Summer 1998

Volume 17, Issue 2

Cloning: A Dilemma for the 21st Century

by Dr. Frank E. Young

Dr. Frank E. Young is Executive Director of Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. He is also Director of Adult Education and Ministries at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Maryland. He graduated cum laude from the Medical Center of the University of New York and holds a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University. After numerous academic appointments, including Dean of the Medical School and Vice President of Health Affairs at the University of Rochester, Dr. Young became Rear Admiral (Commission Corps United States Public Health Service) in 1984 and concurrently Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. He also served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health and Director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness and the National Disaster Medical System. He and his wife Leanne have five children and twelve grandchildren.

For some time scientists have been able to transplant a frog nucleus into an evacuated frog egg and produce tadpoles. However, most scientists and physicians concluded that it was impossible to manipulate mammalian eggs in a similar fashion. The startling development of the cloning of a sheep enabled researchers for the first time to clone and produce essentially an adult mammal.

Fundamentally this technology was accomplished by removing the nucleus from sheep eggs, implanting a nucleus from a synchronized cell culture of an adult sheep into each evacuated egg and stimulating the nucleus to divide. A number of embryos were developed, and, of these embryos, four of thirty-four developed into live lambs. By these simple methods, Dr. Ian Wilmut and his colleagues were able to report the successful cloning of a mammal through somatic cell nuclear transplantation. This unleashed a moral outcry that was amplified by the statement of Dr. Richard Seed of Chicago, who proposed to open a commercial human cloning clinic.

What led to the capability of scientists' ability to clone mammals and why was the church essentially silent during the genetic revolution that began approximately a half century ago? No new technology bursts on the scene without a substantial amount of underlying antecedent fundamental research. The advent of cloning of mammals was no exception. This article will summarize a number of the key scientific milestones and the main theological arguments in order to enable you to prepare for the forthcoming debate.

While the distribution of genetic elements was described centuries ago through the experiments of Mendel with breeding of peas, the chemical basis of genes (deoxyribonucleic acid [DNA] ) was only discovered in 1943 by Oswald Avery and co-workers. From 1943 until the early 1970's, a number of studies established the physical nature of DNA and elucidated the genetic code. However, it was not possible to manipulate genes in a precise fashion. Instead DNA was randomly broken by a variety of techniques.

Approximately a quarter of a century ago four major independent discoveries enabled DNA to be readily manipulated and cloned in foreign species. The successful use of these four major discoveries in the cloning of a mammalian tumor virus in a bacterium ushered in the era of recombinant DNA technology or rDNA. These advances included:

  • the discovery of enzymes that broke DNA apart at unique places
  • enzymes that can seal together fragments of DNA that were broken at unique spots
  • elements that replicate within cells such as viruses or plasmids
  • procedures to transfer this DNA from one cell to another.

With these methods DNA from one organism could be introduced into another one. Based on these technologies a whole new field of biotechnology was ushered in, leading to the development of enzymes and medicinals that were cloned in bacterial or mammalian cells. This process resulted in the production of medicines such as human growth hormone, white cell stimulating factors, red blood cell stimulating factors, and other human biological regulatory molecules in bacteria or tissue culture. At the same time, methods were devised to study the development of embryos and to deliver genes into developing embryos.


A number of scientific uncertainties exist currently in somatic cell nuclear transplantation. First, can any of these cloning techniques be applied to other mammals? Second, is the animal that is produced likely to develop into a normal individual? For example adults have accumulated a number of mutations during life. Would the introduction of a nucleus from an adult cell into an egg result in an increased incidence of mutations that might lead to a higher frequency of cancer? Will the introduction of adult genes into an evacuated egg lead to an embryo that develops in the same fashion as those that are produced from the uniting of an egg and a sperm? Additional technical questions come to mind, but these are among the more significant scientific issues.

