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Summer 2004 | Volume 26, Number 7 | Features
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 very beginning.


Click here to read "What Are Stem Cells?”  


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 fear.

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 medicine.

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 identical.

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 Our DNA Sacred?
  Clarifying Christian Concerns

Science and Beneficence


Ted Peters 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.



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