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Dolly greeted with excitement, reserve

NCR Staff

When a Scottish scientist announced that he had cloned a sheep by drawing DNA from mammary cells -- and named the result Dolly, after the owner of the most impressive set of mammary glands he could think of -- a new medical and ethical era dawned.

At the most benign level, the Dolly event is expected to yield important benefits for medicine, possibly leading to production of drugs on a grand scale, of animal organs for human use and of solutions to the problems of organ rejection.

But by moving into an arena that suggests the possibility of cloning human beings, scientists cracked the door to a revolution of greater ethical import -- and some said theological import -- than perhaps any previous human discovery.

Jokes abounded: a sign, psychologists often say, of unresolved tensions lurking below the surface. At NCR, staff members quipped that the Vatican may soon have the answer to the growing shortage of Catholic priests. Meanwhile, ethicists around the world noted that technology, rushing impetuously forward, is far outstripping the ability of human beings to live or reason wisely together -- even to formulate ethical norms for genetic research already, and so recently, on the table.

Questions swirled about what the Scottish experiment might mean. They reflected a broad range of concerns: for genetic diversity, endangered species, animal rights, human identity, exploitation of human genes. Meanwhile, U.S. Catholic theologians reacted with a mixture of excitement and reserve to the inevitable paradox -- the prospects for good and ill that accompany virtually every technological advance.

Inheritable changes

Rosemary Anton, vice president of mission and ethics for Catholic Health Initiatives in Omaha, Neb., said, "We are moving from the frontiers where we merely manipulate the world around us, or affect human beings within their current life span." As a result of advances within the last decade or two, she said, "we are really able to think about changes that touch on the very nature of what it means to be human -- to produce changes that are inheritable, that would be carried forward into the future of humankind.

"Ultimately this has a lot to do with whether we think of our role as staying within certain boundaries that God has set for us," as circumscribed by natural law, "or whether we think of ourselves as creatures created by God and free to do whatever we think up," she said.

Jesuit Fr. Kevin Fitzgerald, geneticist and priest at Loyola Medical Center in Maywood, Ill., was more inclined to deal in concrete medical realities. He is, "to put it mildly," he said, excited about Dr. Ian Wilmut's work.

Fitzgerald, who specializes in cancer genetics research and medical ethics, used such accolades as "incredible" and "so amazing" to convey his sense of the potential for treating disease that Dolly brings to the medical world.

Given the prospects for benefiting humankind, Fitzgerald considers widely reported concerns about human cloning and genetic determinism to be overstated. Rather, he expects the new technology to yield critical information about how cells function -- and malfunction, as in cancer.

"This is incredible because as we develop embryologically, through fetal stages and infancy, our cells divide to make more of us, but the cells also take on specific tasks. They become kidney cells, brain cells, liver cells." As cells differentiate, they "turn off" their ability to perform other functions, and scientists have not known how to turn them back on, nor how to turn them off when they grow out of control, as in cancer, he said.

"This is going to have ramifications in many areas, including my own," he said, because of the knowledge it may reveal about cell growth.

News reporters often presume that religions are "shaking their fingers," said Philip Boyle, former Dominican priest and senior vice president at the Park Ridge Center for Study of Health, Faith and Ethics in Chicago. "But there is a positive story here too. Some religions, Christianity in particular, understand religion and science as not necessarily incompatible." Where humans are "mending the breach -- cocreating, restoring creation" by diminishing disease and suffering, "it's not a problem," he said.

On the other hand, Boyle said, "there is a way in which cloning turns religion topsy-turvy. Every time scientists are able to take over some action previously attributed to God, we bring into question the nature of God and the relationship of the human to the divine."

Many attentive to the news were thinking in that vein. Questions of human identity -- the understanding of human beings as unique and unrepeatable -- and the theological concept of "soul" loomed large.

For Fitzgerald, the Jesuit geneticist, and for others, these were misdirected concerns.

"The notion of a disembodied soul is outdated in most Christian theology," Fitzgerald said. Many theologians today -- drawing on both modern biblical theology and scientific knowledge of the human brain -- understand the soul as a dimension of human development, rejecting the ancient notion of soul as something "infused" from outside. For today's biblical scholars, salvation means resurrection of a body that incorporates a soul rather than immortality of a separated soul.

