The Coming of the Clone Wars

February 13, 2004 | 39 comments
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One of my best friends is a biochemist, and he recently pointed out to me that while the a great amount of ink is spilled and blogs filled with debate about SSM, in his mind a farther reaching event has occurred: South Korean (Hanguk mansae!) scientists have cloned a human cell and grown it into a blastocyst.

If implanted into a woman this embryo would have a good chance of developing into the first cloned human. But these scientists only intend to use stem cells from the embryo to try and develop cures for diseases like Parkinsons and diabetes. The ability to make new stem cells (and therefore create new neurons or other specialized cells) genetically identical to a patient will open up many new possibilities in medicine.

The paper is already available (for free) on the Science website and has been peer-reviewed and throroughly examined. My biochemist friend insists that this is not the Raelians. It is real.

According to the The NY Times Carrie Gordon Earll, bioethics analyst for Focus on the Family, a conservative ministry in Colorado Springs, called the research “nothing short of cannibalism.”

“We don’t sacrifice one human life in order to possibly help another human
life,” Ms. Earll said. “This really is discrimination against the most vulnerable human being.”

The Catholic church and most mainstream Protestant churches, I am told, have denounced the finding and all research on cloning, for either therapeutic or reproductive purposes.

So where do we stand on this issue? Is there a Mormon perspective that could contribute to this debate? How would we even go about thinking through these issues? Thus far Mormonism has dealt with the abortion debates in a pretty atheoretical way. Despite the desire that Matt and other hard-core prolifers might have for determinate doctrinal statements on things like where human life begins, we really don’t have any clear theory explaining our moderate pro-life stance. I think that there are some huge advantages to this rather vague approach. On the other hand, as biotechnology starts throwing out more and more difficult scenarios, I wonder if we are going to be forced into more rigorous reflection on these sorts of issues.

Stay tuned…

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39 Responses to The Coming of the Clone Wars

  1. brayden on February 13, 2004 at 1:20 pm

    I think the Church’s “ambiguous” statement about stem cell research was actually fairly clear. If the leaders of the Church thought that embryos had spirits, they would have strongly opposed any stem cell research on embryos. Because they didn’t, they must believe the opposite. They didn’t say anything like “we’re still waiting for revelation on this issue,” although that doesn’t preclude the possibility of future revelation either.

  2. Adam Greenwood on February 13, 2004 at 2:00 pm

    I couldn’t agree less, Brayden. Ambiguity is, you know, ambiguous. If the Church had wanted to state that embryos didn’t have spirits, they could have said so.

  3. clarkgoble on February 13, 2004 at 2:10 pm

    I did a search at the church’s press pages and I can’t find a statement on embryos, stem cells or anything related. Could you provide a link? I mentioned in the other thread the indication (admittedly from silence) that they didn’t consider after-sex birth control abortion. But as Adam points out, it isn’t completely clear.

    The issue is that I think the church *would* state something positive if it were something serious. (Unlike Adam, I feel that commandments for grevious acts are exteremely likely. I don’t understand why they’d talk about R-rated movies and not possible murder.)

    Slate pointed out during the stem cell debate that all Mormon Senators were for stem cell research. Indeed they actually felt that Mormons were largely controlling the debate. (Although I think the policy that we got wasn’t what the Mormons wanted)

    http://slate.msn.com/?id=112974

  4. Randy on February 13, 2004 at 4:13 pm

    Seems to me that Brayden and Clark are dead on. It is important to keep in mind that the Church made the decision to address — in a formal statement — the issue of stem cell research. This is not a case where we are left to merely analogize to similar situations, or to speculate as to the meaning of informal remarks made by former GAs. The Church chose to take an official position on an important scientific, social, and political question — a pretty rare event. Now, admittedly, the Church’s statement is far from comprehensive, and it does not address the concerns of many, but the statement would most certainly have been radically different if the leaders of the Church believed that embryos at the very earliest stages have spirits. The Brethern, presumably, went to the Lord on the question of stem cell research, and the Church’s statement is, presumably, His answer. I suppose it is possible that the Lord is intentially keeping us in the dark and that stem cell research truly is tantamount to murder. But seriously, just how likely is that?

  5. clarkgoble on February 13, 2004 at 4:38 pm

    I’m not convinced that it was direct revelation Randy. But I am convinced that were there any doubt in the apostles minds that they’d have restricted it. We’re talking about people who do come down on ethical grey areas by erring on the side of caution.

  6. Adam Greenwood on February 13, 2004 at 4:41 pm

    The Church took an official non-position that people keep trying to twist into a position.

