Clarifying Christian Concerns
Randy Maddox, Ph.D.: In Response to Ted Peters
While Ted Peters is a Lutheran theologian, the attention he focused
on the debate over stem cell research and cloning during his recent visit
to Seattle Pacific University was in keeping with our Wesleyan tradition.
John Wesley himself set a precedent for us of staying informed on scientific
and medical advances, and addressing their implications.
As a contemporary
Wesleyan theologian, I would note first that I resonated with Peters’ dismissal
of the frequent objection to potential research and new technologies
on the grounds that humans should not “play God.” This objection often
seems to imply that we should not interfere with what would happen naturally.
But we do this every day — when we put on clothes to protect against
the cold, when we divert rivers to prevent flooding, and so on. In its
more sophisticated form, this objection usually reflects a model of divine/human
interaction that emphasizes humans remaining passive so that all glory
can go to God. Wesleyans stand with the broader Christian tradition in
affirming that God created us to take an active role in protecting and
nurturing the creation. The real issue is not whether we will “play God,” but
whether we will use our God-given creativity in responsible ways that
are in keeping with God’s purpose of promoting the flourishing of life,
or in ways contrary to this goal.
On the possibility of human reproductive
cloning, I would point out that significant ethical concerns about
the motivation for such cloning have led all major Christian denominations
to oppose this practice in principle. I see very little at present
that would change this official consensus. At the same time, I agree
with Peters that the question of whether or not clones would have souls
is not really valid. The God who graciously provides rain for the unjust
as well as the just (Matthew 5:45) would never withhold the benefits
of full humanness from any human fetus — however it was produced.
I think Peters’ discussion is less helpful in clarifying the concerns
of Christians in this debate is when his focus shifts to therapeutic
cloning and stem cell research. In part, this is because of his implicit
desire to avoid equating the issues involved here with those in the polarized
debate over abortion. Most formal Christian statements on abortion assign
the developing fetus the moral status of a potential human being. Should
the in vitro embryo be assigned this status as well? This question is
at the heart of the current debate over embryonic stem cells, and a stable
consensus has not yet emerged — even in Christian settings.
common argument against considering in vitro embryos as potential
persons is that, unlike a fetus in the womb, they do not currently have
the full potential to become persons. They may have a complete set of
human DNA, but they cannot develop much further without being implanted.
Peters speaks for many Christians when he echoes this argument in his
comments on DNA and on the importance of biological and social relationship.
But many other Christians insist that all human embryos should be treated
with full moral status, whatever the potential of their current
situation. For them, assigning this worth to in vitro embryos is a case
of caring for “the least of these.”
This divergence is significant when it comes
to Peters’ desire to put more emphasis on beneficence in the embryonic
stem cell debate. As a Wesleyan, I resonate with this general emphasis.
Wesley always insisted that Christians should go beyond “doing no harm” to “doing
as much good as you can.” But these two calls interrelate. The good that
we do should not come at the cost of unnecessary or inappropriate harm
to some for the sake of others. So we confront again the question of
whether in vitro embryos should be considered among the relevant “others.”
current public calls for expanding embryonic stem cell research,
this question is muted by the reality that the embryos being suggested
for use are scheduled for destruction anyway. The question must be faced
directly, however, if therapeutic cloning is to be made routine,
because embryos would then be specifically created for the sake of their
stem cells. Peters seems to dodge this point. Likewise, he does not address
what I would suggest is the other major moral concern for therapeutic
cloning: the source of the many required human eggs! In some cases,
the recipient might be the donor, but there would clearly be significant
pressure to commercialize this — and create thereby another form of exploiting
economically disadvantaged women.
Where I most strongly agree with Peters
is that Christians should be at the table discussing these issues.
In preparing for this role, we also need to be at the table with one
another, honestly and graciously seeking greater clarity about our truly
— BY RANDY MADDOX, PAUL
T. WALLS PROFESSOR OF WESLEYAN THEOLOGY, SEATTLE PACIFIC UNIVERSITY
Back to the top
Back to Home