What was once a futuristic sci-fi concept along with time travel and alien warfare is now within the grasp of modern technology. Though this breakthrough promises to be the Holy Grail in medical research, it has not been without its ethical snags.
Cloning poses a host of ethical obstacles, and human cloning is undoubtedly the most controversial player in the debate. There are two types of human cloning: therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning. The goal of therapeutic cloning is the generation of embryos from which stem cells can be harvested for medical research, such as Alzheimer’s or diabetes research. On the other hand, reproductive cloning results in the creation of a fully formed human clone genetically identical to the DNA donor (though this is still a theoretical concept as it has not yet been achieved). Both forms of cloning involve a process called somatic nuclear cell transfer in which a nucleus from a donor cell is transferred to an egg cell from which the nucleus has been removed. The resulting cloned embryo is either used as a source of stem cells (in the case of therapeutic cloning), or implanted in a host mother to produce a whole organism clone (in reproductive cloning).
Medical research has reached a formidable milestone with these advancements in cloning, yet the fundamental moral question remains: Are we playing G-d?
Let us examine this from the Jewish perspective, which involves an ongoing discussion among rabbinic authorities. We begin with the question: What is the Torah’s view of Man’s creative and intellectual potential? The first commandment of the Torah given to G-d’s creations states, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the land, and conquer it.” Conquering, as understood by biblical commentators, is a directive for Man’s active participation in creation. Man is charged with the responsibility of emulating God through action, exploration and invention. Natural law is clearly not defined solely by that which occurs “naturally,” since in Jewish law we have a moral imperative to save a life despite naturally occurring illness and disease. Bearing in mind both Man’s directive to participate in creation and the rabbinic endorsement of medical intervention, it may be inferred that since therapeutic cloning is designed for life-saving research and intervention, it should be permitted. Some legal authorities have also addressed the use of excess human embryos that were frozen and stored during in-vitro fertilization procedures as a source of stem cells. If the family does not intend to use these additional embryos for future implantation they may be considered a viable source of stem cells. In fact, their availability as a source of cells that would otherwise be unused or discarded may in fact make them preferable.
However, is there a point at which we cross an ethical line, corrupting natural order and usurping, rather than promoting, G-d’s will?
A legal precedent may be found in the biblical injunction of “kilayim” (Leviticus 19:19), which includes the prohibition of interspecific hybrids, or the mating of two species, usually resulting in sterile offspring (e.g., the mating of a horse and donkey to create a mule). According to Maimonides in his “Guide to the Perplexed,” one who couples creatures of different species defies the laws of nature and ethics. Maimonides was a rabbinic authority and physician who viewed science and medicine as within Man’s purview, yet believed that interfering with a species’ ability to propagate by overriding reproductive laws is a violation of the natural order. Monogenetic, asexual reproduction disregards a fundamental natural law in which genetic variation is axiomatic (obvious) and critical for sustaining the integrity of a species. Honoring the boundaries of the human partnership with G-d in creation by accepting the immutability of natural law may, under such circumstances, require squelching of scientific curiosity.
Dr. Karin Hepner is a molecular biologist, cancer researcher and an expert in molecular cloning technology. Originally from N.Y., she now lives with her husband Absalom and five children in Irvine, and is Board president and a founder of Irvine Hebrew Day School.