Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 86 (October 1998): 67-69
Human Cloning: Religious Responses. Edited by Ronald Cole-Turner. Westminster/John Knox. 151 pp. $15.
Reviewed by Gilbert Meilaender
The nature of public policy debates in the United States in recent years has tended to exclude—or, at least, to suggest that we ought to exclude—religious considerations. They are suspect in the public square. Cloning has proven to be an exception, though we shall have to see whether that proves true over the longer run. The very possibility of cloning human beings seems to cut so close to the heart of our identity that it almost requires responses at least quasi-religious in character. Moreover, the report on cloning by the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC)—prepared in response to a request from President Clinton—gave considerable attention not only to law and philosophy but also to religion.
Human Cloning, containing a number of relatively short essays on cloning and including also a few statements from religious denominations and the recommendations of the NBAC, is therefore a useful addition to public reflection on the subject. Most of the essayists, but not all, see attempts to clone humans as, at the least, very problematic morally. The essays focus primarily on the issue of human cloning, but some give some attention to animal cloning as well. Thus, for example, Donald Bruce, while granting that not all animal cloning can or need be ruled out on moral grounds, notes that the Church of Scotland (for which he is Director of the Society, Religion, and Technology Project) "has declared as unacceptable its use in routine animal production, where natural methods exist but have been side-stepped on the grounds of economics or convenience."
What of human cloning? We need, first, to distinguish between several different things this might mean. It might mean—and most of the public attention has taken it to mean—an attempt to clone, gestate, and bring to term a human being, to do for human beings what has already been done for mice and for the lamb "Dolly." But it might also mean the attempt to clone human embryos for research purposes—and this, in fact, is where the real focus of scientific interest is at the moment. Such embryo research might teach us more about cell differentiation and early embryo development, it might make possible greater success in bone marrow transplants, and it might help us to treat more successfully degenerative diseases and spinal cord injuries.
Ronald Cole-Turner, editor of this volume, while somewhat reluctant to endorse cloning aimed at gestating and giving birth to a child, is, on the whole, supportive of cloning embryos for research purposes (though he thinks it would be wrong to carry out such research without a more thorough public discussion than we have thus far had). The early embryo, up to fourteen days of development, is sometimes referred to—as by Cole-Turner in his essay—as a "pre-embryo" or a "pre-implantation embryo." Because the possibility of "twinning" exists for that long in the first stages of embryonic development, one could argue that no individual human being can yet be present—and that, hence, experimentation should be permitted. Whether one could argue it persuasively is another matter. Donald Bruce notes that cloning "is a fundamentally instrumental act towards two unique individuals—the one from whom the clone is taken, and the other the clone itself. This is not the same as twinning. There is a world of difference ethically between choosing to clone from a known existing individual and the unpredictable occurrence of twins of unknown nature in the womb."
The "pre-embryo" is more accurately called an "unimplanted embryo." That formulation makes clearer the role that human will and choice play here. Advocates of embryo experimentation will generally say, as Cole-Turner does, that the embryo "should be accorded respect." It is, though, a little hard to give cash value to this phrase when we are contemplating creating an embryo, using it for research purposes, and disposing of it at or before fourteen days. Brought into existence for our own instrumental purposes, with the limits of its existence determined by our will and choice, with—again by our choice—no future life prospects, the embryo is a classic example of the weak at the mercy of the strong. Unless and until someone can pour more meaning into the word "respect" in this context, the argument will remain doubtful.
What of the sort of cloning that has most dominated public attention—that aimed at giving birth to a child who is the genetic twin of its "ancestor"? Most of the essays in the volume focus on this issue. Roger Shinn, who taught ethics for many years at Union Theological Seminary in New York, offers a clearly written essay, "Between Eden and Babel," in which he explores in brief compass many of the moral issues involved as well as some of the first ethical discussions of cloning more than thirty years ago after tadpoles had been cloned. Well worth one’s pondering is the fact that, as he puts it, by contrast with sexual reproduction, cloning "is essentially a conservative process." That is, sexual reproduction is always open to continuous innovation. Sex and death are closely related. We wither and die so that others—who are like us, yet different—can replace us in the cycle of life. By contrast, "plants that reproduce by cloning are more or less immortal." Were cloning applied to animals—or to the human animal—individual specimens might die, but a genetic identity would persist, "unconstrained by a predetermined life cycle." Looked at from this perspective, one might wonder whether cloning would reflect a deep unwillingness to live in faith and hope, a desire to take the future entirely into our hands and be its guarantor.
In occasionally oblique prose, Brent Waters offers useful reflections on the meaning of cloning for the family bond. He argues persuasively that we have to think more generally about the meaning of the relation of parents and children. If we wait to think about this until the issue of cloning arises, our thought will surely come too late. If we think of the family simply as individuals who consent to cohabit because such an arrangement meets their needs, we will never find reason to worry about assisted or collaborative reproduction. But, then, we may also be unable to describe how a family serves to provide a sphere of "unconditional belonging." Children become the outcome of reproductive decisions aimed at satisfying the desires of parents. While such notions of family have become all too common among us, they do not depict a place of unconditional belonging for the child who falls short of parental desires. Cloning as a form of assisted reproduction would only exacerbate these problems by inviting us to suppose that members of a family might be replaceable.
Given such reasons for concern, why might one support, or even advocate, human cloning? We should, Ted Peters suggests, "welcome the new world of expanded choice." Peters notes the dangers—especially for children. We may learn to think of them as commodities. Over these commodities we may feel the need to exercise "quality control." (Indeed, that is hardly a danger just for the future. It happens all the time in the present through prenatal diagnosis.) I admit to a little puzzlement about why one who seems to take such dangers seriously would simultaneously welcome the world of expanded choice. More options does not necessarily mean greater freedom. Indeed, what at first looks like greater freedom can sometimes turn out to be very constraining indeed. "We cannot," Peters writes, "allow our ethics to derive from our fears of scientific advance." Why not is unclear to me. The idea that we must always go forward, or the idea that, having gone forward, we will nonetheless be able to find ways to think of the children whom we have made and whose quality we have controlled as something other than products is, at best, puzzling, and at worst, all too self-confident. As Roger Shinn puts it, referring to the long history of eugenics, "We may claim that we can rise above those past errors, but that is exactly the time when we had better distrust ourselves."
These essays and others that I have not discussed indicate that cloning is an issue on which the Church may find a public voice that others are ready to hear. The essays also suggest, however, that, even on a subject such as human cloning, Christians may bring quite different perspectives to bear on our public discussions. Granting the contributions they can make to our public life, perhaps it is still the case that the first task of believers is to learn again what makes them distinct from the larger public sphere, lest, when the opportunity presents itself, they have nothing to say that others could not think of without their help.
Gilbert Meilaender holds the Board of Directors Chair in Theological Ethics at Valparaiso University.