The Brave New World of Cloning, Part Two–The Cloning of Humans and the Reproductive Revolution

Though the cloning of a sheep was the proof that cloning could be achieved, few thoughtful persons could keep their minds on the lamb. The cloning of human beings–long limited to the domain of science fiction–now appeared to be an impending reality. Ian Wilmut accepted the fact that cloning humans would be possible. “There is no reason in principle why you couldn’t do it,” he acknowledged. Yet he added, “All of us would find that offensive.”

Though his first statement remains to be demonstrated, his second statement is blatantly false. It is simply not true that all of us would find the cloning of human beings to be offensive. Indeed, an editorial published in Nature advised that human cloning “is likely to be achievable any time from one to ten years from now. Ethical constraints aside, there are even some rare genetic and medical disorders for which it would be a desirable way for a couple to produce offspring.” Bioethicist John Robertson agrees, adding that the cloning of a dying child or infertile adults might be morally justified. Others, such as John Fletcher, a former ethicist for the National Institutes of Health, assert that the cloning of a baby designed to provide a tissue-matched organ or bone marrow could also be justified. “The reasons for opposing this are not easy to argue,” Fletcher commented.

The claim that the cloning of a human being could take place in the next few years came as a surprise to the general public. The idea of cloning a human being was quickly championed by some of the more eager proponents of genetic technologies. Others were more skeptical, doubting that the difficulty of cloning a human would be comparable to cloning a sheep. Nevertheless, the technology is basically the same, and the achievement of a cloned human being is not likely to be far in our future.

This is an issue of immediate, urgent, and universal importance. The cloning of a human being represents a radical break with the human past, and with the established patterns of human life. The very possibility of human cloning is repulsive to many persons. Harold Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health, suggested that the notion of cloning a human being would be “repugnant to the American public.” Harvard neurobiologist Lisa Geller, who admitted that she could make no ethical distinction between in vitro fertilization and cloning, nevertheless confessed: “I admit is makes my stomach feel nervous.”

The cloning of a human brings to mind the sterile, dehumanizing images of Huxley’s Brave New World, with its fertilizing rooms, decanting chambers, and embryo stores representing the technological perfection of artificial human reproduction. The reproductive revolution has already thrown a host of difficult ethical issues on the national agenda, but the genetic revolution is perhaps the greatest ethical challenge of the new millennium.

That nervous stomach to which Geller admitted is about all the secular worldview can offer in response to this issue. Having denied the existence and authority of God the Creator, all that remains for modern secularists is the artificial morality of an ad hoc ethic. Any opposition to cloning–human or otherwise–is merely arbitrary. Business Week was positively ecstatic about the possibilities of cloning, and stated editorially: “The world should embrace the biological revolution, not cringe from it.” Yet, incongruous though it may seem, the same editorial warned: “There is no question that the notion of individuals cloning themselves is not only repugnant but also raises important questions.” Clearly, Business Week‘s embrace of the biological revolution is not unconditional–at least not yet–but their editorial opposition to human cloning appears merely arbitrary and superficial.

The possible development of human cloning raises a host of ethical quandaries. Who would be the “parents” of a cloned child? In an age of patented forms of life, could a cloned being be “owned,” at least in genetic pattern? Will parents seek to clone children in order to provide tissues, organs, or bone marrow for transplant into another child? These are but a few of the many pressing questions which will demand address. The secular worldview provides only tentative and provisional answers.

Does the Christian worldview offer a more substantial basis for the ethical evaluation of human cloning? I will argue that the Christian worldview alone can provide us with an ethical context and authority adequate to this task

The biblical creation account presents the creation of human beings as the pinnacle of God’s creative purpose. After creating the world and filling it with living creatures, God purposed to create human beings. The human creature–set apart from all other creatures–would bear the Imago Dei, the image of God. While the exact nature of the image of God in the human creature is not identified in detail, it clearly represents the spiritual character and capacity God established in us, and it sets the human creature apart from all other living beings.

Though the image of God in human beings has been corrupted by sin, it has not been removed, and this image is an essential mark of true humanity. Each human being is a special creation of God, made in His own image. Human beings share certain common characteristics and features, as well as a common form with specializations, but each is unique by the design of the Creator. The status of human beings as created beings, each unique but all bearing the image of God, establishes a foundation for theological understanding.

The fact that the precise character of the image of God in humanity is unknown to us does not mean that we have no general knowledge of its meaning. The Reformed tradition has identified knowledge, righteousness, and holiness as a triad of qualities representing the image of God. Each of these qualities establishes the human as qualitatively distinct from other creatures. Thomas Aquinas, the great synthesizer of the medieval tradition, defined the image of God as a function and capacity of human consciousness or intellect. This capacity exists in three stages, argued Thomas, rising from the potential knowledge of God, to the actual acknowledge of God, to the perfect knowledge of God. John Calvin tied the concept of the image of God to the human capacity to glorify God, but accepted that every part of the human being is marked in some sense by the image, even though it is corrupted by sin.

Herman Bavinck stated the issue clearly: “Man does not simply bear or have the image of God; he is the image of God.” He continues:

“From the doctrine that man has been created in the image of God flows the clear implication that that image extends to man in his entirety. Nothing in man is excluded from the image of God. All creatures reveal traces of God, but only man is the image of God. And he is that image totally, in soul and body, in all faculties and powers, in all conditions and relationships. Man is the image of God because and insofar as he is true man, and he is man, true and real man, because and insofar as he is the image of God.”

Thus, the biblical view of human value is rooted in the revealed knowledge that we are made in God’s image, and thus are image-bearers by our very nature. Bavinck’s reminder that this is essential to true humanity is echoed by Anthony Hoekema’s insistence that the concept of the image of God is the “most distinctive feature of the biblical understanding of man.” Without the knowledge of the divine image, man does not know himself for who he is.

This makes clear the decisive distinction between the biblical and secular conceptions of human nature and value. The naturalistic understanding of humanity central to modernity accepts no theistic referent of value. Human beings are cosmic accidents–the fortuitous by-products of blind evolutionary process. As James Watson reflected, he came early to accept Linus Pauling’s simple statement, “We came from chemistry.” Any value thus ascribed to human life is arbitrary and tentative, and necessarily self-referential. This explains why contemporary secular debates concerning the value or sanctity of human life are so inherently confused. We will ascribe value to ourselves by an act of the will. But, as the murderous twentieth century has shown, those who ascribe value to human life by an act of the will can deny that same value by a similar act of the will.

According to the biblical revelation, human beings, like all of creation, were created in order to glorify God. But humans were created with a distinct and unique capacity to know, reverence, worship, and glorify the Creator. He made human beings, male and female, of his own good pleasure, in his own image, and to his own sovereign purpose. Thus, human beings are not mere biological artifacts, nor accidental forms of life. The special, purposeful, and direct creation of every human being in the image of God is central to the Christian worldview. Modernity’s rejection and refutation of that revealed knowledge has set the stage for the rise of abortion, euthanasia, genetic manipulation, infanticide, and even genocide–all in the name of social responsibility and personal autonomy.

Tomorrow: Genetic Manipulation and the Eugenic Temptation