May 3, 2001

Religious Perspectives Differ On Research and Human Cloning

In response to the recent introduction of legislation in Congress to prohibit human cloning, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life hosted a “rapid response” discussion of religious perspectives on the issue. Forum Co-Chair Jean Bethke Elshtain explained that the purpose was to allow scientific experts “to address the ethical underpinnings their own religious traditions bring to the issue of human cloning.”

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As the possibility of human cloning has moved from science fiction to potential reality, near unanimous public opposition has emerged around the concept of cloning full humans. The issue of allowing the creation of human embryos for use in “therapeutic” research, however, creates more complex levels of support and opposition, even among various religious communities.

Dr. Nigel Cameron, Dean of The Wilberforce Forum, presented an argument for opposition to all types of human cloning based on his conservative Protestant faith and “the supreme Christian belief in incarnation.” The issue of cloning human embryos, he predicted, “will be a proving ground for questions of how we as a race handle human dignity.” Robert Best, President of the Culture of Life Foundation, joined him in expressing concern for “the sacredness of all human life, from conception to death.”

Rabbi Moses Tendler, Professor of Jewish Medical Ethics and Biology at Yeshiva University shared their opposition to full human cloning, but drew on theology to come to a much different conclusion about the benefits of human cloning for “therapeutic” research. Tendler argued that humans have an obligation to cure disease and that “every few generations, God allows us to remove one veil of ignorance and we get a little smarter.” Responding to other religious traditions that teach that all human embryos are entitled to full moral rights, Tendler noted that “not all religions…accept the notion that a zygote in a petri dish has personhood.”

Tendler explained that the Judeo view of personhood is that it begins 40 days after conception. This is an idea shared by Sunni Muslims, according to Professor Abdulaziz Sachedina, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. For this reason, Sachedina expressed less concern about the use of embryos for research, but warned the audience that fully cloned humans would “pose challenges to important human relationships” and disrupt traditional “communal connections.”

A recent poll presented by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press revealed that 81% of Americans are opposed to allowing “unrestricted scientific research related to human cloning” and that respondents most often cite their religious belief as having the strongest influence on this view.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life serves as a both a town hall and a clearinghouse of information, providing independent research, new polling information, balanced analysis, and referrals to experts in the field. In addition, the Pew Forum provides a place to draw together many perspectives for fruitful exchange of ideas. The Pew Forum is nonpartisan and does not take policy positions. It is supported by The Pew Charitable Trusts through a grant to Georgetown University.

For a transcript of the event or more information about the Pew Forum, please contact Robert Mills at 202.419.4564.