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Cloning: The Ultimate Human-Potential Movement | FAITH

What About the Exalted Individual?

March 02, 1997|Martin E. Marty | Martin E. Marty, a professor of the history of American religion at the University of Chicago and senior editor of the Christian Century magazine, directs the Public Religion Project, a nonprofit group analyzing the role of religion in American life

CHICAGO — An instinct by humans to protect their distinctiveness is evident in the first responses to the announcement that a scientist in Scotland has cloned an adult sheep. The biologist Ian Wilmut and the sheep Dolly have become instantly familiar figures. At once, respondents to the news speculated about human cloning. Not "whether" the technique will be applied to humans but "when" and "what then" have framed most questions.

Guarding what is left of human distinctiveness has to be at issue. Otherwise, why not greet this discovery the way citizens greet so many scientific breakthroughs? The public cheered when astronauts walked on the moon. It honors those who move us closer to cancer cures. True, some scientific production has only baleful effects. No one cheers chemical and bacterial warfare. Other scientific ventures evoke ambiguity. The Human Genome Project will advance health. But, after it, will people refuse to hire people if a reading of their genetic catalogs suggests bad times ahead?

Human-cloning notions awaken responses somewhere between outright dismissal of malignity and expressions of great fear about ambiguity. Dr. Harold E. Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health, appeared before a congressional committee last week to plead that lawmakers not slam the door on all cloning research. But he hurried to add that "cloning of an existing human being is repugnant to the American people." Just as typical was the comment of Alexander Capron of the University of Southern California and the National Bioethics Advisory Commission. He looked at the con's and pro's of human cloning and pronounced: "I don't see the pros, frankly."

Philosophers and theologians weighed in with virtually unanimous "con" pronouncements. They joined the interviewed public who, on camera, turned up their noses and turned down their thumbs when asked whether they would favor making genetic twins of children. Listen carefully to them, and you will hear that the reason most have fewer reservations about sheep and other animal cloning than they do about experiments with people is their fear that what is distinctively human will be assaulted again.

The folk language draws on cliches such as "you shouldn't fool with Mother Nature" or "you shouldn't play God." But even the verbs "fool" and "play" are a bit too light this time around. The crossing of this new scientific horizon produced intuitions that science now possesses the key to a door of discovery that most would rather have seen forever locked.

Human distinctiveness, of course, has never been absolute. First, the connection between the cloning of the mammal Dolly and the prospect of similarly reproducing humans is one more illustration of the kinship people have with animals and the natural world as a whole.

Second, much of what goes on in the laboratory, especially in clinics that serve the infertile, already appears at the edges of what many conceive to be limits set down by Nature and God alike. When doctors and members of the public use in-vitro fertilization procedures, they do so to serve one of the strongest and admirable human drives: for adults to become parents. We cheer the resultant births of distinctive babies, but have still not faced all that the techniques themselves may come to mean. Best guesses are that the first word about "pro's" in human cloning will come from aspiring parents and the enterprising clinics that would serve them. On that front, the window of ambiguity is likely to open a bit.

Third, as in the laboratory, so in the study, there are uncertainties about what we mean when we speak of distinctive humanness. Scientists join philosophers and theologians in controversy over how to connect the physical brain with the mind and thus with consciousness and--gasp!--soul. Debates over this nexus are among the liveliest--and they are as promising and threatening as they are likely to remain irresolvable.

The implied language of reducing, of reductionism, is clear here. In that language, we are "nothing but . . . " this or that. Nothing but the selfish gene seeking social evolutionary expression; nothing but awesomely complex living computers with legs; nothing but material beings who live to eat and propagate. Most of these contentions include elements of plausibility. Nonexperts are no more capable of simply refuting them than are experts prone to agree with each other in their "nothing-but" conflicts.

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