At Christmas, not only Christians but all the world thinks of babies – babies today, and The Baby then, Jesus Christ. As Wesley, the greatest poet of Christmas since he was of all hymn-writers most alive to the divine assumption of human nature, sang:
Our God contracted to a span
Incomprehensibly made Man.
He was “made Man” as a baby; to be precise, he was manifest as a baby having been miraculously conceived in his virgin mother’s womb, in a central Christian doctrine of telling relevance to contemporary bioethics. Human nature, in its indivisible and ineffable dignity and from its first beginnings, bore the weight of the Second Person of the Trinity. Any lingering doubts that humankind may have had as to human worth were vanquished with one stroke of the divine pen as “the Word became flesh.” It is not the Christian view – pace Peter Singer – that members of Homo sapiens are uniquely significant in themselves, in a power grab among species. Having made us in his image, he now deigns to take our own form for himself. We derive our dignity from God, and he has underlined that dignity in terms that would be sheer blasphemy were they not revealed at the heart of our faith: by walking with us as one of us. And – in another aspect of this doctrine of equally telling relevance to the bioethics of “posthumanism” and all its works – he bears our human nature still. Hear Wesley once more:
Of our flesh and of our bone,
Jesus is our brother now.
Or in the more prosaic terms of Princeton’s Charles Hodge, doyen of Reformed theologians of the nineteenth century, “he who sits on the throne of the universe is both perfect Man and perfect God.”
Christmas, as the festival of the Incarnation, is the world’s opportunity for reflection on what it means to be human, to bear this nature that God modeled after his and has taken to be his through the en-fleshment of his Son.
And so as Christmas comes again the specter of human cloning haunts the globe. Publicity-hungry scientists claim clonal pregnancies on the verge of delivery, and their corporate cousins, dollar-hungry, are poised on the brink of the mass production of clonal embryos as experimental objects. We see on the one hand human beings made as copies to order; and on the other human beings made for the single purpose of experimental destruction. Stanford University’s muddled and meretricious announcement of its new cloning venture and Severino Antinori’s promise of a clonal birth in, of all places, Serbia, offer twin reminders of the fragility of our civilization, as democratic institutions around the world struggle to contain these wholly fresh opportunities for evil.
For Americans, who have watched for five years as attempts to secure federal legislation have so far been frustrated, there is encouragement elsewhere in the world. In many diverse nations laws have been passed, or are in process, that comprehensively ban cloning, including Germany, France, Norway, Spain, Italy, and Australia. At least as important, the European Union has denied funding for work on cloning embryos through its huge Science Directorate in the next four-year cycle. At the United Nations, 2002 saw energetic debates between those who sought an international convention to ban merely live-born cloned babies, and those – led by the United States and Spain – who argued for a convention that would ban human cloning comprehensively. This debate will renew in 2003. What is, ironically, encouraging is that Germany and France – co-sponsors of the more limited approach – have a more comprehensive policy at home. In Germany, especially, Greens and Christian Democrats from the two wings of politics fall heir to the German conscience on science and ethics. We look to Germany for moral leadership. On the other side are ranged a curious and small clutch of nations that are seeking to clone experimental embryos, led by Singapore, the People’s Republic of China, and to its lasting shame the United Kingdom.
Yet the stakes are as high as could be. Cloning is not just the first round of the many discoveries biotech will thrust upon the world; it may yet prove decisive in shaping the policy context for their exploitation in the face of the precious, frail, flower of human dignity. As Christians turn their thoughts back to the infant Jesus, in all his seeming fragility “contracted to a span,” they also turn their prayers above, to the one who is still “of our flesh and of our bone” on the right hand of God the Father, in a new litany for deliverance from the abuses of unethical science and its na?e or dishonest practitioners. And they will also gird up their loins for the next round in this great struggle. The 108th Congress confronts an unique opportunity to speak for human dignity in biotechnology.
Let us work and pray to ensure that it does not fail the test of history.
Nigel M. de S. Cameron is Executive Chairman of the Center for Bioethics and Culture (thecbc.org) and Director of the Council for Biotechnology Policy (biotechpolicy.org).
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