Cloning Politics Makes for Strange Bedfellows

Politics makes for strange bedfellows, particularly when it comes to the issue of cloning.

Last month, anti-biotechnology crusader Jeremy Rifkin endeared himself to many religious groups when he sought to patent a process for creating part human and part animal life forms by splicing human and animal embryos. By applying for the patent, Rifkin said he hoped not only to prevent anyone from ever using this technology, but to spur a national debate over the moral implications of engineering human beings.

People who oppose cloning on religious grounds should be concerned about Rifkin leading such a debate, however, as his motives are not the same as their own.

Jeremy Rifkin is President of the Foundation on Economic Trends based in Washington, D.C. Critics have branded him a “fearmonger,” a “professional hysteric” and at least one industry group has called him a “food terrorist.” Time magazine even labeled him “The Most Hated Man in Science.” The reason? Rifkin has written more than a dozen books warning the public about the dire consequences of continued technological and scientific advancement. The bane of the biotechnology industry, Rifkin has opposed such advancements as Frostban, a synthetic microbe that makes crops less vulnerable to frost damage. He has also opposed production of oil-eating bacteria, used in oil spill clean-ups, arguing that the organism could become renegades, multiplying and causing environmental damage. Both products have been found to be safe.

While Rifkin has little formal training in science, he does have a long history of political activism. During the 1960s and 1970s, he was part of the peace movement, serving as the organizer of the 1968 March on the Pentagon and as the founder of the Citizens Commission, a group established to bring public attention to alleged U.S. war crimes in Vietnam. In 1971, Rifkin established the counter-cultural People’s Bicentennial commission to provide an alternative to official plans to celebrate the nation’s 200th Anniversary.

Rifkin is also an economist of a decidedly socialist bent and this appears to be his motivation for standing against technological advancement. In a recent book, The End of Work, Rifkin laments advances in biotechnology, computers and robotics not because these technologies fail to provide superior consumer products at lower costs, but precisely because they do. For example, Rifkin expressed concern over a gene-splicing technique developed by the biotechnology company Excagenetics that permits the company to produce natural vanilla flavoring ­ without the need for the vanilla bean, the plant, cultivation, or the farmer — at just over 2% of the normal cost of vanilla. The reason for his concern? Job losses.

Rifkin is similarly concerned about job cuts resulting from other technological advancements, citing anecdotal evidence: “[Goodyear] is producing 30 percent more tires than in 1988 with 24,000 fewer employees.”

But as The Washington Post’s James Glassman noted in a review of The End of Work, “what counts are the aggregate numbers, and those show that the U.S. is aggressively adding jobs…” Between 1975 and 1995, non-farm payrolls swelled from 76 million workers to over 115 million.

Rifkin’s thesis ­ that automation will eventually lead to the wholesale replacement of people with machines ­ is essentially a restatement of an argument forwarded by Karl Marx in Das Capital. As Rifkin says, Marx believed that through automation capitalists would ultimately be “digging their own graves” as there would eventually be too few customers with the buying power to continue purchasing products. He was wrong, of course, as automation has led to greater consumerism.

There are other reasons to question whether Rifkin’s moral and ethical objections to technology are consistent with those of religious leaders. According to Ted Peters, a professor of theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Rifkin’s ideas are naturalistic. In Rifkin’s view, nature is somehow sacred and should be left alone and unpolluted by technology. This view is not accepted, says Peters, by either Judaism or Christianity. According to Scriptures, people have the obligation to fill the Earth and subdue it. Technology is one of the principal means people have of doing so.

It would be unfortunate if Jeremy Rifkin were to dominate the debate over human cloning as there are legitimate moral concerns that are bound to be overshadowed by his wholesale anti-technology, anti-capitalism agenda. As Cardinal William Keeler, Archbishop of Baltimore noted in testimony before Congress: “[Cloning] shows disrespect toward human life in the very act of generating it. Cloning completely divorces human reproduction from the context of a loving union between man and woman, producing children with no ‘parents'”

These are the kind of issues that risk being overshadowed, should Jeremy Rifkin lead the national debate over the moral and ethical issues surrounding cloning.

Some sound advice for religious leaders considering a relationship with Jeremy Rifkin: Don’t climb in bed with Rifkin. There’s no marriage here.

David A. Ridenour is Vice President of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank, where he oversees the group’s environmental programs. Comments may be sent to [email protected].

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.