The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


A wolf in sheep's cloning

What people fear isn't the science but the attack on human distinctiveness

Scottish biologist Ian Wilmut and his sheep, Dolly, became instantly familiar figures earlier this year. The first responses to the news that Dolly had been cloned from an adult sheep revealed a very human instinct--to protect against another assault on human distinctiveness. People speculated about human cloning. Most questions ask not whether the technique will be applied to humans, but when and what then? (See Viewpoint, page 57.)

Human cloning responses fall somewhere between outright dismissal of malignity and expressions of great fear about ambiguity. Harold E. Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health, pleaded before a congressional committee that lawmakers not slam the door on all cloning research. But he added,"Cloning of an existing human being is repugnant to the American people."

Just as typical was the comment of Alexander Capron of the University of Southern California and the National Bioethics Advisory Commission. He looked at the pros and cons of human cloning and pronounced: "I don't see the pros, frankly."

Philosophers and theologians weighed in with virtually unanimous cons. And the interviewed public, on camera, turned up their noses and turned down their thumbs when asked about making genetic twins of children. Most people have fewer reservations about animal cloning than they do about human experiments. Why? They're afraid. They're trying to guard what is left of human distinctiveness.

Crossing this new scientific horizon produces intuitions that science now possesses the key to a door most would rather have locked forever. The folk language draws on clichés: "Don't fool with Mother Nature" and "You shouldn't play God."

Limits already pushed

Human distinctiveness, of course, has never been absolute. The connection between the cloning of the Scottish sheep and the prospect of similarly reproducing humans is one more illustration of the kinship people have with animals and the whole natural world. Also, much of what goes on in the laboratory, especially in infertility clinics, already appears at the edges of what many believe are limits set down by nature and God alike. Best guesses are that the first word about pros in human cloning will come from aspiring parents and the enterprising clinics that would serve them.

Scientists join philosophers and theologians in controversy about how to connect the physical brain with the mind and thus with consciousness and--gasp!--soul.

When most people speak of human distinctiveness, they affirm that people are subjects of divine creation, a concept they freely interpret in more ways than there are sects and schools. Political scientist Glenn Tinder, who has tried to focus religious concern in politics on a few specific concepts, promotes "the prophetic community" in which believers speak out and act together for human good against all dehumanizing odds.

Care for 'exalted individual'

Proclaiming that we are made "in the image of God," he says, means concern for the "exalted individual." Tinder reminds Christians that their dignity is reinforced by Jesus as the human in whom God distinctively "dwells." That, he claims, ought to make a difference in their own humaneness.You don't have to be a believer in any part of the Bible to care for the exalted individual, that person who can be forgotten if reduced to employable genes in the cloning lab. Here those who care about nature and about God sharpen ethical concerns.

When twins share a womb and then a life, they are expressions of freedom, contingency, luck or providence. We take our chances. If in the future a twin can be artificially produced as a member of the next generation--cloned, this would be an expression of aspiring mastery and control. It would represent a taking command that might undercut the dignity and integrity of the human, at least as we have known humans.

But have those who now respond to the deepest themes of philosophy or the strongest call of God always done all they could to protect the distinctively human? Too many have engaged in slavery and repression. They have promoted inquisition and caused indignity. They have exploited and manipulated others. They stand accused of having neglected the natural and social environments in which noncloned offspring had to make their way.

If the debates over human cloning force the often neglectful to re-examine and reform themselves, the years before human cloning will be better spent.

Human cloning is about generations being genetically like each other. Debate about it also has to do with generations being truly different from each other and their members being exalted individuals--free and distinctive.


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February issue


Embracing diversity