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Disemboweling an Argument

Instapundit links to Charles Murtaugh's "righteous fisking" of an anti-cloning column by Senator Sam Brownback (R, Kansas). Murtaugh's central complaint has to do with a postulated dishonesty among anti-cloners, specifically Senator Brownback. Mr. Murtaugh seems more amenable to pro-life/anti-cloning arguments than many who take his side, so I'm hesitant to rebut with too thorough a fisking of his argument, but taking a close look at that argument, I think he's directing his particular accusations in the wrong direction.

He engages in one of the pro-cloners' bigger instances of dishonesty right in his first sentence:

The House is poised to pass a total ban on human cloning, both reproductive and therapeutic, or to use the terms I prefer, both baby cloning and embryo cloning.

I suppose I owe Mr. Murtaugh a bit of gratitude for more explicity pointing to the issue in the problematic "therapeutic" terminology. "Baby cloning" must refer to a technology with which I am unaware whereby a scientist places some biological material in an upturned top hat, waves a wand, and pulls out a baby. A magician would be showing contempt for his audience if he suggested public moral policy based on the reality of his "magic" without reference to the underlying stages of the trick. Yet, pro-cloners would simply like to move the point of procedural comparison beyond the stages at which the morality gets sticky. As we learn in the next paragraph, Murtaugh is sympathetic to pro-life arguments if they are restricted to the stages of development after the first trimester. The question, thereafter, moves to "personhood," that magical moment whereby the development of a pancreas (or whatever) bestows a soul (even defining "soul" in humanistic terms). In an older post, Murtaugh admits, "If it ain't human, it ain't much good for therapeutic purposes."

Pro-cloners would also like to obscure the question of public policy in other ways:

If anything, the brouhaha over the Raelian cloning claim (almost certainly fraudulent, like that of Italian fertility doctor Severino Antinori) proves a point I've been making all along, that while embryo cloning could be done in secret, it would be impossible to conceal an ongoing baby cloning effort given the appallingly high failure rate predicted by animal studies.

Why is the potential for concealment of an activity at all related to whether that activity ought to be acceptable or legal? If a large company's accounting firm develops a strategy to pilfer funds without detection, does that mean the method ought not be illegal? We aren't going to be able to stop the experiments of mad scientists who are determined to carry them through, nor can we prevent them from going elsewhere to pursue their ends. With a ban, however, legitimate scientists with substantial resources will not be able to devote those resources to an illegal activity. This may be pro-cloners' objection to the ban, but it is manifestly not a reason for that objection.

From this dubious beginning, Murtaugh expresses his specific problem with Brownback's essay, which, as I've noted, is its dishonesty, an attribute around which it "falls flat on its face."

It's a bit incoherent, for instance invoking the Raelians' effort at baby cloning as a reason to ban embryo cloning, which is objectionable because it results in the destruction of human life: so is cloning bad because it creates life, or because it destroys it?

Murtaugh's question points to the irony of the entire cloning debate. Reproductive cloning is the more difficult procedure to oppose in purely secular terms because it does create, rather than destroy, life. Luckily, those who oppose cloning don't have to argue the point as often or as vehemently as they condemn the other form of cloning, because opposition is so broad. And the breadth of this opposition is a good indication that extra-secular reasons are not irrelevant to the public policy debate. But for the purposes of addressing Murtaugh's point, I need only enlist the assistance of Murtaugh, himself, further down the page: "Repeat after me: animal studies suggest that for every successfully-born human clone there would be twenty abortions, miscarriages or stillbirths." As he explains, a major reason that mainstream scientists won't engage in "baby cloning" is that it is currently too destructive.

But this is not the specific dishonesty of Brownback's column that gets Murtaugh's "panties in a bunch." For that, we have to turn, predictably or ironically (depending on your perspective), to the aspect of Murtaugh's post in which he engages in the most sleight of hand, himself: polling statistics:

First, [Brownback] refers to "the vast majority of Americans" siding with him and Bush in opposing "creat[ing] human life just to destroy it." Well, let's go to the videotape: every poll that draws a distinction between embryo cloning and baby cloning has found that at least a third, and as many as half of all respondents oppose a ban on the former. The most recent poll found that a full 54% of respondents don't want any cloning ban, and when broken down by party this worked out to 40% of Republicans! Some "vast majority."

Perhaps Murtaugh has drawn his hard figures from a source other than the one to which he links. Going to Murtaugh's "videotape," the only instance of 54% of anything is found in CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll data from November 2001 and represents approval of cloning "designed to aid medical research that might find treatments for certain diseases." The most recent poll shown in Murtaugh's link (LA Times, Jan/Feb 2003) does break down opinions by party affiliation, but Republicans opposed to "any" ban made up only 6% of their party's population. To get 40%, Murtaugh must have added in the 34% who would support research cloning.

