Cloning & the Moral Imagination
by A. J. Conyers
Why did news of “Dolly”—the lamb successfully produced by cloning in Scotland last February—so quickly change into a discussion of human medical ethics? Unlike animal breeding—a practice that could conceivably be transferred to the human situation, but doesn’t normally evoke the concern that it will—the idea of cloning sends the imagination racing far beyond the competency of science and raises the specter of human reproduction using the same general principle. This happens despite the fact that, while selective breeding is a real possibility among human beings (though not an imminent probability), cloning is not yet even a technical possibility. In this case we have become concerned with possible realities even before reaching the point of real possibilities.
The question “Can it happen?” is a practical one, but it causes the imagination to pause only briefly, not to stop. For, in four hundred years of rapid technological advances, people have learned not to speculate that it can never happen. Too often the word “can’t” is covered in the dust of speeding new technologies. Thus is the imagination fueled to make the now improbable leap from a ewe lamb to a human being. The mind easily converts from real possibilities among farm animals to possible realities among human beings. So whether or not cloning presents an ethical problem as it now exists, it presents a temptation on the level of the human imagination. The hint of such a possibility changes the probability of how we understand and value life.
The ethical problems, at first remote and speculative, present themselves once we allow for three considerations:
First, without cloning, the emergence of life for all higher forms of animal life involves the contribution of two separate individuals. At the human level this implies relationship. Cloning allows us to imagine birth without relationship.
This is the obverse side, of course, of the age-old reluctance of the Church to sanction sexual relations without the possibility of procreation. The Roman Catholic Church has traditionally held out against artificial birth-control methods—methods that might encourage sex without discipline—because they seem to sever that necessary connection between the act of sex and the production of life. In recent years, several Protestant theologians and ethicists have raised similar questions. Stanley Hauerwas of Duke is one; and Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is another.
Cloning, if it were possible for human beings, would break the connection in the other direction. Instead of sex without reproduction, it would be reproduction without sex (or even the idea of remote sexual cooperation, as in the case of artificial insemination). The idea of an individual who owes his biological existence to a single individual, and not to a sexually related pair of individuals, means that the genetic line is reduced from a web that spreads outward into the past—two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on, embracing ancestors enough to populate whole cities—to a single strand (as the process might be imagined) that marches parallel to, but isolated from, all the rest of humanity.
In China a few years ago I gazed with wonder at the altar of a temple dedicated to a family’s ancestors. On the lowest shelf were pictures of the recently deceased. A step up were photos of men and women from an era before World War II. A rank higher stood plaques with names of those a generation earlier, the great grandparents of the still living elders in the family. Three ranks higher still bore the names of, it seemed, a host of ancestors, all presided over by images of mythical patriarchs.
Just as reproduction from two individuals implies community; the replication of one implies isolation. In our age it is sometimes difficult to urge much angst over this prospect; but in earlier ages and in other places, the prospect is clearly understood as catastrophic.
Second, in nature, birth signals the solidarity of life when divergent beings—here we are not simply referring to number, but diversity—give life to one that combines features of both. In birth, the two literally “become one flesh.”
Cloning allows one to imagine the needlessness of diverse life-forms. One genetically identical generation succeeds another. The process requires not diversity—two sexes, separate and distinct genetic make-up—but identity: one sex (as it stands now, female), and one genetic code. Distinction and cooperation (if that’s what we can call sexual love) are replaced by equality and uniformity.
The very idea of human community requires a certain refined sentiment about the possibility of relating diverse individuals and a corporate unity—e pluribus unum. Sexual reproduction underscores this worldview, and one might imagine a world that valued collectivity instead of cooperation, uniformity rather than distinction—the homogenization of humanity.
Altogether apart from the real possibility of this prospect, the ethical issues emerge in the imagination, just as they did from Thomas More’s imagining Utopia, Machiavelli’s imagining the cunning tyranny of the Prince, Marx imagining the proletarian revolution and the disappearance of church and state, and certain Nazi scientists imagining a race purified through eugenics. Each of these took an imaginative leap into the future, a leap based upon intellectual and scientific advances. But the actions to which these scientific dreams gave rise were provoked not by the science, but by the dreams.
Third, in nature, birth makes vividly clear that life is a gift. We generally do not choose gifts, and to the extent that we do, it is that much less a gift. Instead a gift comes to us out of the will, imagination, and love of another person. What we receive in a new life is never altogether predictable. A parent may spend many unhappy years attempting to turn the gift of a child into something they would have chosen for themselves, but that wish is nearly always futile and often destructive. The life of another is a gift from God, in whatever unexpected form this life, this child, comes to us.
When Emily, our first child, was born, I remember being altogether knocked off balance by the very reality and particularity of this tiny child. I knew what a baby looked like. We were, after all, expecting—and in fact anxiously anticipating this moment. Resemblance to both my wife and me could be seen and was remarked on by our friends. But a weird question kept coming to mind: “Who is this child?” She was neither my wife nor me. She was alien—a stranger who we would have to get acquainted with, a guest who had never lived with us before. She was other than us—a matter she would remind us of forcefully in her teenage years—and because she was other than us, she was a gift to us.
Now raise the possibility of cloning. We become not the receivers of life, but we can at least imagine ourselves its manufacturers. The notion of “planned parenthood” takes on an even more depressingly sterile aspect than before. We often receive what does not at first especially please us; that is the nature of a gift. In the case of a child, our hearts almost miraculously make room for one who remains at first unknown to us. Do we imagine, or would we be tempted to imagine, that in cloning we short-circuit the life-giving and heart-enlarging shock of newness, otherness, and strangeness that accompanies the arrival of every child? Is there not the tendency in all of human associations to avoid this shock, to cultivate a society of those who look and act in a way that conforms to ourselves and those we already know, and furthermore to avoid those who are different? Is not genocide the extreme and violent manifestation of the very human wish to avoid that which is so obviously not “us?”
The questions raised, coincidentally, correspond to three values inherent in the Christian view of life: the distinction within life, the unity of life, and the givenness of life. As the Trinity combines distinction, unity, and self-giving, mutually receiving love, so the natural experience of birth seems to give daily witness to those same three qualities. The ethical must come to grips with those three.
A. J. Conyers is Professor of Theology at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Waco, Texas.
A. J. Conyers (d. 2004) was Professor of Theology at Baylor University's George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas, and the author of several books, including The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit (Spence, 2001).