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Body Politics By: Lowell Ponte
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, May 31, 2002

WHO OWNS YOUR BODY? This question has become, on the Right, a cleavage line dividing cultural-religious conservatives from libertarian-individualists.

In this deep and thoughtful look at the alternative futures where biotechnology could take us, the renowned author of The End of History and the Last Man Francis Fukuyama comes down squarely on the side of conservatism. But his meaty and logical reasoning opens many paths to dialogue that can help heal this schism.

We are already headed down a slippery slope to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, writes Fukuyama. In Huxley’s dystopia (utopia to residents who embraced it), the mental dimensionality of human life was washed away with the drug Soma.

Today we increasingly dope ourselves with tranquilizers and our kids with Ritalin. And science is on the verge of providing drugs that can modulate moods and chemically reengineer personality. While this might seem a boon to the drug takers, what would it mean to a human species many of whose greatest artists and writers were shaped by manic-depressive disorders?

In Brave New World babies came from test tubes. Each was defect-free and tailored to have the mentality of a ruling Alpha, proletarian Gamma, or other programmed caste to fit into this totalitarian dystopia’s machinery.

Today, fears Fukuyama, we are at the dawn of an age of designer babies genetically altered to be "defect-free." This manipulation of life would come not from government but parental choices. Given the power, would you choose to make your child more intelligent? Taller or better looking? More athletic? Longevity-enhanced to live 140 years?

In China and Korea, parents have already used prenatal scanning and abortion to produce nearly 20 percent more boy than girl babies, notes Fukuyama, and by 2020 nearly one-fifth of young men there will find no young woman to marry.

Individual preferences in tampering with our genetic "essence," Fukuyama argues (using the kind of vague and slippery word he loves), can have dire and destabilizing social consequences. Could manipulating DNA to make your baby smart also make it prone to cancer or other unanticipated problems decades later?

Would parental choice ethnically cleanse from humanity those carrying a "gay" gene? If so, kiss goodbye to future Andrew Sullivans, whose propensity enriches human diversity and could be a vital part of natural population regulation.

Would black parents give their children white skins? Would peacenik parents expunge their test tube baby’s "aggressive" genes, thereby producing offspring lacking the inborn survival potential to stand up for themselves or fight against evil? A deaf Lesbian couple, he observes, recently chose to conceive a deaf child.

Do we have the wisdom, or the moral right, asks Fukuyama, to make such godlike judgments for future children – and in the case of "germline" DNA changes, all future generations – who, being unborn, are obviously too young to give consent?

As in Brave New World, he ponders, will the rich be able to engineer the smartest, most talented babies? As Alphas and Gammas become more and more different, will the common bonds of humanity disappear, leading to de facto slavery or violent revolution?

"What is it that we want to protect from any future advances in biotechnology?" asks Fukuyama, a professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins University and member of the President’s Commission on Bioethics. "We want to protect the full range of our complex, evolved natures against attempts at self-modification. We do not want to disrupt either the unity or the continuity of human nature, and thereby the human rights that are based on it." [Emphasis mine.]

The "we" Fukuyama uses, say critics, is the royal "we." His is an authoritarian voice that – like Hillary Clinton’s, claiming to speak "for the children" – would impose his shackles on everybody else’s freedom and reproductive potential. Like the political Left, he exhibits clear distaste for capitalism and individualism, which he believes should be subservient to egalitarianism and the collective. (He even despises the character Spock on Star Trek for lacking emotions that, as Leftists believe, are virtually the only glue that holds humankind together as a social species.)

Who owns your body? In Fukuyama’s implicit view, the government does because "you" are merely a cog transmitting your DNA on to the collective of future generations whose rights are superior to yours. You should have no right to tamper with your own mind or body via drugs or with your heredity by cloning yourself or altering your own DNA.

To promote his book, Fukuyama kicked this hornet’s nest by writing a provocative May 2 Wall Street Journal article titled "Conservatism Matures: The Fall of the Libertarians." In it he argued that "the great free-market revolution that began with…Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan" started its descent by evolving "into libertarianism, an ideological hostility to the state in all its manifestations."

Fukuyama likes big government, especially when it grabs people by the short-and-curlies and prohibits them from using science to alter reproductive DNA. "Libertarian advocates of genetic choice want the freedom to improve their children," wrote Fukuyama, "But do we really know what it means to improve a child?" ("I am guessing," riposted Libertarian David Dieteman, "that Johns Hopkins, where Fukuyama is a professor, does not include this query with its tuition bills to parents.")

To stoke the resulting reader bonfire, the Journal’s online OpinionJournal.com editor James Taranto, the Snidley Whiplash of American journalism, with his usual depth and subtlety in an item titled "Attack of the Clones" threw gasoline by proclaiming that, at least in his opposition to reproductive cloning, "Fukuyama is right and the libertarians are nuts."

Bringing more firewood to promote his book, in a May 21 interview with Salon.com Fukuyama likened Libertarians to eugenicists and Southern slaveowners who need to be prohibited by government from claiming ownership over unborn babies. "There are times," he said, "that the libertarian model just doesn’t work very well."

