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Religion and cloning

Updated Friday 3rd August 2001

Arthur Peacocke explains his views on the religious implications of advancements in cloning science.

Reverend Canon Dr Arthur Peacocke Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Reverend Canon Dr Arthur Peacocke

Do you think human cloning is wrong?

"I think before I answer that question one ought to start by clarifying what we think we mean by "human person". If you think they're just a sort of bag of genes who happens to have a body and then everything is determined by their genes that's one view, but I think we have concepts, usually wrapped up in the word 'person', which means we are agents, we are creative individual agents, and we have mental capacities and as a Christian believer I also think we have spiritual capacities as well as intellectual ones. So a person is a very many levelled kind of being and the rock bottom level, if you like, is the genetic inheritance we get from our parents - or whatever way we've come into existence since we're talking about cloning.

So, I think the first thing to ask about cloning is, what does the cloner think they're doing - are they some kind of control freak? Do they think that by determining a future person’s genetic inheritance they're going to determine what that person is like?

Now as a matter of fact this is probably faulted right from the start because as we know even identical twins with the same genetic inheritance grow up often with different personalities. They often have surprising similarities - or not so surprising if they're identical twins - but they become individual persons in their own right and gradually integrate a different experience into what they inherit. Their developing brains, which are initially determined by their genes, eventually become the product as much of their education, their interaction with people and their environment.

So one has to ask in the first instance why does anybody want to clone a human being? Is it they want to try and make some automaton exactly a copy of themselves? Or of some ideal? What would this ideal be that they want to copy?

I think there's a lot of woolly thinking going on about what cloning is for and I think one of the moral arguments against it is this deep suspicion that people want to clone something, a human being, so they can control what a future person is going to be and it seems to me that this is verging on the immoral. It's a kind of control freakery of the most extreme kind namely trying to determine exactly what a person is going to be. So I think there are very grave moral doubts about the motivations for cloning in the first place.

When you have children in a normal family or even a non-normal family, people arrive in the world with their genetic inheritance and as they grow up they become individual persons. One of the things we have to do is to accept people as they are. If you like there is a religious motivation: namely that we, in the sight of God, Christians and Moslems and Jews and other people believe that individual people have a personal dignity and rights for their own sake - not because they're especially good or especially intelligent or especially brilliant but just because they are people. It's part of the fabric of civilisation that we should accept people as they are and not try to force them into being something that they aren't, something which is part of a blueprint of our own. This is the whole basis of freedom and respect of the individual which gradually over the centuries we've tried to enshrine in laws, at least in the liberal democracies.

So, I think the whole business of cloning smacks very much of Huxley’s Brave New World where you try to produce people to fulfil functions on behalf of other people, not people in their own right for their own sake.

Is stem cell cloning (therapeutic cloning) unacceptable?

I don't find any problem about that actually if it's done for therapeutic and medical reasons and by that I mean in order to produce cells that can cure Parkinson’s disease and that kind of thing. To produce cells which can be adapted to repair already existing human beings who have some deficiencies in their cells. I can see the motivation is good in this case and I think as long as they're used only for that purpose I can't see anything particular wrong in that. It seems to me quite the opposite in fact: if they can find ways of curing some of these dreadful diseases which involve cells not functioning or going awry, I think that we're entirely justified.

I don't think there's any problem there at all as far as I can see. I'm one of those who doesn't think when, for example, a fertilised ovum is eight or ten or sixteen cells and so on, that it is fully a person and doesn't have quite the same rights and consideration as later on when it's a more developed fetus or even obviously when it's a child. I can't find anything wrong with therapeutic cloning in that sense.

Do you consider that scientists are playing God?

Well I think scientists on the whole have been pretty careful about not playing God. At least in this country when these issues have come before the public, on the whole the scientists have been very careful to let the public know what's going on. And in fact have been playing their part in getting legislation to prevent rather rash things being done with their technique. So I don't think scientists are playing God. Some people may want to use scientific knowledge to play God, I get that impression; people who want to have clones of themselves and that kind of thing. I don't know about you but I find it enough living with myself I don't want anybody else to have to live with myself as it were.

Do you think that we may be creating human beings without souls?

I don't think so. I think that that question presumes that human beings have a thing called the soul which is attached to them which is distinct from their body and which clearly contains DNA and genes. After all, you might say do identical twins have the same soul or different souls? I'm not one of those who believes that people have an immortal soul separate from the body. I believe human beings are what's sometimes said to be ‘psychosomatic unities’ - we are a fusion or we are a physical entity which has mental and spiritual capacities which can grow and develop.

The word soul usually is a noun which ought to be used as an adjective or an adverb referring to capacities of human beings to be, to do.

Presumably the human being came to existence with its genes already pre-determined by some cloning technique. Apart from the worry about where it came from and who its parents were, which is another story, it would have as much capacity to develop its intellectual and spiritual capacities as any anybody else.

Is scientific progress being held back due to the reaction of the media and religious groups?

Well I haven't seen that at all. One circle I move in is that of ordained priests and ministers who are themselves scientists and they discuss these questions quite openly and many of them are physiologists and biochemists and they understand the science and they, rather like me, when it has a good outcome and a good intention they often support the application. They always support the research into finding out how things work and what's going on, but I suppose many of them like me would be very hesitant about cloning.

But then a lot of scientists who have no religious perceptions are very hesitant about cloning, for reasons about human dignity and personal integrity, which I mentioned earlier.

If it was possible to make clones of people who die, do you think that would be right or not?

No. I don't think that would be right. I think that would be again trying to become some kind of control freak who was trying to produce a particular kind of person. It would also be fruitless actually because although you might give them their genes, you can't in the long run determine what sort of person they're going to be. There's also a technical difficulty namely any genes you took from a dead person will already have built into them all sorts of deficiencies which are acquired over the course of a lifetime. This is one of the problems with cloning Dolly and these other creatures: the genes they get are already partly damaged by radiation and the other things that damage genes in the course of any individual organism’s lifetime, which is part of the reason why women are encouraged to have children as young as they can because the older they grow, the more genetic deficiencies they accumulate and will pass on to the children when they eventually have them.

Certainly cloning somebody who has just died would mean that their DNA would have accumulated all the deficiencies and all the damage of a lifetime."

 

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