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Summer 2004 | Volume 26, Number 7 | Features

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.


Click here to read "What Are Stem Cells?”  


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.

Where 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.

The most 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.”

In 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 significant concerns.


Is Our DNA Sacred?
  Clarifying Christian Concerns

Science and Beneficence



Join the discussion on therapeutic cloning and stem cell research on Response 's Online Bulletin Board by clicking here.


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