Libertarians, of course, have returned fire, both piecemeal and in sophisticated debates, (which can be hotlinked to from the page of this overview) with Fukuyama at Reason Magazine.

The Libertarian case, to oversimplify it, is that we are individuals, not a collective. Individuals, not government, own their bodies. You have a human right to reproduce by any means possible, so long as this does not involve use of force or fraud against others.

Who is Fukuyama to tell an infertile couple that they cannot reproduce, or to tell the parents of a son killed by automobile accident that they are forbidden to produce a clone from his DNA?

The slave owner is Fukuyama, not us, Libertarians assert. He is the one claiming that government owns your body and its DNA. Even conservatives such as Senator Orrin Hatch (R.-Utah) favor therapeutic, if not reproductive, cloning to treat diseases that Hatch, unlike Fukuyama, is judgmental enough to call bad.

As a practical matter – and Fukuyama is careful to argue his case from logic and natural rights, not religion – Libertarians argue that liberty includes the right to take chances, like explorers sailing to new worlds. Some will fail. Others will succeed, and they produce the great leaps forward for the rest of humankind.

(Yes, the rich often take the lead, as they do in launching new technologies by paying top dollar for early-model DVD players and the like that thus later become available for the rest of us. A Fukuyama-regulated world would still be Medieval, outlawing any technology advance until the never-arriving day when all can share it equally from the outset.)

Imperial China ceased its ocean explorations while Europe let Columbus and his crews risk their futures; which of these two provided more benefit for humankind’s future?

By Fukuyama’s reasoning, Libertarians contend, we should also be prohibited from using life-saving antibiotics or Ben Franklin’s lightning rods because such "unnatural" things alter evolution, impact society by extending lifespans, and make some healthier and wealthier than others. (I confess a pro-drug bias here, having been saved at age 36 from natural lung infection death by using unnatural antibiotics.)

But Fukuyama’s argument is worse than wrong, argues Gregory Stock. It is irrelevant, because people will use intelligence-enhancing drugs and practice reproductive cloning no matter what. This genie cannot be re-confined in the bottle.

And by outlawing such scientific advances, the United States would merely doom itself to being surpassed by the smarter, healthier peoples of nations that allow these sciences to go forward.

These technologies are the inevitable next step forward in human evolution, suggests Stock, and it seems positively quaint for non-scientist Fukuyama to be saying: "Ugh, don’t you go sexually mixing your DNA with those Cro-Magnons. You must have sex and reproduce your DNA only with Neanderthals of your own kind in the old-fashioned way. That’s how we avoid change and stay as we have always been."

The author of Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future (Houghton Mifflin, 2002), Gregory Stock is director of the UCLA School of Medicine Program of Medicine in Los Angeles. He is also author of Metaman: The Merging of Humans and Machines Into a Global Superorganism (Simon & Schuster, 1993) and, like Fukuyama, stimulates his readers with Big Ideas painted large on a Big Canvas.

By helping frame the debate for both the public and lawmakers, Francis Fukuyama has performed a valuable service for his species. He and Gregory Stock would agree that this issue is the Big Casino, the greatest set of decisions now facing humankind. The books of both deserve your reading.

Fukuyama wants government to become a giant STOP sign, prohibiting or tightly restricting everybody from sailing into this realm. "The original purpose of medicine is, after all, to heal the sick," writes Fukuyama, "not to turn healthy people into gods."

If we use biotechnology at all for humans, writes Fukuyama, it must never be "to make our children more intelligent or taller." He does not address the obvious question whether a perceived deficiency is a lack of optimal health; Asians grew several inches taller on average during the 20th Century, apparently from improved nutrition, because they possessed this suppressed genetic potential to be taller in their DNA all along. Biotech could be seen as is a kind of unleashed potential in the human mind and species.

But this could lead to the "posthuman" future he dreads. (It’s clear that Fukuyama has never read James Blish’s Cities In Flight writings envisioning a post-human future being better than our past.)

Fukuyama quotes Friedrich Nietzsche often, but oddly never the German philosopher’s most famous Zarathustrian supermanic aphorism: "Man is something to be surpassed."

Libertarians, while agreeing that relatively safe and reliable human cloning is at least a decade away, believe that individuals have the liberty to boldly go where no others have gone before with their individual DNA. Think of it as being like America’s Constitution, which permits one state to experiment with a new idea while other states wait to see if its results are bad or good. Your DNA was not given to a collective, say Libertarians. It was given in ownership to you, whether by nature or by God, and the decisions about what to do with it are rightly yours.

Mr. Ponte co-hosts a national radio talk show Monday through Friday 6-8 PM Eastern Time (3-5 PM Pacific Time) on the Genesis Communications Network. Internet Audio worldwide is at GCNlive .com. The show's live call-in number is 1-800-259-9231. A professional speaker, he is a former Roving Editor for Reader's Digest.

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