The commonly heard "playing God" defense against cloning technology has its value as a general reminder of human finitude relative to the divine powers. It also plays well in the media. But as a means of defining limits within cloning technology, warnings against "playing God" are not all that helpful and are not very compelling to research scientists especially.
'Reproductive cloning of humans is not safe,' writes Rosell.
Raelians, for whom Boisselier is a bishop, believe that the human race began as the cloning project of extraterrestrials some 25,000 years ago, and that the technology holds the key to eternal life.
Clonaid's alleged creation of baby "Eve," born Dec. 26 in the Netherlands to an otherwise infertile American couple, is only the first of five cloned children expected to be delivered to waiting parents before the end of January 2003, according to Boisselier. As of this writing, those making cloning claims have not produced the DNA evidence to support them, and the whole episode is being dismissed by most people as a hugely successful publicity stunt.
Even if Clonaid claims were merely an elaborate hoax—even if Raelians are just "cloning around"—few of us doubt that someone, someday in the not-too-distant future, will achieve what some allege already to have done.
The successful cloning of some other mammalian species, beginning with the infamous Dolly in 1996, is old news now, if not quite yet routine. Dolly was old news when we first heard of her via newswire in 1997. And she was not the first of her kind. Dolly's creators, Scottsmen embryologists Ian Wilmut and Keith Campbell, earlier and quietly in 1995 had birthed five other cloned sheep. It is only a matter of time and money, then, before a clone baby indeed will be born upon the earth, if such has not occurred already.
Would that be so bad?
Part of what gets lost in the current clamor against cloning technology is the ethically relevant distinctions between the sorts of scientific activities going on. Staunch conservatives on the matter of cloning might oppose virtually any somatic cell nuclear transfer, regardless of species or purposes. And this "conservative" cohort includes people of conscience across the theological spectrum, from Albert Mohler Jr. to Jeremy Rifkin.
Most people of faith mark a moral distinction, however, between cloning of nonhuman and human embryos, and between human cloning for reproduction and that done for purportedly therapeutic ends or the study of disease.
In regard to cloning of human cells, regardless of ends, the means are a matter of huge controversy. Whether the sources of cellular material are exclusively human or are "transgenic"—combining cellular and/or genetic material from human and nonhuman species—is a morally relevant distinction. Whether a human source is embryonic or that of a stem cell makes a major difference in varying judgments of moral legitimacy.
The commonly heard "playing God" defense against cloning technology has its value as a general reminder of human finitude relative to the divine powers. It also plays well in the media. But as a means of defining limits within cloning technology, warnings against "playing God" are not all that helpful and are not very compelling to research scientists especially. Raelian researchers may actually gain inspiration from such a slogan.
Christians are in general agreement nowadays that human limits do exist, relative to God and creation, both by mandate and in some ontological sense. But where the boundaries lie in that regard is the harder and disputed question, of course.
Even for "conservatives" on the question of human limits, those boundaries keep shifting along with the scientific innovations that seem to contribute to human flourishing. So does cloning technology truly constitute the brink that finally ought not to be traversed? Is it fundamentally different than every other human endeavor up to this point, or just in regard to reproductive cloning of humans? Does the human/divine divide really lie at just this focal point? Is this finally the modern-day version of the Edenic "Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil" at which the first Eve found both knowledge and its fruits?
Indeed, our communal knowledge of good and evil falls short at this point in the cloning controversies. We just don't know. Those who claim to know fall short on the evidence to back up their claims—as much as the Clonaid claimants do in regard to theirs.
What all but Raelians do know, and currently the most convincing argument against Clonaid's research, is that reproductive cloning of humans is not safe. Unless this one corporation, against all odds, has perfected some technique to avoid the mishaps of all other would-be cloners, the risks to potential human subjects are altogether too high for any sort of ethical justification.
The published research of somatic cell nuclear transfer has demonstrated that this remains a faulty science with far too much risk involved for expansion into human studies aimed at reproduction. Hundreds of failures—spontaneous abortions or sick and deformed fetuses—precede each successful birth of a cloned mammal. Dolly and her cloned contemporaries in various species are not proving to be very healthy specimens in adulthood, when they live to reach a mature age. Much remains unknown about even the apparent success stories of reproductive cloning.
There are other serious, perhaps ethically decisive, arguments to counter reproductive cloning of humans. But on grounds alone of widely accepted standards in research ethics pertaining to risks and benefits, justification of human studies has not been forthcoming.
Clearly many more years of animal studies would need to be done, involving several generations at least of cloned research subjects and significantly better outcomes. Beyond the Babel of moral voices making dissident and divergent theological arguments for or against the legitimacy of reproductive cloning, on the matter of avoiding risks to human subjects we are all pretty much agreed.
This is a polemic that conceivably will lose its potency in the long run, and may have done so already if Clonaid is not bluffing. Assuming they are, the major ethical and theological question to be asked of cloners or cloner-wannabes probably is not that of potentially "playing God."
For now, the most convincing rebuttal is that pertaining to risks. Hence, now is not the time for anyone to be "cloning around" with a human reproductive technology that has not yet proven to be anything close to safe, much less salutary.
Tarris Rosell is associate professor of pastoral care and practice of ministry at Central Baptist Theological Seminary.