Delayed identical twin

"When people ask me if a cloned human being would have a soul, I say, 'Hey, all it would do is replace a delayed identical twin. We don't have to ask whether identical twins have their own spirit, their own unique relationship with God.' " The notion that we are nothing more than the sum of our genes is nonsense, Fitzgerald said. "Our genes do not determine who we are."

Similarly, Griffin Trotter, physician and professor of ethics at St. Louis University's Center for Health Care Ethics, stressed that "the ability to clone could be a very positive thing."

"My greatest concern, a very broad concern, is with the public perception of what it is to be a person and how that perception might be changed. There are a lot of misperceptions of what cloning entails. Some think we are creating a carbon copy, but there's a lot more to a human being than just genes. Personality is impacted by environment, life experience and free decisions. Two people with the same genetic code would have a different soul -- or, if you don't like that word, whatever it is that makes them an individual."

"Genetic determinism is a very weak world view," Trotter said. "It's indefensible. It's not accepted by geneticists." And, Trotter said, it leads to "overmedicalizing" -- the notion that physicians can fix any personality or behavioral problem.

Fitzgerald said fears are inevitable with any major advance. For example, when organ transplants were first discussed, in the 1940s and '50s, "there was this sense of doing something 'unnatural,' " he said. "It generated a lot of crazy fear. People's speculative fantasies ran wild." For example, "people worried that you might feel the emotions of the person whose heart was transplanted in you," he said.

In the case of cloning, "to talk about 'playing God' sensationalizes the issue" and reduces the public discussion to bad theology, he said.

"This isn't about Frankenstein," he said. "What's going on here ... is a use of the creative power we have been given" and the ability "to bring those powers to bear in bringing healing and human fulfillment."

Still, many worry about exploitation. A Vatican official warned against attempting to duplicate the Scottish experiment with humans, and Pope John Paul II, in an address in Rome on March 2, denounced those who, in the name of commerce and power, "trample the dignity of the human person with abuses of every type."

Holy Name Sr. Anne Patrick, religion professor at Carleton College, Northfield, Minn., agrees with Fitzgerald in his desire to "lift up what this might offer for the common good. I'm interested in promoting that conversation," she said.

Suspicious but open

Still, Patrick, author of the recently-published Liberating Conscience: Feminist Explorations in Catholic Moral Theology (Continuum, 1996) noted that new technology sometimes promises more than it can deliver, as in organ transplants, and tends to serve "the privileged" rather than the broader common good.

Lisa Sowle Cahill, moral theologian and professor at Boston College, said, "We need to think about cloning a lot before we say it's clearly a violation of human dignity. I'm suspicious of it but I'm willing to see the complexity of it."

Entertaining the possibility of a "benign context," she wondered whether using genetic material from just one parent might sometimes be beneficial -- for example, when the combined genes of both parents would almost certainly produce a child with serious health-related defects.

For Jesuit Fr. Richard McCormick, moral theologian at the University of Notre Dame, a major concern is a contemporary tendency to regard human beings as objects.

McCormick said he feared a kind of genetic reductionism as a by-product of the ability to clone, an attitude toward human beings that suggests "our whole life is our genes."

"At the heart of my objection is that when you begin to program for certain qualities in reproductive schemes -- for a superior gene type, for example -- you begin to evaluate the human person in terms of that one quality." Attitudes toward human beings begin to change "very subtly," he said. "You reduce the whole to the part."

Like McCormick, Rosemary Anton sees cloning as potentially extending a pattern "of treating our children as objects to be created and enjoyed for our sake rather than for theirs."

Anton said the technology conjures up mental images of embryos on a shelf, waiting for prospective parents to choose characteristics that please them. She worried that the ability to produce "better" human beings would undermine an important principle -- that in childbearing, people be committed "to loving what we get, even if it's not what we hoped for."

As Anton was speaking to NCR by telephone, she spotted from her window a van belonging to a print shop. She read the slogan printed on its side: Copycat. Your Reproduction Source from Start to Finish.

"That captures what we're talking about," she said.

What's important, she said, "is not whether we have a little laboratory help ... but that we are prepared to accept, love and nurture without guarantees. To me, that may be the critical disconnect" to be concerned about in the rush to copy and manipulate genes.

National Catholic Reporter, March 14, 1997