Skip to main content.

Back to: >> Controversies

Some background and questions.

This debate began in earnest with Dolly the sheep. Dolly was a genetic replica of her mother and she made news world-wide. "What hath people wrought?" was the immediate question on everyone's lips. Whatever your position on this matter, there are valid comments from alternate views. However all that works out, Dolly the sheep is an historical event in human history. For the record, Dolly was also born as if she had already lived as long as her mother even though she went through a natural childhood. So school is still out on how useful that particular achievement will be. Meanwhile pigs, goats and sheep have since been cloned.

Add mice and macaque monkeys to the list from which scientists have been able to generate embryonic stem cell lines from skin. Humans will not be far behind. This feat avoids any ethical questions fundamentalists raise when embryonic tissue is used.

Human embryonic stem cells, ES, have great promise therapeutically. Tinkering with the genes has been a long-term goal having the valid and ethical purposes of preventing and / or curing genetic diseases. Toward this end, researchers are focusing on stem cells. Stem cells bear on the cloning issue since they are nonspecialized human or animal cells that can produce mature specialized body cells and at the same time replicate themselves.

Science is moving ever closer to being able to re-engineer a human being, and clone parts of a human at the cell level. It is appropriate to consider this issue from both the Biblical and scientific viewpoints.

Religious issues arise. If humans are cloned as Dolly the sheep was, is the first person's soul split or is a new one born? The Bible is silent on this remarkable possibility. In further example, if one's entire brain is recreated from stem cells, is that brain reborn with a new soul, is the old one retreaded, or what?

Biblical Features

From the religious point of view, tinkering with tissue having embryonic potential is unethical if one believes an ovum becomes a person at the moment of fertilization. Since embryos require highly specialized nurturing to become human outside the womb, most scientists and most people are comfortable with the idea that we are not people in any recognizable sense until after we reach the fetus stage, some eight weeks after fertilization. Most people do agree that we are people when we develop to the point of being able to survive outside the womb. That point is reached as early as 24 weeks after fertilization. The medical sequence runs: embryo 8 weeks; fetus 16 weeks; then human. A problem emerges when one changes that sequence on faith to something else, for example: human at the point of fertilization, or even before.

Certain Bible passages are pertinent:

Gen 1:27 "So God created man in his own image..."

Gen 20:13 "Thou shalt not kill."

These passages, taken together, imply that if man kills man, he sins, and in effect kills a person "in God's image." This is not nature's way for nature is amoral; animals kill animals, people kill people. Even the religious right, and people at the extreme positions in politics, kill people; history is replete with examples. These passages do, however, provide religious support to antiabortion groups.

On the other hand, we can find no clear statement in the Bible as to when people become people. For example:

Job 8-12

8 "Thine hands have made me and fashioned me together round about; yet thou dost destroy me."

9 "Remember, I beseech thee, that thou hast made me as the clay; and wilt thou bring me into dust again?"

10 "Hast thou not poured me out as milk, and curdled me like cheese?"

11 "Thou hast clothed me with skin and flesh, and hast fenced me with bones and sinews."

12" Thou hast granted me life and favour, and thy visitation hath preserved my spirit"

Words and metaphors of creation here cannot settle the timing-of-life issue.

Isaiah 44:2 "Thus saith the LORD that made thee, and formed thee from the womb, which will help thee;"

These words were spoken to Jacob and Israel. The passage "...made thee" addresses Jacobs parentage, not specifically when. "..formed thee from the womb", not into it, but from.

Psalms 139:13-16

13 "For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother's womb."

14 "I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well."

15 "My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth."

"When I was made in secret" speaks to the issue here. The author of this passage was a human. And humans cannot remember the prenatal period much less earlier times. So this is allegory.

16 "Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them."

Psalms 51:5 "Behold, I was shaped in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me."

Sexual intercourse is here regarded as sinful. That issue has nothing to do with when a person becomes a human. But if consensual intercourse is a sin inherently, then the only way to eliminate sin is for humanity to die out! Nature says otherwise, and nature must be regarded as a work of the creator of the universe. Humanity itself is a subset; a part of the whole, a very tiny part indeed.

Romans 9:11 "For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth."

This passage does not address the issue of when a person becomes a human.

Genesis 25:22 "And the children struggled together within her; and she said, 'If it be so, why am I thus?' And she went to enquire of the LORD."

The movement recounted is consistent with what we know as fetal development in late pregnancy. It does not address the issue of when a person becomes a human.

Jeremiah 1:4 "Then the word of the LORD came unto me, saying,"

Antecedent to the next passage.

Jeremiah 1:5 "Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations."

In this passage, Jeremiah was told that he was known before he was conceived, prenatally in other words. This was not during pregnancy, but before! This passage is a cornerstone for those who believe the Bible is the literal word of God, the only God, disregarding the many inconsistencies in the Bible. Is the Bible the literal word of God? If so, why all the inconsistencies? Moreover, there is extensive evidence that the Bible in large measure repeats older literature dating from pagan times. See Arthur Blech. "The Causes of Anti-Semitism." for explicit and numerous references.

