Taboos Without a Clue

Ronald A. Lindsay

The furor following the announcement of recent experiments in cloning, including the cloning of the sheep Dolly, has prompted representatives of various religious groups to inform us of God’s views on cloning. Thus, the Reverend Albert Moraczewski of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has announced that cloning is “intrinsically morally wrong” as it is an attempt to “play God” and “exceed the limits of the delegated dominion given to the human race.” Moreover, according to Reverend Moraczewski, cloning improperly robs people of their uniqueness. Dr. Abdulaziz Sachedina, an Islamic scholar at the University of Virginia, has declared that cloning would violate Islam’s teachings about family heritage and eliminate the traditional role of fathers in creating children. Gilbert Meilander, a Protestant scholar at Valparaiso University in Indiana, has stated that cloning is wrong because the point of the clone’s existence “would be grounded in our will and desires” and cloning severs “the tie that united procreation with the sexual relations of a man and woman.” On the other hand, Moshe Tendler, a professor of medical ethics at Yeshiva University, has concluded that there is religious authority for cloning, pointing out that respect for “sanctity of life would encourage us to use cloning if only for one individual . .. to prevent the loss of genetic line.”

This is what we have come to expect from religious authorities: dogmatic pronouncements without any support external to a particular religious tradition, self-justifying appeals to a sect’s teachings, and metaphor masquerading as reasoned argument. And, of course, the interpreters of God’s will invariably fail to agree among themselves as to precisely what actions God would approve.

Given that these authorities have so little to offer by way of impartial, rational counsel, it would seem remarkable if anyone paid any attention to them. [See Richard Dawkins’s “Thinking Clearly About Clones.”] However, not only do these authorities have an audience, but their advice is sought out by the media and government representatives. Indeed, President Clinton’s National Bioethics Advisory Commission devoted an entire day to hearing testimony from various theologians.

QUESTIONABLE ETHICS

The theologians’ honored position reflects our culture’s continuing conviction that there is a necessary connection between religion and morality. Most Americans receive instruction in morality, if at all, in the context of religious belief. As a result, they cannot imagine morality apart from religion, and when confronted by doubts about the morality of new developments in the sciences—such as cloning—they invariably turn to their sacred writings or to their religious leaders for guidance. Dr. Ebbie Smith, a professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, spoke for many Americans when he insisted that the Bible was relevant to the cloning debate because “the Bible contains God’s revelation about what we ought to be and do, if we can understand it.” But the attempt to extrapolate a coherent, rationally justifiable morality from religious dogma is a deeply misguided project. [See Theodore Schick’s “Morality Requires God .. . or Does It?”) To begin, as a matter of logic, we must first determine what is moral before we decided what “God” is telling us. As Plato pointed out, we cannot deduce ethics from “divine” revelation until we first determine which of the many competing revelations are authentic. To do that, we must establish which revelations make moral sense. Morality is logically prior to religion.

Moreover, most religious traditions were developed millennia ago, in far different social and cultural circumstances. While some religious precepts retain their validity because they reflect perennial problems of the human condition (for example, no human community can maintain itself unless basic rules against murder and stealing are followed), others lack contemporary relevance. The world of the biblical patriarchs is not our world. Rules prohibiting the consumption of certain foods or prescribing limited, subordinate roles for women might have some justification in societies lacking proper hygiene or requiring physical strength for survival. But they no longer have any utility and persist only as irrational taboos. In addition, given the limits of the world of the Bible and the Koran, their authors simply had no occasion to address some of the problems that confront us, such as the ethics of in vitro fertilization, genetic engineering, or cloning. To pretend otherwise, and to try to apply religious precepts by extension and analogy to these novel problems is an act of pernicious self-delusion.

To underscore these points, let us consider some of the more common objections to cloning that have been voiced by various religious leaders:

Cloning is playing god. This is the most common religious objection, and its appearance in the cloning debate was preceded by its appearance in the debate over birth control, the debate over organ transplants, the debate over assisted dying, etc. Any attempt by human beings to control and shape their lives in ways not countenanced by some religious tradition will encounter the objection that we are “playing God.” To say that the objection is uninformative is to be charitable. The objection tells us nothing and obscures much. It cannot distinguish between interferences with biological process that are commonly regarded as permissible (for example, use of analgesics or antibiotics) and those that remain controversial. Why is cloning an impermissible usurpation of God’s authority, but not the use of tetracycline?

