Illustration of hand dropping religious symbols with cloned cells in the background
By Bob Sullivan Technology correspondent
msnbc.com

The debate over whether scientists are “playing God” has probably never been more real than now, as humans consider calling forth the spark of life, seemingly without divine intervention. However, a confused population looking for clear ethical wisdom on cloning might be disappointed: Beyond issuing a general call for caution, the world’s spiritual leaders hardly speak with one voice on the cloning debate.

What would Jesus do? Or Buddha? Or the Dalai Lama? The announcement of sheep-clone Dolly in 1997 sent many religious leaders to the pulpit. Others scrambled through religious texts looking for guidance. There were plenty of swift condemnations.

But as the realities and limitations of science have removed some of the haze surrounding cloning, the philosophical and religious debates have also come into focus.

Today, conservative Christians are still unmoved from their blanket opposition to all cloning. Other faiths have found room in their traditions for therapeutic cloning — the use of cloned cells for research and health reasons, but not for breeding humans. Some even find ethical room for the cloning of humans.

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But in almost every case, the religious debate is still open-ended. Other than opposition to the more sinister possibilities, such as the creation of “spare-parts” humans, there is hardly consensus about the ethics of cloning. In the absence of a central teaching authority, akin to the Roman Catholic Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, many religious scholars are still openly debating the pros and cons of a powerful new science that could bring as much potential for hope as for horror.

Three basic questions
The discussion eventually wraps itself around three central questions: Would cloning somehow corrupt traditional family relationships and lineage? Is destruction of a fertilized embryo during research murder? And perhaps more fundamentally, does cloning meddle with God’s universe in a way that humans shouldn’t?

Picking a position on cloning is actually an exercise in revisiting basic religious beliefs, says Coutney Campbell, director of the Program for Ethics, Science and the Environment at Oregon State University.

For example, most Jews and Muslims don’t consider a fertilized embryo to have full human status, which essentially gives a green light to therapeutic cloning research. In that sense, the discussion about therapeutic cloning tends to follow lines similar to the debate over stem cell research and, ultimately, abortion.

“Thinking about cloning ought to require traditions to go back and think through basic tenets, such as does life really begin at conception,” Campbell said. “You can’t avoid that question.”

To most faithful, answering such deep questions requires study of religious texts. Some people might think thousand-year-old writings would offer little guidance on 21st-century scientific morality, but that’s not true, says Rabbi Edward Reichman, assistant professor of philosophy and history at Yeshiva University Einstein College of Medicine.

“The (Jewish) law is relevant to any imaginable technology,” he said. “When you apply the law to a new technology, you can seek direct precedent, or you can ... seek to distill a principle of the law that applies.

“With evolution, Darwin, Copernicus, it was fundamentally the same. It was an unknown thing one couldn’t have dreamed of when the law was written, but where the principles applied.”

Jewish law is squarely on the side of medical research that has potential to save and preserve life, Reichman said. As a result, Jewish scholars are generally among the most vocal religious leaders in support of therapeutic cloning.

“The Jewish faith generally welcomes new technologies and sciences in as much as they can benefit the world, especially medicine. We do not necessary perceive all advances as stepping on God’s toes,” he said.

Red light, green light
But that’s exactly the interpretation arrived at by Roman Catholic scholars after examining the Bible and Canon Law. Back in 1987, the church became the leading voice against human cloning of any kind. In a document called “Donum Vitae,” Roman Catholics were told that cloning was “considered contrary to the moral law, since (it is in) opposition to the dignity both of human procreation and of the conjugal union.”

The church still holds that position, which is also supported by conservative Christians such as Southern Baptists. However, there is great diversity of opinion among other Christian denominations, and even within those denominations.

Oregon State’s Campbell compiled the most comprehensive look at religious perspectives in 1997, for the National Bioethics Advisory Commission appointed by then-President Bill Clinton.

Campbell used a simple traffic-light system to classify the religious points of view: Catholics and Southern Baptists issue clear red lights on both therapeutic and human cloning. But among “mainline” Protestants such as the Lutheran and Episcopal faiths, Campbell found some green and yellow lights.

“Some traditions and leading figures in conservative Protestantism who were opposed to human cloning for reproductive reasons have come to see that given the ambiguity about their own views about the status of embryonic life, and given the potential for health benefits, they could be opposed to reproductive cloning, but affirm therapeutic cloning,” Campbell said. The main reason, Campbell says, is the tradition of emphasizing individual choice over central dogma.

Buddhism: Yes and no
Some other faiths are even harder to pin down. For example, there is no stated position among Buddhists on cloning, so scholars like Campbell are left only to interpret the tradition’s precepts on their own.

