The most public debate in bioethics today centers on the technology of cloning. Scientists can now reproductively clone some mammals with a modicum of reliability. Scientists also believe that cloning can expand and enhance medical interventions beyond those already based upon cell-line interventions.

The New York Times reported March 16 that lawmakers in at least six states were considering bills similar to the 2002 legislation in California authorizing research for therapeutic cloning of embryonic stem cells. On March 25 The Washington Times reported that Arkansas had enacted a new law that banned cloning of humans for any purpose, whether reproductive, therapeutic, or research. Both the U.S. House and Senate have legislation in process limiting or banning cloning of human embryonic stem cells.

The key public-policy conflict has centered on the use of human embryonic stem cells for cloning research. When the human embryo reaches the eight- to 32-cell stage it contains a package of stem cells. These are the cells that will differentiate into all the cells of the human body. Thus, they are “pluripotent”–they can become any other cell. By removing these stem cells from the embryo the scientists can attempt either reproductive or therapeutic experiments. While some research has suggested the possibility of “tricking” already differentiated cells to become another kind of cell, many scientists doubt the promise of this research.

The human body occasionally clones a fertilized egg resulting in the birth of “identical twins.” Dolly the sheep caught the public’s attention as a clone of another sheep. What has become clear from both natural and laboratory results is that despite identical genetic content, there are substantial variations in the resulting offspring. It is also clear from laboratory results that scientists have a very low success rate in producing a live cloned offspring, and that those offspring suffer from a high number of abnormalities and diseases. Thus, very few scientists, ethicists, or theologians support research directed toward reproductive cloning of humans.

Therapeutic cloning utilizes the extracted stem cells to create new cells that have the potential to cure disease or relieve suffering. Some believe that it is possible to grow human organs outside a body, or perhaps in the body of another animal, that could then be harvested for transplanting into humans. Others believe that these cells could be manipulated so that rejection of organs could be reduced. Vaccines and medications might be developed that would be genetically matched to respond to the unique chemistry of each person. Stem cells offer the hope of replacing defective cells that lead to a variety of genetically based diseases and disabilities.

What does the Christian faith contribute to these political and scientific controversies? Where is the line between playing God and playing for God? What separates an act of a steward’s hubris from an act of a co-creator’s healing? What is the moral foundation for objecting to or supporting this technology?

Some express a “sanctity of all life” argument. They object to the fact that taking stem cells from the embryo destroys the embryo. They argue that utilizing embryos now stored in assisted reproduction clinics or newly created for this purpose violates the same prohibitions as abortion. Usually these arguments are rooted in a kind of “natural law” perspective.

Some argue that such utilitarian use of vulnerable persons opens the door for even worse abuses of personhood. If embryos can be killed for the greater good, who else can be killed for the greater good?

Both of these arguments perceive that cloning violates the core principle of stewardship. Stewards do not destroy what is present with an unfounded hope that something better may come.

What is the foundation for supporting development of this technology?  The huge potential for the cure of disease and the relief of suffering promised by proponents is substantive at both ethical and spiritual levels. Successes in assisted reproduction spur the belief that this new form of science will offer even greater miracles.

A co-creation stance argues that our knowledge, curiosity, and drive to eliminate disease, pain, and suffering are rooted in our own creation “imago dei” and our divine mandate “to be transformed.” A spiritually sensitive co-creative stance also includes humility. The unintended consequences of human knowledge and curiosity are easily recognized in technologies of atom splitting (bombs and waste), agriculture (land devastation), and unethical medical experiments.

Another ethical concern related to cloning is “who gets to decide?” Thus, the intersection of political and ethical is crucial. Every individual has the right to decide whether they wish to accept or reject medical treatments. Thus, those who object to interventions based upon stem cell research will remain free to reject those interventions in the future.

But the community has the responsibility to decide whether the human cost of developing an intervention is too high to justify developing that treatment, even though substantial numbers of persons might benefit in the future.

  • Do all embryos have intrinsic worth such that their destruction cannot be justified, whatever the good received by others?
  • Does the destruction of embryos for research purposes lower the threshold of our respect for persons in such a way that other vulnerable beings are placed at greater risk?
  • Has medical technology so out-paced our culture’s capacity for reflection and dialogue about the actual and promised benefits of our huge investments in technology? Should we declare a moratorium on all new medical technologies until we sort through our community’s ethical, emotional, intellectual, and social commitments and possibilities?

Steward and co-creator. We are both. How is your congregation engaged in the conversation? How is reflection and debate a part of your community?

Steve Ivy is vice president for values, ethics, social responsibility, and pastoral services of Clarian Health Partners in Indianapolis, Ind.

Also read the following articles by Steve Ivy:
21st-Century Medicine: ‘Playing God’ or ‘Playing for God’? 
Playing God at the End of Life

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