    ‘The Church doesn’t endorse the Republican Party, so obviously God wants us to be Democrats.’

    ‘If embryos didn’t have spirits, the Church would have said so outright, so obviously embryos do’

  7. clarkgoble on February 13, 2004 at 4:43 pm

    There is a big difference Adam due to the moral implications of being wrong in the 1st trimester issue. After all one isn’t accidentally a murder if one votes Republican (despite what some liberal pundits might claim) With the 1st trimester that is the issue. So I think the “your choice” bit is far more significant than you suggest.

  8. Randy on February 13, 2004 at 5:20 pm

    Adam: Please don’t hold me to any implications that may stem from my prior post — it was, at most, an official non-position. :>

    Seriously though, I think my argument is more akin to this:

    “The Church, in responding to questions about whether its members should join a particular political party, has stated that faithful members may join the Democratic party, but should do so after careful consideration. We can safely assume, therefore, that joining the Democratic party is not a grievous sin that will jeopardize our salvation.”

    By the way, I happen to believe that as well.

    Clark: I hear what you are saying, and I think you are right. But I do believe that the Brethern prayfully considered whether they should issue the statement, and that they felt the statement issued was consistent with the answers they received to their prayers–even if the answers to their prayers were not as unambiguous as we would have liked. I also think your point about the nature of these folks to err on the side of caution–particularly as to the weighter matters of the law–is entirely correct.

  9. Rob on February 13, 2004 at 5:42 pm

    Yikes…for a moment there I was really scared. Thought you were going to talk about another bad Lucas film…

  10. Aaron Brown on February 13, 2004 at 5:56 pm

    LDS debates about abortion, stem-cell research, etc., inevitably focus on the question “when does the spirit enter the body.” But isn’t the horror and revulsion we all experience at the thought of “murder” (i.e. the wrongful, forceful separation of another’s spirit from his/her body) in large part a product of the conviction that “murder” robs a soul of its chance to progress through mortality like the rest of us?

    If so, I wonder what mitigating factor, if any, certain LDS beliefs might have on the perceived heinousness of abortion or stem-cell research. I think, for example, of the widespread belief that LDS parents who’ve experienced the tragic loss of a young child will have the opportunity to raise that deceased child in the Milennium.

    In other words, it seems to me that there is precedent in Mormon thought for NOT seeing the question of when the spirit enters the body as completely determinative as to the heinousness of these acts. Even if we had a definitive answer as to when the spirit enters the body, wouldn’t that, rather than settling these issues, just invite a further line of inquiry: “Given that the spirit enters the body at Point X in time, at what point can we be certain that termination of this person’s life will definitely preclude his/her opportunity to experience earth-life at some point in the future?”

    Just wondering.

    Aaron B

  11. clarkgoble on February 13, 2004 at 6:02 pm

    Aaron, I agree, and I think both Matt and I hashed that out in the following thread:
    http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000391.html

    The issue relative to the statement of the brethren isn’t necessarily why it is wrong but whether it is seriously wrong. Taking silence as Adam does requires that one believes that the brethren wouldn’t err on the side of caution. Silence often communicates while I think Adam is trying to take it as having literally no meaning.

    Consider the following. You ask a girl you like if she loves you and she refuses to answer. It is pretty clear that the context entails that this isn’t simply no position.

    But you are right. It may well be that a spirit could get an other body after entering into a fetus up to a certain point. It may well be that a spirit is permanently assigned a fetus prior to entering that fetus.

    The point is that in all these cases robbing a spirit of its body is a grevious sin. It might not be murder (and I don’t think the church considers abortion murder). But it certainly is very grevious. So I just can’t imagine the brethren remaining silence if they felt there was a chance of being wrong. At a bear minimum I’d expect Elder Packer to say something. (I truly admire his willingness to state his views on these issues)

  12. brayden on February 13, 2004 at 7:03 pm

    I don’t think that doing stem cell research on an embryo really robs a spirit of a body. God will not deny an opportunity for a spirit to come to this earth just because an embryo was aborted. If this is the case, then the whole question of at what point does the spirit enter the body is of no concern. Either way, the spirit is deprived of its body.

    I think Clark stated it most clearly in his posts. If the brethren clearly felt that stem cell research was tantamount to abortion, they would have come out against it.

  13. Jared on February 14, 2004 at 1:09 am

    I consider myself politically conservative and true-blue, mainstream LDS–and I’m a cautious supporter of stem cell research. I am sure that I am influenced by the fact that I work in biological research. Were the Brethren to come out against it, I would certainly have to re-evaluate my position but for now I’m okay with it.