Luke 1:31 "And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS."

Mary is told by the angel that she will become pregnant.

Luke 1:41 "And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: "Elizabeth, the subject of the sentence, was six months pregnant, fetal movement had begun for Elizabeth. Mary had been told she would become pregnant, that the Holy Ghost would overcome her, not Elizabeth. It does not address the issue of when a person becomes a human.

Exodus 21: 22-25

22 "If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine."

23 "And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life,"

24 "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,"

25 "Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe."

These passages speak to miscarriage induced by some other man or men, and the husband's right to punish him or those who caused the miscarriage using means no longer condoned in the Christian world--but which foster violence. It is silent on the issue of when a person becomes a human. But these passages also threaten violence in retaliation to violence.

It seems the Bible at least can be interpreted in various ways. In particular, Gen 1:27, Gen 20:13, Exodus 21: 22-25, and Jeremiah 1:5 address the issue on this page, at least from the Christian point of view. Jeremiah implies the existence of a soul even before the embryo stage.

All of these passages were allegories for the times; they were badly needed to channel behavior into a more civilized mode where people do not kill people and where fathers know whom their own children are. And of course all were written by priests and scribes of the prophets, many of whom had personal or self interest in mind. Many remain pertinent into our times.

But these words alone are not enough to reduce or eliminate terror. If they were, then why, after more than two millennia, do we still visit violence upon one another in so much of the world?

The Bible has little to say about when a human actually becomes a human, mostly because its writers were ignorant of how fertilization happens as well of the very existence of embryo and its growth and viability over time during gestation. But the four passages referenced above are clear enough in their intent. It is up to each individual, what s/he wishes to believe and whether faith should interfere in and foreclose scientific research. From just the above quotes, God frequently talked to the many prophets, but he enlightened none on how nature really works. That quest was left to the curious and progressive sectors of humankind in the scientific age.

So much for the religious objections and commentary. There are other issues.

Ethical Aspects

If humans are the point of it all as the Bible says, then why does nature do such a lousy job of preserving embryos? Something less than half ever make it under normal conditions. And look at in-vitro fertilization. It is not at all uncommon for only one embryo in ten to survive and become a human. So how should we look at that process? If an embryo is a person, do we kill ten to create one person? Think of those ten for a moment. If they are people, would they not have been better left in the freezer? And for how long? Who owns them in perpetuity.

Ellen Goodman of the Boston Globe recently made this very point. She went further. Since embryos carry the potential for human life, they must be handled respectfully. To the question: "Should they be left in the freezer until they are eligible for Social Security?" Her reply was, "It would be disrespectful." To the question of using embryos to obtain stem cells, Goodman wrote: "It is not disrespectful to donate embryos to the search for curing diseases." Of the 400,000 embryos frozen, only 81 have been successfully birthed and adopted by third parties. And what do we do with all the embryos in storage whose freezing fees go unpaid? That is a practical problem of huge magnitude for many. Freezing embryos is becoming ever more fashionable. And why do you suppose?

What about the message from nature? Well, nature is silent, except that Humanity has evolved the capacity to both save and destroy itself, to live in peace or violence, to live by faith alone or discover nature as it is, whether created by God's hand or some other, unknowable means. How soon humanity will be able to recreate life is anyone's guess. But it seems certain that the day will come.

For many scientists, nature itself says a lot about God. But these same scientists will mostly agree that there will always remain unanswered questions. For example, some, searching for the Higgs particle, have dubbed it the "God Particle" because it may "explain" how all the forces of nature co-exist and interact. But to explain how, still leaves the "why" question. Why does the Higgs particle exist, if indeed it does? And so on. You can always ask God; just don't expect an answer.

Nature might well have many more surprises in store. Why, for example, is the universe running down hill--energy is being dissipated at stupendous rates, beyond imagination? And nature has been doing this for fourteen billion years! How much energy has been dissipated since the universe began? More unimaginable still! And where did that energy come from in the first place? Did nature first have to run uphill? How did that happen? Matter as we know it is only a small fraction of what must be out there, or we do not understand what we are looking at in the most distant universe. That is likely.

Every question about nature that finds an answer seems to beget more questions. Dark matter and dark energy are the latest things, but we only know of them indirectly. Of course, the anomalies implying their existence may find other explanations. Already, the worlds of Einstein and Bohr will never be the same. And how utterly insignificant that fellow named "Darwin" appears to be, to play the metaphor.

Biology today is easing ever closer to being able to redirect speciation and evolution at will in any direction, literally. Is fear of this eventuality, playing God in effect, if not in fact, what underlies the hot responses of Fundamentalists on this issue? Even the fundamentalists may not know. Fear drives feelings underground, deep within the psyche, below consciousness. We might ask that other metaphor how he felt playing God: Dr Frankenstein. Better yet, we could ask his audience.


No comments yet

To be able to post comments, please register on the site.