| Is Our DNA Sacred?
One Theologian's Perspective on Cloning
and Stem Cell Research
When geneticists Francis Collins and Craig Venter announced the
culmination of the Human Genome Project in 2001, a reporter from
the San Francisco Chronicle asked a memorable question: “So how
did we come to believe that our very soul is encoded in our DNA?”
The question is not only provocative, but it is also significant when
it comes to the heated questions surrounding cloning and stem cell research
today. Somehow we as a society have begun to treat DNA as if it were
sacred and that makes cloning and stem cell research lightning rods
for religious people and subjects of intense interest to theologians like me.
In 1953, when James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the “double-helix”
structure of DNA, scientists were talking about DNA as if it were the
secret of life. When the Human Genome Project began in the late 1980s, James
Watson referred to DNA as the “blueprint” of what makes a human being a
human being. There were some scientists who even described the search for
the human genome as the search for the Holy Grail. Religious meanings became
entangled with the scientific research in the cultural consciousness from the
How does a view of DNA as sacred play out when it comes to cloning? The
cloning controversy began publicly in 1997 when Dr. Ian Wilmut announced
that he had used DNA science to clone Dolly the sheep. The media exploded,
immediately jumping to the question of whether human beings should be cloned.
Within 12 hours, the Church of Scotland had released a statement saying
that it is against God’s will to clone human beings. Other churches, both
liberal and conservative, followed suit. President Bill Clinton held a
press conference on the White House lawn, announcing his plan to cut off
all federal funding for cloning research even though none was in progress.
Why such strong reactions? I call it “yuck.” Cloning Dolly made the
whole world say, “Yuck! I don’t know how to think about this, so therefore
I’m against it.”
The religious associations with DNA further intensified the debate.
Time magazine posed the question, “Is it against God’s will to
clone human beings?” Seventy-four percent of the respondents said yes. The
culture interpreted the scientific discovery as a religious issue
and accused scientists of causing society to fall into sin.
I think this condemnation actually had little to do with the Bible;
instead, I believe it was the ancient Greek myth of Prometheus coming
back. You know the story: Prometheus sees that the gods enjoy the use
of fire, so he lights his torch from the sun and brings the fire back
down to earth. Zeus punishes Prometheus for stealing from the gods by
chaining him to a rock, where he endures perpetual pain and suffering.
Our culture is riddled with the Promethean myth from Frankenstein
to “Jurassic Park.” But people in the modern world don’t believe in the
gods of Mount Olympus anymore. Many don’t believe in the God of the Bible
anymore, either. What’s come to replace the gods is nature, and the high
priests of nature are scientists. The perceived danger is that scientists
may unlock the secrets of nature and modify them, only for nature to come
back like Zeus and chain us to a rock. It’s a myth that breeds unreasoned
To participate as reasoned, informed Christians in the debate about
cloning, we must first differentiate between cloning for reproductive
purposes and cloning for therapeutic purposes. “Reproductive cloning”
the use of cloning techniques to create new human beings is almost
universally disapproved of in the scientific community, for many reasons.
In the years since Dolly was cloned, scientists have tried to perfect
nuclear transfer, the cloning process. The success rate is now 1 percent.
Wilmut and other scientists agree that unless we can be 100 percent sure
that we’ll have success, we should never try this on humans. They also
generally agree that until and unless society’s ethical questions about
human reproductive cloning are resolved, it’s not something we should pursue.
It is still possible, even likely, that human reproductive cloning will
take place. If anyone does it, however, it’s likely to be a rogue scientist,
not the scientific mainstream.
Whatever one may say about reproductive cloning, I think the far more
significant issue for us today is actually “therapeutic cloning,” a process
closely tied to stem cell research. This is all part of an emerging area of
medical research called “regenerative medicine” that seems to hold enormous
promise for healing damaged tissue and alleviating any number of serious diseases.
Right now, when there is serious deterioration of an organ, such as your heart,
the best we can do is to prevent its continued deterioration. But what if we
could place cells within your heart that would regenerate the tissue, making
it even stronger than it was before? There is some scientific evidence that
“pluripotent” stem cells special undifferentiated cells with the capability
of producing any of the cells in our bodies can have such positive effects.
Much research remains to be done, however, before this kind of treatment would
be safe and readily available. And despite its potential benefits, stem cell
research is the focus of controversy because pluripotent stem cells, believed
to be the most stable and useful stem cells for research, are found in early
embryos and can be removed only by destroying the embryo. While the embryos
currently being used for research are “extras” left over from in vitro fertilization
procedures and would be destroyed anyway, many view this as the destruction of
potential human beings.
How, then, does therapeutic cloning fit into the debate? Since our body tissues
tend to reject foreign invaders, ideal regenerative treatments would use stem cells
that had your own DNA. These could not be derived from surplus embryos. The hope is
that we could refine techniques like those employed to clone Dolly the sheep to
provide a source for matching stem cells. This would involve taking an ovum,
removing the nucleus, placing a nucleus from one of your body cells in it, and
activating the egg. After about five days, the in vitro embryo would be terminated
and the stem cells removed, ready to be used for treating your diseased or damaged
organs and tissues. It is important to note that in therapeutic cloning there
would never be any intention of implanting the cloned embryo and allowing it to
become a fetus.