The theological and moral concerns are profound and far reaching. In Genesis 1:26,27 we learn that God said, "Let us make man in our image according to our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creepeth on the earth." No other creature in God's creation is made in God's image. Therefore as bearers of God's image, there is a special sanctity of human life according to this account in Genesis. Our job description of dominion and responsibility for the creatures on the earth requires us to study and care for God's creation. We are not co-creators but instead we are God's stewards, an extremely important responsibility. Theologically this responsibility is based on our relationship to God. Does cloning not only compromise this image but also reduce the status of human life to mere objects?

Additionally the possibility to develop masses of human embryos for experimentation ushers in some unusual problems and potentially a new era of eugenics (genetic "improvement" of human heredity). Is it appropriate for mankind to develop embryos for research purposes, or to use the embryo's multipotent cells or totally potent cells as spare parts? Those in favor of this technology argue that mankind has an opportunity through studying the development of embryos to address such diseases as cancer, aging, and neurological disorders. Those who oppose it contend that the manipulation of human life, even in embryonic form, is a compromise of the sanctity of life and that embryos at the eight-cell stage are, in fact, living beings.

The Christian community will be confronted with a whole new set of questions that must be addressed. To leave this field merely to the scientists and politicians relegates the discussion to a technological paradigm rather than an analysis based on the relationship of mankind to God. I wish to raise some of the very fundamental issues that we must struggle with as mankind approaches this "brave new world:"

  • What is your world view; one of creation or one of evolution?
  • How does your world view influence your support of cloning of humans and the manipulation of human embryos?
  • What is the sanctity of life? Is life sacred and when does life begin? Is an embryo at the eight-cell stage living or merely an aggregate of human cells?
  • When does the soul appear in a human being -- at conception, at birth, or sometime in between?
  • What does dominion mean in practical technological terms? Just because something is possible should it be undertaken? Is there a scientific imperative that anything that can be done scientifically should be attempted?

In the 1978 volume of the Southern California Law Review, J. A. Robertson authored a provocative article entitled, "The Scientist's Right to Research: A Constitutional Analysis." In that article he stated,

Science is not an unmitigated blessing. It is expensive, and its discoveries, like the tree of knowledge in Eden, expand man's capacity for evil as well as good. More knowledge is not a good in itself, nor is it necessarily productive of net good. Society, as the provider of the resources, the bearer of the costs, and the reaper of the benefits, has an overriding interest in the consequences of science, hence an interest in the direction and the routes that research takes.

In 1978, in an article entitled "Reflections on Transformation: A Half Century through the Looking Glass," I penned: "We stand as pygmies on the shoulders of giants sifting our observation through the grid of our prejudice to approximate truth, not to sacrifice it on the altar of our ego, but to serve mankind." The very purpose of science in these controversial areas needs to be thought through carefully by all sectors of society. The President's Commission, after an analysis of the issues, has urged a moratorium on human cloning and legislation is currently under consideration.

During this time of moratorium, I strongly recommend that the American people in general and the Christian community in particular should strive to understand the ramifications of this technology, wrestle with its moral considerations, and harmonize views of one's relationship with God and this new, potentially unsettling advance. One must not prohibit scientific research in a knee jerk fashion. On the other hand one must understand the ramifications of such studies and provide the moral and religious guidance that is so necessary as we consider the application of this technology to mammals.

Want to Know More?

This spring RTS/Washington Metro began offering a course entitled "Pastoral, Medical, and Social Ethics" that focuses on ethics in general and the vexing issues emanating from the technological and medical advances of the 20th and the 21st centuries. Says Dr. Frank Young, Executive Director of RTS/Washington Metro, " As an educator, scientist, and Christian, I have enjoyed participating in courses which are considering these issues in depth."

Those interested in further information on the new genetics should read the book entitled Genetic Ethics: Do the Ends Justify the Genes? edited by Kilner, Pentz, and Young. Also enlightening is the report of the hearing before the Subcommittee on Public Health and Safety of the Committee on Labor and Human Resources ( U. S. Senate) on Ethics and Theology: A Continuation of the National Discussion on Human Cloning. Finally, the report of the President's National Bioethics Advisory Commission on Cloning Human Beings can be obtained on the Internet by accessing

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Last updated 2-1-1999.