that cloning is most
likely only available for some social groups. This selectivity, though very
serious, is not specific to cloning. The same holds for the dangers which go
along with the abuse of cloning facilities. However these provide no arguments
against a liberal attitude to reproductive cloning per se.

The fact
that the embryo cloning which was reported in Nature yesterday might yield to
reproductive cloning even of humans in some however distant future is one
reason for the wide resonance this research gets outside the scientific
community. However, this possible future side-strain of the research does not
give arguments pro or against the current research on embryo or therapeutic
cloning.

 
References

Original
publication

 

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/pdf/nature06357.pdf

 

Reactions
in the public press

http://news.independent.co.uk/sci_tech/article3152325.ece

 

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7094215.stm#graphic

 

http://news.independent.co.uk/sci_tech/article3155079.ece

 

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/science/article2870675.ece

 

Useful background information on the Web (with
further links)

 
http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/elsi/cloning.shtml

 

http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/landing.asp?id=1202

 

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