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Cultural Critique 53 (2003) 116-133

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Bovine Anxieties, Virgin Births,and the Secret of Life

Teresa Heffernan

In November 1998, a biotech company in Massachusetts—Advanced Cell Technology—announced to the New York Times that they had successfully fused a human cell with a cow egg. The nucleus from the cow egg was removed, and the remaining cytoplasm was melded (using electric shock) to a cell from the cheek of Joseph Cibelli, one of the scientists working on the project. During this procedure, the human cell reverted back to its embryonic state, producing a stem cell from which all other specialized tissue in the body develops. Although the research was at a very preliminary stage and the viability of the cells questionable, the company identified two possible uses for the resulting cluster of "mostly" human embryonic stem cells. The first involved producing body tissue that could be guided into becoming organs or nerve cells for transplants. 1 The second involved, even though the company itself is unclear on what inhabited its petri dish, the production of a clone from the fusion (Wade 1998, A1). This experiment in stem cell research sparked an uproar. Glenn McGee, an associate director for education at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics, asked: "Is Cibelli's fertilized cow egg an embryo? Is 'it' human, potentially human or something entirely new? Can a cloned, transgenic embryo be aborted? Would there be anything wrong with putting 'it' into a female cow, or into a person? We don't have answers to these questions. In fact, it looks as though we will have to cart out the philosophers to settle a whole raft of new debates" (1998).

The response by ethicists to these new developments in biotechnology breaks down into two camps. For instance, in a recent [End Page 116] collection of essays on cloning, edited by McGee, those in favor of the procedure insist that science must be allowed to advance and that biotechnology offers all sorts of possibilities for improving human lives. Ronald Bailey, one of the contributors, argues: "Most of the arguments against cloning amount to little more than a reformulation of the old Luddites everywhere: 'If God had meant for man to fly, he would have given us wings'" (2000, 108). He concludes, "Ultimately, biotechnology is not different from any other technology—humans must be allowed to experiment with it in order to find its best uses" (113). Or as Philip Kitcher, another contributor, puts it, perhaps a little more cautiously: "General moral principles provide us with an obligation to improve the quality of human lives, where we have the opportunity to do so, and developments in biotechnology provide opportunities and challenges" (2000, 153). Both arguments seem to assume that "general moral principles," "best uses," and "improvement" are self-evident. In the other camp, those who oppose this technology also fall back on arguments about human nature. Leon Kass writes about the "repulsiveness" of human cloning because it transgresses the "natural" means of reproduction that involves the "two complementary" male and female elements: "technological interventions into the human body and mind. . . will surely effect fundamental (and likely irreversible) changes in human nature, basic human relations, and what it means to be human" (2000, 105). With the long and problematic history of basing arguments on what is "natural," which inevitably leads to the labeling of those who are less than "natural" (blacks, women, Jews), is it any wonder that, in the logic of Kass's argument, the feminist and gay rights movements are faulted for challenging the "natural heterosexual difference," a questioning, he suggests, that started us on this slippery slope.

Although on opposite sides of the debate, both camps are firmly rooted in a humanist tradition that puts faith in the idea of human progress, "general moral principles," and foundational assumptions about what it means to be human even as the technology itself begs the question: not "is 'it' human" (as McGee asks), but what does it mean to be human? As Nietzsche argued over a century ago, it is paradoxical to both kill...


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