Nancy Duff: The Church and the World of Genetic Research: Enemies or Partners in Conversation?


After publishing a brief response to the success of the Scottish embryologist Ian Wilmut in cloning an adult sheep (see The Washington Post, Sunday, March 2, 1997, C1), I received several letters expressing opposition to my article. Some were from biologists criticizing me for prohibiting research into human cloning and promoting the superstitions of religious belief. Others spoke on behalf of the church, upbraiding me for reckless support of research into human cloning and promoting the interest of science over revelation. Although these letters clearly reflected the bias of their authors, I assume responsibility for some of their contradictory interpretations of my article. Because the possibility of human cloning presents a true moral dilemma, my position sounded somewhat ambiguous. I found that I could neither take a stand firmly opposed to all research into human cloning nor could I support such research without serious reservations.

While I neither justify equivocation on this issue nor promote a deliberately vague or evasive stance on the part of the church, I welcome the opportunity to analyze the complex moral challenges provided by recent advances in genetic research and hope the church will as well. Before we are too quick to condemn all scientific efforts at cloning ("God above will not tolerate cloning of any kind," wrote one correspondent), we ought to take this opportunity to learn about the incredible advances in science and marvel at the makeup of human biology and human ingenuity. Far from challenging Christian faith, such an exploration can lead to a further appreciation of the mysteries and wonders of God's creation.

On the other hand, before we are too quick to support the advances in science without qualification ("Science is always a positive influence in the long run," claimed another correspondent), we must demonstrate the ability to face honestly the potential for harm that inevitably accompanies the potential for good in scientific advances. Rather than becoming blindly enamored with exciting scientific discoveries, we cannot lose sight of other seemingly mundane problems that lead to human suffering (such as the lack of fundamental health care experienced by millions of children and adults in this country and abroad). The church does not have to assume the stance of enemy in relation to science (or the business industry which accompanies scientific discoveries in biotechnology) as it has so often in the past, nor does the church have to be a naive or uncritical ally of science and business.

The recent recommendations of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (chaired by the president of Princeton University, Harold Shapiro) leave room for further reflection, study, conversation, and moral contemplation regarding the issues surrounding human cloning. In its recommendations to President Clinton, the NBAC concluded that "at this time it is morally unacceptable" for anyone "to attempt to create a child using somatic cell nuclear transfer cloning." Consequently, the commission recommended legislation that would prohibit anyone from attempting to create a child in this manner. They also recommended that a "sunset clause" be included in any such legislation to ensure a review of the issue in a few years. Furthermore, they did not recommend a ban on animal cloning or the cloning of human DNA sequencing, "since neither activity raises the scientific and ethical issues that arise from the attempt to create children through somatic cell nuclear transfer, and these fields of research have already provided important scientific and biomedical advances." (The report does acknowledge the importance of humane treatment of animals in all research that involves the use of animals.)

As the church enters and continues to participate in the conversation and debate over the moral issues involved in human genetic research (as well as in plant and animal genetic research), we cannot assume that all scientists or leaders in the biotechnology industry are devoid of moral concerns, nor can we simply let science and business regulate themselves. We have the opportunity for genuine and fruitful conversation with the scientific and business worlds involved in genetic research. We can maintain our own distinct identity as the church while avoiding moral pronouncements that are devoid of scientific knowledge.

Originally published in "Inspire," Princeton Theological Seminary.