BOSTON — Each of us shares one experience with everyone on this earth - that of being a child.
Most have also grown up in families, and as adults, become parents themselves. Our most powerful memories, our deepest feelings, are bound up in these relationships, and in our innermost thoughts of who we are, where we came from, and the ends and purposes of our lives.
Rarely does a single event reach in and pluck all those chords at once. But the cloning of the sheep, Dolly, last year, with its implications for human cloning, reverberated around the world.
There was instant recognition that more than scientific advances were involved. The potential of cloning a child poses deep religious and moral questions - for the child and society - as well as the prospect that technology may outstrip our ability to deal with those questions.
Theologians and ethicists have been galvanized to enter the public debate on whether that step should be taken. This is "one of the greatest decisions in world history," says Nigel Cameron, professor of theology and culture at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill. "Its significance is enormous. As a Nobel laureate has said, it is on a par with the atomic bomb."
"The cloning of a human being represents a radical break with the human past and with the established patterns of human life," says R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
The cloning of 50 mice announced last month confirmed that developments are moving more quickly than anticipated. "Absolutely, we're going to have cloning of humans," enthused a prominent biologist.
Religious thinkers don't share that enthusiasm, but their perspectives do vary considerably, from calling for an international treaty banning cloning as a crime against humanity, to accepting cloning as a future human reproductive method, once it is procedurally safe and children could be adequately protected.
An ethical imperative?
For many, such a step is simply unacceptable. "Science is very exciting, and it's very easy to get carried away with what you might call the technological imperative and say, 'Come on, if we can do it, let's do it and see what happens,' says Sir John Polkinghorne, a physicist turned Anglican priest. "But the technological imperative has to be tempered by the ethical imperative, saying, 'Is that something that should be done?' My view is that it is not."
Dr. Cameron, known for his work on medical ethics, says one reason this is so significant is that it will decide "whether we can control technology or whether technology will drive its own agenda. If on an issue like this, where the polls have been running 9 to 1 against, we cannot say, 'We do not want to do this and we won't,' then it's hard to see any scenario in which the biosciences come up with options, and we'll be able to decline."
Some see a troubling overreaching that fails to consider the limitations of human beings. "Engaging in cloning involves a kind of hubris that says that humans are capable of determining their own destiny in a way that is a fundamental violation of our being as creatures, that is, beings whose existence is determined by an agency beyond our own," says Joel Shuman, visiting lecturer in theology and ethics at Duke University Divinity School in Durham, N.C.
For those who see human life as a cosmic accident or the result of a blind evolutionary process, says Dr. Mohler, it may seem right to try to be masters of our destiny. But from the Christian viewpoint, "We are not the Creator, and the responsibility to assume control of the universe is not ours."
It's not 'all in the genes'
The most fundamental issue is human dignity. Most theologians agree on three points. First, the scientific fact is that cloning does not entail creating an identical person - it is not "all in the genes" (see box above). Identical twins are unique individuals, although they have the same genome. Second, such clones would still be made in the image of God and be loved equally by God. Third, no human being should ever be treated as an instrument to an end; individuals are ends in themselves.
For many, that maxim precludes cloning, which they say entails using a child for one's own purposes. For instance, medical ethics say experiments should only be performed on someone who has given "informed consent." A cloned child would not be able to give consent.
"Cloning is unacceptable because clones would be human beings created, at least in part, to fulfill the will of another human being," says David Byers, director of the Committee on Science and Human Values of the United States Catholic Conference. To clone a child to achieve "immortality" or to "replace" a dying child is unethical. And early clones would be treated as freaks, Dr. Byers says in "Human Cloning: Religious Responses" (Westminster John Knox Press).
Ted Peters, professor of theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and a researcher at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, sees it differently. He sees "nothing sacred in DNA" and doesn't accept that "it is better to have a child born the old-fashioned way, by accident so to speak, with the genetic code out of control of the parents.
"It is almost inevitable that we will be gaining more control over the genetic makeup of our future children," he says, "and we need an ethic that will keep pace." His concern lies not with the procedure but with ensuring that children will be treated with love and their "human dignity be lifted up," whatever their birth method.
Changing ties that bind
Other theologians say that cloning would "represent a radical shift in the ties that bind us," in Byers's words, changing familial and societal relationships in unhealthy and unethical ways.
They point to the psychological implications for a cloned child - the burden of being so different, of facing unusual parental expectations, of likely social discrimination.
Others emphasize the dangers of children being "commodified," of parents seeking "designer children," of the prospect of a loving procreation experience turning into a factory model of human reproduction.