Certainly, it is questionable whether the 58% of Republicans who support a ban on all cloning represent a vast majority over that 40%, but Murtaugh's complaint here is about honesty — that Brownback is being deceptive with his "vast majority" characterization. In my opinion, to justify his complaint, Murtaugh engages in at least the same degree of distortion. To be fair, Murtaugh only expands upon the distortion inherent in many of the polls, which is relevant to his analysis of "every poll that draws a distinction between embryo cloning and baby cloning." Consider the question that generated the 54% mentioned in the previous paragraph:

"Thinking for a moment about cloning: Do you approve or disapprove of cloning that is not designed to specifically result in the birth of a human being, but is designed to aid medical research that might find treatments for certain diseases?"

Now watch what happens when an ABC News/Beliefnet poll from August 2001 (only three months previous to the CNN poll) elaborates on the "distinction between embryo cloning and baby cloning," essentially pulling back the magician's curtain:

"Some scientists want to use human cloning for medical treatments only. They would produce a fertilized egg, or human embryo, that's an exact genetic copy of a person, and then take cells from this embryo to provide medical treatments for that person. Supporters say this could lead to medical breakthroughs. Opponents say it could lead to the creation of a cloned person, because someone could take an embryo that was cloned for medical treatments and use it to produce a child. Do you think human cloning for medical treatments should be legal or illegal in the United States?"

Legal: 33%. Illegal: 63%. Is this a "vast majority"? I guess it's still a matter of opinion, but it is hardly an instance of dishonesty to make the call in either direction. What's your call?

The next instance of Brownback's "dishonesty" has to do with terminology.

Second, in disparaging the "therapeutic cloning" terminology (with which I'm not entirely happy either), Brownback writes, "it is certainly not therapeutic for the clone who has been created and then disemboweled for the purported benefit of its adult twin." [My emphasis] Almost a year ago, Virginia Postrel criticized Charles Krauthammer for describing the dissection of blastocyst-stage embryos, to make embryonic stem cells, as "dismemberment."

So is this a dishonest bowdlerization of the English language? Well, Merriam-Webster gives "disembowel" a second definition of "to remove the substance of." That seems to apply to the removal of an embryo's genetic components. As for "dismember," even the source to which Murtaugh links for a definition gives the word a second definition of "To divide into pieces." Is it dishonest to use a word in any sense other than that denoted by the first definition in a dictionary? If so, then I was dishonest to use the term "bowdlerize," the first definition of which is "to expurgate (as a book) by omitting or modifying parts considered vulgar." In fact, my usage of the word "denote" is the fourth listing for that word in Merriam-Webster.

I'll cede Murtaugh's third point, that Brownback ought to have offered examples of "credible scientists" who are currently working toward producing cloned babies, or he should have posed the statement as a possibility, either current or future. Still, there are scientists working toward the same end, although I can't make any claims about how "credible" they are. But even giving this one to Murtaugh, in the context of the rest of his complaint, this point hardly justifies the accusation of "mendacity."

Posted by Justin Katz @ 12:25 PM EST


Heh...nice try, but I think I'll rule this a swing and a miss. I've gotten some other responses, and I'll try to post a follow-up this weekend. Don't you worry: I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too!

Charlie Murtaugh @ 02/28/2003 12:50 PM EST

A miss? Not a foul, or even a tip or a chip? Be sure to let me know when you've responded because, frankly, I can't see a way for you significantly to do so without adding to or changing the subject.

And by the way, my dog can in no way be defined as "little." Thanks for the compliment, though (blink, blink, smile).

Justin Katz @ 02/28/2003 01:33 PM EST

I think the focus on Webster vis a vis "disembowel" misses the point. One can be dishonest while using words correctly in their strictly correct dictionary senses. Clearly the point of using "disembowel" as opposed to any number of other more fitting words is to conjure up the image of a late term embryo, something with a fairly developed nervous system and other familiar organs. Something people might worry is conscious or feels pain. It's as though I requested, say, emergency government aid on the grounds that pests had "decimated" my crop yields, which in the strict sense could mean only that they were reduced by 10%. That is not how an ordinary listener would interpret the word.

Julian @ 02/28/2003 02:28 PM EST

I think that's a bit of a stretch, Julian. First of all, you're adding the concept of a nervous system, when "disembowel" only gets you as far as entrails. More importantly, creating a subtext is part of effective language usage, particularly rhetorical language. That's not dishonest, and if it is, then the whole lot of us are a bunch of liars.

Your "decimated" example reads as if it works in my favor. The "ordinary listener" would hear "decimated" as synonymous with "destroyed" (in fact, it usually carries a connotation of really, really destroyed, not just one-tenth destroyed). Similarly, the ordinary listener (not looking to dismiss an anti-cloning argument) would see "disembowel" or "dismember" in more-general senses (the first implying pulling something out, the second implying lopping something off).

But if I were to accept your line of thinking, would I be free to complain of pro-cloning folks' using a term like "dismantle" on the basis that it is meant to imply something that is not alive?

Justin Katz @ 02/28/2003 02:46 PM EST