In March, Avi Ben-Abraham, an Israeli doctor, announced that he planned to clone a human being. I would have thought that Jews, of all people, would understand the dangers of playing with genetics. But no, it's not Jews who learned that lesson -- it's Germans. Wherever scientists start cloning people, trying to improve our genes, it won't happen in Germany.
I'm a Jew who became interested in the genetic revolution not as a Jew, but as a mother. It was the idea of prenatal testing that first drew me in. Back in the 1980's, I wrote a book about how hard amniocentesis and other prenatal tests were on women. The book, The Tentative Pregnancy: Prenatal Diagnosis and the Future of Motherhood, was translated into German and is better known in Germany than in the United States.
The first time I went to Germany to lecture about genetic testing, in 1990, my mother was troubled. She didn't want me there. She didn't want me to bring back any gifts, spend a penny more than I had to. If I could have packed bag lunches for the week, she'd have liked that. I too had mixed feelings about being there. I think most Jews would have at least a passing moment of discomfort on a first trip to Germany. After all.
But I soon found that people in Germany knew and understood exactly what I was saying about genetic testing. It made sense to them to be troubled by prenatal testing and selective abortion, to be worried about what the tests meant for mothers -- and for a whole society's ideas about life and which lives are not worth living.
Americans, by contrast, couldn't understand how I could be comfortable with an abortion to end an unwanted pregnancy but still be bothered by an abortion to prevent the birth of a child known to be disabled. In the United States, I had gotten used to feeling defensive about my views. But in Germany, everybody -- university students, audiences at public talks, cab drivers who asked me why I'd come to Germany -- seemed to get it. "Ah, yes," they'd say, "that's eugenical, isn't it?"
Germans don't want to go down that path now. Not anywhere near it. Like children who have been burned by a hot stove, they pull back quickly from anything that smacks of eugenics. Make better people? Control who is permitted to be born? Not them, danke.
Cloning is not just a matter of eugenics, of course. But it grows, as it were, from the same seeds. It grows from genetic determinism, the idea that the essence, the very soul and nature, of a person is in his or her genes.
Cloning today is a solution in search of a problem. Some people want to try to clone humans just because they think it can be done. So they look for a good reason to persuade others to let them try. The two reasons most often suggested are both awful to contemplate: to make a copy of a dead child, and to enable someone who for physical reasons can't procreate -- a man without sperm, say -- to have a child.
The first reason is the saddest, perhaps the most compelling -- and the most evil. That's probably the case an American scientist would make for cloning; I can picture the grieving parents now. What makes it evil is that it is a lie. It implies that if you have the same genes, you have the same person; that people can be replaced; that all we really are is our chromosomes grown up.
Yet most of us know that identical twins, sharing not only their genes but even a uterus and a time and place in the world, turn out different from each other. Even co-joined twins, which we used to call Siamese twins, have their differences. I recall the parents of one such set of twins talking about how lovely it was when the more active, more talkative child fell asleep first, so they could have some private time with the quieter child.
A child who dies cannot be replaced by cloning. And what a burden it would place on a child, born to be someone else -- someone who is desperately missed, but someone you can never be.
The second reason for cloning is, I'll bet, the reason that an Israeli would cite. The hunt is probably on now for a child of Holocaust survivors, someone now in middle age, who has no children and cannot have any by ordinary means.
Why would it be an awful thing to do, to clone that person? Because it would buy right into the idea that what makes a child "yours" is the genes -- without them, it's always somebody else's child. That hurts those of us who are adopted, or who have adopted children.
That idea also cheapens parenthood for everyone. It dismisses the acts of love and nurturing that make parenting. Infertile people can have children who are very much their own, through adoption or procedures using donated sperm or eggs. The more we push dangerous and complicated -- and so far unsuccessful -- reproductive technologies on infertile people, the more we say that genes are more valuable than love and care.
Hitler said that what made a Jew a Jew wasn't a matter of religious commitment, social values, or a sense of community. It was blood. That's why he had the newborns killed, too. He wanted to wipe out the Jewish race, the blood and genes of Jewishness.
What makes a person? Is it just the instructions in the DNA, or is it the playing out of those instructions in the world? What makes a family? Is it genes, or the loving commitment people share? What makes a people, a community, a society? Germans know better than to look in the nucleus of the cell for answers to those questions. Shouldn't we all have learned that lesson by now?
Barbara Katz Rothman is a professor of sociology at the City University of New York's Graduate School and University Center. Her most recent book is Genetic Maps and Human Imaginations: The Limits of Science in Understanding Who We Are (W. W. Norton, 1998), released in April by Beacon Press as The Book of Life: A Personal and Ethical Guide to Race, Normality, and the Implications of the Human Genome Project.