The current U.S. administration, however, takes the view that a cloned embryo
is also a potential human being. It has banned the harvesting of new embryonic
stem cells for research, and instead advocates the use of adult stem cells, though
most scientists believe these are far less promising for use in regenerative
What does the church make of all of this? Positions vary widely. For instance,
the Vatican opposes all embryonic stem cell research on the basis that an early
embryo has an immortal soul and should be protected, while some Catholics argue
that it’s OK to conduct research on ectopic embryos embryos that develop
in a woman’s fallopian tube but will never actually come to term. The Orthodox
Church and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod basically agree with the Vatican.
The Southern Baptist Convention, although recognizing the potential of embryonic
stem cells to help people, states that scientists should not be allowed to create
and destroy human embryos to obtain stem cells. The Evangelical Lutheran Church
of America, for the most part, has kept out of the debate; the Presbyterian
Church USA supports the use of embryonic stem cell research “that may result in
restoring of health”; and Jewish ethicists, as a whole, see embryonic stem cell
research as a way of making the world a better place. Muslims are adamant with
regard to protecting nature as it is.
President George W. Bush and the President’s Advisory Council on Bioethics asked
social theorist Leon Kass to study the cloning and stem cell research controversies
in 2001. When he concluded his investigation, Kass announced that such science
was “playing God.” Now, the phrase “playing God” is not a theological term.It’s
a secular term, and I think it belongs to the myth of Prometheus.
What I call “yuck” Kass calls “repugnance.” Repugnance, he says, is the
expression of deep wisdom beyond our ability to articulate it, and he believes
we should construct our ethics on the basis of this repugnance. I admire Dr.
Kass very much, but I strongly disagree. Yuck is a form of hysteria, and the
last thing we want to do is found our ethics on hysteria. I think we should found
our ethics on reason and understanding.
Furthermore, I think that based on reason and understanding we must agree
with Craig Venter when he stated at the conclusion of the Human Genome Project,
“Genes can’t possibly explain all of what makes us what we are.” In other
words, DNA is not sacred.
An article about cloning in Time asked, “Can souls be Xeroxed?”
My answer is no; souls can’t be Xeroxed. I believe the soul is that dimension
of your being that overlaps with God. So the soul is not merely some product
of our DNA or genetic code. Our souls have everything to do with our relationship
with God. I’m not worried that if I were a cloned human being that somehow
my brother would have gotten the soul and not me, or that our souls would be
I’d like to be able to solve the controversy over therapeutic cloning
and stem cell research, but I don’t have it within my power. I do know that
after much prayerful theological and scientific study, I have come to the
conclusion that research on human embryonic stem cells and the potential for
therapeutic cloning should go forward. I want to mention three things that
I think are worth considering for Christians struggling with this issue.
Relationship. First, a human being is not defined strictly as an individual.
Who we are always includes a relationship. I am fascinated by the fact that it
is only when an embryo attaches to the uterine wall of the mother that its genes
begin to be expressed. And it’s a fundamental principle in Christian theology
that who we are is defined in a relationship with God, with our environment, and
with those to whom we are biologically and culturally attached.
Almost everybody in our society believes in human dignity,the concept that each
person is valued as an end and not merely as a means to some further end. I
think the reason we have dignity is because God decided to bestow it upon us
by sending his son, Jesus Christ, to live among us and to die for us. So our
value is rooted in relationship with him, not in a chain of nucleotides that
makes up our DNA.
Origins. Second, there’s a tendency for humans to look for the value
of something in terms of its origin. Some argue that if we can go back to the
earliest stage of human development, that’s where nature will tell us what’s
right and wrong, and what is and is not a human being.
Based on my reading of the Bible, I don’t think that’s how we should be
thinking. I believe the most important thing is the future the future
that includes our promised resurrection. St. Paul writes in Chapter 5 of Romans
that our essential and original nature is to be found not in Adam our
past but in Christ our future. You and I, as human beings before
God, are anticipating a redeemed life, a new creation. So our nature is not
something we should just leave alone.
Beneficence. Third, for me a problem in this debate is that many of
those who want to be ethical rely on the principle of non-maleficence a
$5 word that stems from the Hippocratic oath and means “do no harm.” It’s what
medical doctors think about: “No matter what we do, don’t do harm.”
But it’s not the only bioethical principle we have. There is also the principle
of beneficence, which stems from the word “benefit.” Beneficence says, “If you
have an opportunity to do good, do good and go out of your way to do it.”
Our responsibility before God is to use our creativity to make the world a
better place, and I think that applies to scientific research which leads to
the improvement of human life. As I see it, that is as important ethically as
protecting people from harm.
I know these observations will not solve the problem, but I hope they
will be taken into consideration. I believe identity, uniqueness and dignity
should be grounded not in a concept of the “sacred” nature of our DNA, but in
our relationship and in our future with God. And I believe Christian bioethics
should begin with a beneficent vision, not a do-no-harm recalcitrance that
shows itself in easy answers to difficult bioethical questions.
We are at a place now where scientific researchers, ethicists and public-policy
makers are coming together to engage in this important conversation and
Christians need a seat at that table. Let’s come prepared.
is professor of theology and interim president at Pacific Lutheran
Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California. An ordained minister in the
Evangelical Lutheran Church, Peters co-edits the journal Theology and
Science and has authored several books on the intersection of science,
faith and ethics. His work spans government and industry; he is the recipient
of a grant from the National Institutes of Health and a consultant to the
Geron Corporation’s Ethics Advisory Board.
— BY TED PETERS,INTERIM
PRESIDENT, PACIFIC LUTHERAN THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY
— PHOTO BY SETH AFFOUMADO
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