Mohler worries about the reemergence of eugenics and its potential, already demonstrated historically, for serious missteps in attempting to improve humankind.
Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., sees broad implications. "I believe this attempt at cloning is going to multiply the tremendous problems we already face. It's amazing that we are on the verge of destroying the environment through modern technology, and do not want to talk about it, and now" we are ready to simply enter a new realm that could bring further unforeseen consequences.
This step in "artificializing" life is also part of a pattern affecting society in deep ways, he suggests. "Modern technology keeps creating artificial ambiences in which God appears to be unreal. People who live in the world of nature are never atheists. It's when man lives in an artificial ambience created by himself that he even can become an atheist. Western technology has been expanding this artificiality of ambience, first in expansion of cities, then artificializing nature, then with the computer creating a virtual reality. Now cloning takes the ultimate step in artificializing life. It will have a tremendous impact. The more people are enmeshed in an artificial ambience, the easier it is to forget God."
Reasons for cloning
Given the possible misuses and abuses, and the human responsibility for decisions that could bring unintended consequences, many religious thinkers say that before cloning is undertaken there must be some compelling reason to do so.
Some scientists - including Ian Wilmut who cloned Dolly - don't support human cloning. Those in favor see it as another method in the growing pantheon of human reproductive technologies. For theologians who take a positive view, its greatest benefit may be a solution for infertility.
Jewish ethicists have said that, in principle, there is no theological reason not to clone. "The Jewish perspective (Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed agree) is that cloning is a technology, and as such is morally neutral," says Rabbi Elliot Dorff, vice-chair of the Conservative movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and rector at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. "The question is to what use do you put it. In regard to human cloning, some uses would be very bad and some would be very good."
For the Jewish community, "cloning could become an important way to overcome infertility," he says, since about 30 percent of the Jewish population is infertile.
He sees the downsides as people engaging in cloning for ego purposes; the psychological issues facing cloned children; and most of all, "What do you do with the ones that 'don't work?' " "You don't have a right to destroy any human being," he adds, "and it may be that the benefits are not greater than the risks."
"While the theological issue of hubris is not an issue for us," he says, there is a legitimate risk-benefit analysis society needs to undertake before saying yes or no to cloning.
Another reason often suggested is to allow parents with an ill child who may, for example, need a bone marrow transplant, to clone a child to serve as a donor. Some ethicists are sympathetic, while others say this is another example of using a child as an instrument to an end. "It would be legitimate to use the nuclear transplanting technique to produce bone marrow tissue, but not to produce a human being from which to extract tissue," says Polkinghorne, author of "Belief in God in an Age of Science" (Yale University Press) and member of the United Kingdom's Human Genetics Advisory Commission.
Is it inevitable?
Nancey Murphy of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., has suggested ethicists should concentrate on what to do with cloning instead of saying it shouldn't be done, because "it can't be prevented."
Dr. Peters feels it "probably" will happen because "the profit is going to be there, if the economy stays in good shape (such procedures are very expensive)." He therefore supports a "public policy that would prohibit cloning for a specified period, say five years, to give our society a period of time to work through the values issues related to bringing children into the world in this exotic fashion."
Those with a less sanguine view see other reasons for caution. Western civilization keeps creating applications of new technologies that force religions from other cultures to respond quickly, says Dr. Nasr. Only in the past two to three years, he says, have thinkers in the Islamic world begun studying implications of genetic engineering and cloning. Nasr himself opposes cloning, while some Islamic scholars remain open to the idea.
Cameron says this ultimately has to be an international decision. The reaction to Dolly was worldwide, and Europeans have been working on these issues for years, he says.
Several European countries, including Britain and Germany, have already made human cloning illegal. The Council of Europe has amended its Bioethics Convention to outlaw it and states are signing on. China has even called it an affront to human dignity, he adds.
Roger Shinn, professor emeritus of social ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York, draws the distinction between personal beliefs and public policy. In the pluralistic US society, before we can enact legislation such as a ban we need to reach some level of consensus. Those who feel there are strong moral arguments, he says, must make their case persuasive to the broad community.
"I'm a lot less optimistic than I was last year," Cameron says, "when there was a prospect of a relatively rapid international consensus in which the US would be taking the lead." The several cloning bills introduced in Congress appear stalled. "The bills have gotten locked into the pro-life/reproductive rights debate, and the biotech companies have also been lobbying hard."
"I don't think we're going to ban cloning in the States. It may take some clonings and some scare stories coming out of the experience to make us look at this again - like what happened in the thalidomide situation in Europe 30 years ago."