Cloning is unnatural because it separates reproduction from human sexual activity. This is the flip side of the familiar religious objection to birth control. Birth control is immoral because it severs sex from reproduction. Cloning is immoral because it severs reproduction from sex. One would think that allowing reproduction to occur without all that nasty, sweaty carnal activity might appeal to some religious authorities, but apparently not. In any event, the “natural” argument is no less question-begging in the context of repro-duction without sex than it is in the context of sex without reproduction. “Natural” most often functions as an approbation and indefinable adjective; it is a superficially impressive way of saying, “This is good, I approve.” Without some argument as to why something is “natural” and “good” or “unnatural” or “bad,” all we have is noise.

Cloning robs persons of their God-given uniqueness and dignity. Why? Persons are more than the product of their genes. Persons also reflect their experiences and relationships. Furthermore, this argument actually demeans human beings. It implies that we are like paintings or prints: the more copies that are produced, the less each is worth. To the contrary, each clone will presumably be valued as much by their friends, lovers, and spouses as individuals who are produced and born in the traditional manner and not genetically duplicated.

BEYOND THEOLOGY

All the foregoing objections assume that cloning could successfully be applied to human beings. It is worth noting that this issue is not entirely free from doubt since Dolly was produced only after hundreds of attempts. And although in principle the same techniques should work in humans, biological experiments cannot always be repeated across different species.

Of course, if some of the religious have their way, the general public may never know whether cloning would work in humans, as research into applications of cloning to human beings could be out-lawed or driven underground. This would be an unfortunate development. Quite apart from the obvious, arguably beneficial, uses of cloning, such as asexual reproduction for those incapable of having children through sex, there are potential spinoffs from cloning research that could prove extremely valuable. Doctors, for example, could develop techniques to take skin cells from someone with liver disease, reconfigure them to function as liver cells, clone them, and then transplant them back into the patient. Such a procedure would avoid the sometimes-fatal complications that accompany genetically non-identical transplants as well as problems caused by the chronic shortage of available organs for transplant.

This is not to discount the potential for harm and abuse that would result from the development of cloning technology, especially if we also master techniques for manipulating DNA. If we are able to modify a human being’s genetic composition to achieve a predetermined end and can then create clones from the modified genetic structure, we could, theoretically, create a humanlike order of animals that would be more intelligent than other animals but less intelligent and more docile than (other?) human beings. Sort of ready-made slaves.

But religious precepts are neither necessary nor sufficient for avoiding such dangers. What we require is a secular morality based on our needs and interests and the needs and interests of other sentient beings. In considering the example just given, it is apparent that harmful consequences to normal human beings could result from the creation of these humanoid slaves, as many could be deprived of a means of earning their livelihood. It would also lead to an enormous and dangerous concentration of power in the hands of those who controlled these humanoids. And, although in the abstract we cannot decide what rights these humanoids would have, it is probable that, as sentient beings with at least rudimentary intelligence, they would have a right to be protected from ruthless exploitation and, therefore, we could not morally permit them to be treated as slaves. Even domesticated animals have a right to be protected from cruel and capricious treatment.

Obviously, I have not listed all the factors that would have to be considered in evaluating the moral implications of my thought experiment. I have not even tried to list all the factors that would have to be considered in assessing the many other ways—some of them now unimaginable—in which cloning technology might be applied. My point here is that we have a capacity to address these moral problems as they arise in a rational and deliberate manner if we rely on secular ethical principles. The call by many of the religious for an absolute ban on cloning experiments is a tacit admission that their theological principles are not sufficiently powerful and adaptable to guide us through this challenging future.

I want to make clear that I am not saying we should turn a deaf ear to those who offer us moral advice on cloning merely because they are religious. Many bioethicists who happen to have deep religious convictions have made significant, valuable contributions to this field of moral inquiry. They have done so, however, by offering secular and objective grounds for their arguments. Just as an ethicist’s religious background does not entitle her to a special deference, so too her religious background does not warrant her exclusion from the debate, provided she appeals to reason and not supernatural revelation.

Ronald A. Lindsay

Ronald A. Lindsay is the former president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. Currently, he is senior research fellow for CFI and adjunct professor of philosophy at Prince George’s Community College.


The furor following the announcement of recent experiments in cloning, including the cloning of the sheep Dolly, has prompted representatives of various religious groups to inform us of God’s views on cloning. Thus, the Reverend Albert Moraczewski of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has announced that cloning is “intrinsically morally wrong” as it is …

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