Michael West and the Cloning Debate
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SUSAN DENTZER: What about the argument that is made that you and other scientists engaged in this work are just plain playing God? You’re creating life, but you’re also destroying life. You’re taking life away. So in a way I guess you’re playing God and you’re playing satan, is the argument.
MICHAEL WEST: Well, I hear two arguments. They’re one, in general, playing God, are we – admittedly. And I’m really the first to admit the technologies that we’re uncovering through cloning and stem cells and sequencing the human DNA are awesome in prospect. For the first time, we can imagine engineering animals and even humans in ways that don’t exist in nature. We have that power within our hands today, and just a few years ago we had that power in our hands for the first time in the history of the world.
This will be a debate which 100 years from now people looking back at this program will say those were the days when this whole new revolution occurred in biotechnology where we had, at the power of God, the ability to make new life forms. And that is awesome, and I think it will require years for us to sort out, and I think we have been working diligently to think about it, and progressing very cautiously first in the animal area. I’m particularly concerned about where we would go in human uses of such technology, and very concerned about that.
SUSAN DENTZER: So you are playing God.
MICHAEL WEST: As human beings in the 21st Century, in many respects our technology is becoming so powerful that if we were to take our present…to take someone from 2,000 years ago into our world, they would think we are gods, and they would think that we are playing gods. Does that scare me? It gives me a sense of responsibility, and I think a responsibility we all should share is inasmuch as we have more power over nature, it’s even more important that we take the time to debate it, to think about it, and be responsible.
We can’t stop, and we shouldn’t stop the progress, the achievement of these new scientific goals, the acquisition of knowledge, because we can do good with that. And it’s our duty to do good, however we think about the meaning of life. And to do good, we have to think, we have to debate, we have to understand, and that is to be our goal.
But to be afraid of the future, I think for policy makers to try to scare the public saying, you know, we’re making embryo farms, we’re making headless people, we’re making clones, this isn’t helpful. It’s never helpful to generate fear. What is helpful is to generate knowledge and understanding, and I’m hopeful that the United States will take the lead in taking us into this new future of biotechnology, into the 21st Century in a thoughtful and dispassionate and reasoned debate about where we should be taking the world.
SUSAN DENTZER: What about this part of the argument that not only are you playing God, but you’re creating life purely in order to destroy it?
MICHAEL WEST: You know, I personally wouldn’t ever do that, I don’t think. I add the “I don’t think” at the end because if I, if my little girl became sick, and the only way to save her life was to grow a human embryo, but to grow it where it started to become a human being, and then kill it to save my little girl, I would be in anguish over that decision.
What I can say is, taking aside the personal moment from it, thinking as a policy maker, as an ethicist, which I’m not, I’m giving you my opinion, I don’t want us to go down that road. What we’re talking about doing is making a microscopic ball of cells that has not yet begun to become a human being. Despite what everyone says about life beginning at conception, we know it’s not true. Identical twins have their origin up to two weeks after the fertilization of an egg. They were once one fertilized egg. They were once one ball of cells that subsequently became two.
Up to two weeks in human development, a human being has not begun, a pregnancy has not begun, and we only need to make human cellular life, not a human life, to make human therapeutic cloning a reality, and I would like to draw a line there and say we would never create a human life to destroy it. But it’s okay to make human cellular life.
Let’s not be naïve. If we pluck a hair from our head, there are living cells there, they are my cells, they are human cells, they are human life, but they’re not a human life. It’s not murder to pluck a hair from your head. It’s not murder to make embryonic cells. To create a pregnancy, to allow these to begin development, to begin to become a human being is a different issue than therapeutic cloning.
Should we go down that road has been, I think, disclosed in some articles. I lean toward pro-life. I think a woman needs to choose, but I think it’s tragic when we take a developing human being and destroy it. I personally struggle with that concept, and the concept of cloning a human, developing human life and destroying it troubles me. And so I would not like to go down that road. But I know we will always have this tension, but if it’s my little girl, you know, what are we going to do. And that’s where we, as a society, need to draw the line and say this is where we’ll go and no further.
SUSAN DENTZER: Talk about your own religious and philosophical background. You said previously that you were once a creationist. What do you mean, and what was the evolution you went through?
MICHAEL WEST: Well, I think many of us were creationists when we were born, I maybe longer than most. As a young scientist, I tried very hard, years of my life trying to find an evidence of design in nature. I have poked and prodded in the fossil record and in the nature of life itself, trying to find the fingerprint of God, evidence of design, hopefully in my own mind showing, you know, the sudden origin of life on earth, creationism, as it’s called.
I would find great comfort in that…that life has meaning, and help me understand the meaning of our existence. As much as I wanted to try to prove that as a scientist, I couldn’t, and as much as I tried, kicking and struggling, I had to slowly recognize and I think we all should recognize there is solid scientific arguments for the antiquity of the earth, and the antiquity of life on earth, disease and suffering have been here for millions of years, and there has been a steady progression of life on our planet, and we did evolve, as Darwin said, well over 100 years ago.
And where that led me as an individual is to recognize that, well, maybe I should turn my own scientific efforts to a goal that whether you’re a religious person, or an a-religious person, whatever your perspective in life, we all could agree is a good use of science and technology, and that’s in medicine. We all agree that to do good and to help someone who is sick get well again is an honorable and a good way to apply our lives.
SUSAN DENTZER: How do you describe yourself now, philosophically, religiously?
MICHAEL WEST: Well, really, my personal view of the world is very focused, very myopic. In the short period of time that we have, you and I have on this planet, we can achieve some ends, far less than we would love to do in our life. I’m very myopic. I want to cure presently incurable disease. I want to leave my mark on the world that, you know, we helped some people go home from the hospital, go back to their families, then enjoy the few years of life we have.
And I don’t know all the big philosophical answers. I don’t know if God came down in this interview and gave us His position on — or Her position on — therapeutic cloning, what that would be, all I know is that as a scientist, I have to be true to myself, true to my own conscience, what do I think is based on what I know. The right way to apply my efforts, use my hands, use my mind, and what I can tell you as sincerely as I know how, the use of cloning stem cells in medicine is absolutely the right thing to do. It’s not even a close decision, as Senator Hatch recently said. It’s really clear once you understand, we’re talking about cellular life and we’re talking about saving a living and breathing human being. I think this is the right thing.
If you ask me is it possible that God could come and speak to us and say, “But you’ve got it wrong,” of course. But I think we’re right on this one.