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A Jewish View on Human Cloning

Miryam Z. Wahrman, Ph.D.

"I use the Talmudic approach to science," declared Dr. John Loike. "I've always been amazed at the ability of Gemarah [Talmud] to integrate science and ethics." Loike, a Senior Scientist in the Department of Physiology and Cellular Biophysics at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, spoke recently on "Cloning: Genetics and Implications for Jewish Law". Loike has combined his scientific expertise in molecular biology with Talmudic studies to develop insights into Jewish views on human cloning. Loike's discerning articles on cloning have sparked debate on ethical issues regarding the technology.

"If you look at the whole world of ethics, one of the most important resources happens to be Judaism," reflected Loike. "If you go to all the modern ethical issues which you are reading about, the first source that you're going to find that's really encouraging, positive and insightful is going to be Torah."

And Jewish law does not reject human cloning outright, as do some other religious and secular ethicists. Loike explained that human cloning would be acceptable if used therapeutically, for instance, to enable a sterile couple to reproduce.

Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, spiritual leader of the Synagogue on the Palisades in Fort Lee, NJ, agreed with Loike. "Essentially [cloning] is not a bad thing. There's room for therapeutic use from either cloning itself or technologies that come from that investigation."

Shapiro explained that the Jewish view differs from the Catholic position on reproduction and cloning. "Catholicism... believes in a kind of natural law, in the sense that if it goes against nature, somehow it's wrong, somehow it's bad. And... a lot of people think that Judaism also feels that way. But nothing could be further from the truth."

"One of the themes that Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik used to expound upon was that in the beginning of Bereshis [Genesis], where God tells Adam that he should go and conquer the world, that is essentially a challenge to man to discover and utilize technology and science, to overcome the aspects of nature that make life more difficult," said Shapiro. " So I think that we should really be involved in discoveries, and trying to utilize technology to help people, to help society. Of course the danger is that sometimes it could be abused, used for the wrong reasons."

Loike's talk focused on questions involving the nature of humankind. "What defines human beings as different from animals?" he asked the audience. Loike identified three criteria to define humanness: The first criterion is to be created from a human being, or be born to a human being. The second is the ability to differentiate right from wrong, that is, to have a moral conscience. The third is the ability to reproduce with another human being.

"What differentiates me from a monkey?" asked Loike. "How many genes are really different? Maybe 50, maybe 100 out of 30,000 to 40,000 genes - not so many." Loike explained that in order to investigate and determine what these unique human genes do, a scientist could take one or more of these genes, and insert them into a monkey embryo. When the monkey develops and is born, then it can be studied to determine how it has changed, now that it has human genes.

"Now that [experiment] could create problems," speculated Loike. "Supposing we create a monkey that talks? Or thinks? Is it a monkey, or is it a human?"

On the other hand, if you start tinkering with the production of humans by cloning - and they arise from only one "parent", how human are they? In the cloning process, DNA is taken from the cell of one donor - any man, woman or child, and inserted into an egg whose chromosomes have been removed. "A clone created from an egg and another cell - is it a human being? Is it a twin? What is it?" Loike asked.

He recalled a creature, called the Golem, which is referred to in the Talmud as an artificial anthropoid created by rabbis. A Golem is built from dust, and its powers are derived from a parchment containing the holy name of God; scriptural passages and blessings recited by its creators lead to its "birth". Is a Golem human, asked Loike? Based on Talmudic accounts, it does not fulfill any of the three criteria for human status, so it is not human. It can even be destroyed, and this would not be an act of murder.

"Does a human being have to express all the criteria or just some of them?" Loike continued. "As long as an organism expresses one of these criteria, then you can call it a human."

A human clone would have unusual origins, but would be born from a mother's womb. It would have human characteristics, moral judgement, and presumably, the ability to mate with another human, so a human clone should be considered a human.

Loike wondered whether a baby born from an artificial womb would be human. Yes, he concluded, if it fulfills either of the other two criteria - knowing right from wrong, or ability to breed with another human being. After all, Adam and Eve were considered human, even though they were not born from a human mother. Since science is approaching the point where one day an artificial womb will be available to gestate the entire nine months of human development, this definition of human status will become important. And, according to Loike's definition, babies born from the unique environment of an artificial womb should be defined as full fledged humans.

However, recent reports have shown that cloning has not yet been perfected as a science. In fact, recent studies have enumerated the many failures in animal cloning; the technology has produced many deformed animals. The success rate for cloning of most of the animal species studied is only about one percent. The other 99 percent of fetuses die during gestation or shortly after birth. In mice the success rate is slightly higher, about 3 percent. The main problem with cloning appears to be that in order to build a complete animal, the DNA of the donor cell has to be reprogrammed by the egg's environment so that all the genes can once again become active. That process appears to produce random mutations in genes. In some animals the mutations result in serious defects, thus shortly after birth many of them perish.

Some cloned mice appear normal at first, but by the time they reach young adulthood, they exhibit extreme obesity. Many cloned mice develop slower than normal. Cloned cows have developed heart or lung defects. And even Dolly, the first cloned sheep, who initially appeared normal, began to show signs of obesity as compared with normal sheep, and had to be put on a special diet. In some animals the defects appear later in life. For instance, some cloned mice have appeared quite normal through young adulthood but then suddenly developed extreme obesity.

Because of these serious health issues, while cloning could one day prove to be useful therapeutically, it is premature to use it on human beings. "You can't engage in something of high health risk," cautioned Loike. "The chance of success is very small. You are going to generate children who are deformed."

"I cannot imagine actually doing this with humans until the science was at a point where we were fairly confident that kind of thing wouldn't happen," agreed Shapiro. "I can't imagine how anybody with any ethical sensitivity would want to experiment in that way."

"Right not it will not be an effective way to reproduce," Loike concluded. "But the reprogramming is a critical discovery. DNA of muscle cells is the same as DNA of nerve cells, but the DNA [in nerve cells] has been turned off. Nerve cells can't divide." Cloning could allow you to develop therapies to get the nerve cells to start dividing. Thus, technologies derived from human cloning might be useful to treat diseases of the nervous system, such as Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease.

Shapiro reflected on the dynamic tension between what is scientifically possible and what is permissible, based on our ethical guidelines. "This brings to the fore the whole question of the conflict between science and religion," concluded Shapiro. "I think that Dr. Loike gave expression to the notion that there does not have to be a conflict, that the two can live together, and he's a very good example of that from his own personal and professional life. The more people [there are] like him, the more consonance one can find between the two endeavors."

© 2001 Miryam Z. Wahrman

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