Buddhism might be willing to accept cloning, Campbell said, because it represents a leap in modern science and self-understanding that could be considered a path to enlightenment. On the other hand, the Eightfold Path prohibits harm to any sentient beings, which could be seen in the destruction of cells necessary to perform cloning research. Campbell’s judgment: a yellow light on the issues raised by human cloning, and a flashing red light on other implications of cloning research.

Damien Keown, professor at Goldsmiths College in London and perhaps the best-known expert on possible Buddhist responses to cloning, generally agreed. He said the tradition doesn’t have the same kind of fundamental moral opposition that can be found in Christian faiths. Buddhists already believe in non-sexual reproduction, for example, since Buddhism teaches that life can come into being through supernatural phenomenon like spontaneous generation. “Life can thus legitimately begin in more ways than one,” he said.

“For Christians, to bring into being a new human or animal life by cloning as opposed to normal sexual reproduction is to ‘play God’ and usurp the power of the creator. This is not a problem for Buddhism, because in Buddhism the creation of new life is not seen as a ‘gift from God,’” Keown said in a recent paper. “For this reason the technique in itself would not be seen as problematic.”

Buddhism sees human individuality as a mirage, so adherents wouldn’t share some of the other philosophical complaints that Western thinkers have about cloning, as it pertains to devaluing an individual’s personality or character by creating copies.

But that hardly means Buddhists will welcome clones. On more practical grounds, Buddhism promotes ultimate respect to every sentient being, and that generally includes cells born out of research. Destroying such cells, even in research on animal cloning, runs contrary to Buddhist teaching.

“It is hard to see what purposes — scientific or otherwise — can justify the dehumanization that results when life is created and manipulated for other ends,” Keown said. “We should not forget that Ian Wilmut, the creator of Dolly, failed 276 times before Dolly was conceived.”

Hindus, Muslims
Hindu religious scholars have issued flashing red lights, according to Campbell — which means they are calling for a temporary pause to provide time to think, but have not issued an outright objection of human cloning.

A Hindu’s sense of the world and the relationship between people and Creator is very different from Western traditions, so Hindus also wouldn’t have the same fundamental objection to “playing God” that Christians might. But there are plenty of concerns about the desire for greed and power that might be served by aggressive scientists who call for cloning.

Diversity among Muslims makes an authoritative description of Islamic thought on cloning nearly impossible. Dr. Abdulaziz Sachedina, University of Virginia professor and a leading U.S. scholar on Muslim thought regarding cloning, believes that most Muslims will eventually agree that scientists wouldn’t have discovered cloning if Allah hadn’t willed it. So cloning for the purpose of enhancing the chances of procreating within a solid family structure will be “regarded as an act of faith in the ultimate will of God as the Giver of all life.”

But he’s hardly without opponents. Nasser Farid Wasel, Egypt’s Mufti, said in 1999 that cloning clearly contradicts Islam. Other muftis have gone further, saying scientists who clone are doing Satan’s work.

Dr. Ibrahim B. Syed, director of the Islamic Research Foundation International and an outspoken cloning supporter, says such absolute statements from religious leaders only serve to complicate the conversation.

“Anything new, just as a reaction, they oppose it,” Syed said. “Our religious leaders have little knowledge of evolving technologies.” But the problem works both ways, he conceded. “The scientists don’t know anything about religious beliefs, often.”

Science vs. Religion
Scientific advances have shaken religious beliefs to their roots repeatedly through the ages. Charles Darwin did it. Copernicus did it. And now, companies like Advanced Cell Technologies are doing it.

But as much as religious leaders want to push scientists to think more about the morality of their work, scientists are pushing religious leaders back to the basic tenets of their faiths, where they scramble to make sense of a world teetering on the razor’s edge of irreversible change.

While it might be a frightening moment, it’s also a grand opportunity, Campbell said.

“Science can be a spur to creative and innovative theological thought,” he said. “And I think what is a crying need is for the church to be a forum for discussion with engaged dialogue between science and religion, and be a venue for civic conversation.”

In the debate over cloning, will religious views ultimately matter? Already, some scientists are working faster than ethicists on cloning. And at least in the United States, there is an open question about the weight given to religious leaders’ opinions on cloning.

Four out of five people said they opposed cloning in a survey conducted last year for the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. But only one in four Catholics and one in three Protestants cited religious beliefs as the main reasons for their opposition. Pollsters say many Americans pride themselves on developing their own opinions rather than consulting religious dogma — which means that the key decisions on cloning are much more likely to be made in the House of Representatives than in a house of God.

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