    Why? The fact that the blastocyst has not implanted is important to me. I have a hard time believing that the spirit enters the body before the blastocyst has even implanted–I mean there is still some flexibility allowed, such as spliting to create twins.

    I also think of the following scenario: what if one of the cells of my body could be coaxed to become totipotent (a feat currently not possible). Would it be mine to decide how to use it (ie. differentiate it into a tissue type that I need) or would I be obligated to treat it as a new individual with rights? I favor the former.

    I don’t quite agree with the phrase “life begins at conception” because first of all, the sperm and egg were alive to begin with, and second, one fertilized egg does not necessarily result in one human. It seems more like a convenient line in the sand to me. Why can’t the line be implantation?

    I suppose some might argue that it would be murder if I put some sperm and an egg in a petri dish and then left for a two week vacation–I allowed fertilization to occur but let the resulting cell(s) die by my neglect. This line of argument just doesn’t sit well with me.

    I’m not a philosopher nor a lawyer, but that’s what I think–for now.

  14. Geoff Matthews on February 14, 2004 at 1:47 am

    Well, the the researcher’s credit, they wanted a ban on cloning for creating humans. Given the frequency of deformaties, and the shortened life span of succesful clones, I tend to agree.
    In any case, I’m really disapointed that there is so little coverage of non-embryonic stem cell research.

  15. Clark Goble on February 14, 2004 at 4:16 am

    I agree Geoff. Some of the avenues of coaxing regular cells to become stem cells are rather exciting, even if success is perhaps a ways off.

    The problem is that the mainstream press has never been particular adept at dealing with scientific research or discovery. But it has been reasonably well covered in the scientific press. (i.e. magazines like Science News or New Scientist)

  16. Jared on February 14, 2004 at 10:21 am

    I incorrectly stated that formation of twins can occur at the blastocyst stage. However, this does not change my line of reasoning much.

  17. Jason on February 14, 2004 at 5:21 pm

    Jared: Why do you think ‘they’ would contend that “life begins at conception”? I agree that sperm and ovum are ‘alive’ prior to conception but the commission of dousing a petri dish with that combo when compared to ‘getting ones hand caught in the proverbial cookie jar of life’ are fruits of different sorts.

    Has the church issued a policy against organ transplants? I tend to think that it is no stretch of logic to endorse ’tissue’ research. At what point of this tissues’ evolution does it attain individual rights? A unique spirit? I just confused myself. Wow.

  18. Jim F. on February 14, 2004 at 11:15 pm

    I have nothing to say about stem cell research. Rather than hide my ignorance, I will just announce it. But I’m curious as to how many understood Nate’s transliteration (Hanguk mansae!) and why three of the bloggers on this site served missions in Korea.

  19. Russell Arben Fox on February 15, 2004 at 10:52 am

    “But I’m curious as to how many understood Nate’s transliteration (Hanguk mansae!) and why three of the bloggers on this site served missions in Korea.”

    “Blessed Korea!” or “Forward Korea!” or “Korea, hurrah!” or something like that, right? Sorry, I’m writing from home and my Hangukmal dictionary is at work. (While I still list Korean as one of the language I can speak on my vitae, that is, strictly speaking, a lie; to my great regret, lack of opportunities to practice has reduced my knowledge of the tongue to around zero.)

    Why are one-third of the permanent T&S bloggers Korean mission RMs? Well, it just reflects the inevitable consequences of serving in Korea, doesn’t it? Spend two years trying to preach the gospel in South Korea, and you’re bound to turn into a doubting, debating, Socratic philosopher. (That, or a bitter carpet-chewing apostate. Or a xenophobic know-nothing. On rare occasions, all three.)

  20. Jim F. on February 15, 2004 at 1:35 pm

    I’m pretty sure it means “Korea forever,” literally “Korea 10,000 generations.” I think I had a somewhat different experience in Korea than you. My time in Korea was incredibly difficult (as, I suppose, are most missions), but it was also profoundly spiritual, in large part because so many of the Koreans I knew were profoundly spiritual.

  21. Russell Arben Fox on February 15, 2004 at 4:55 pm

    Thanks for the correct translation Jim. I’d love to take what you say about your mission as some kind of consolation, but the fact is I was often moved by the intensity and spirituality of many Koreans I knew as well. It’s an incredible place. No, if I’m cynical about my mission (and I’m not always), it’s primarily for reasons that have to do with the sort of missionary I was, and only secondarily with the place I served.

  22. Adam Greenwood on February 15, 2004 at 6:33 pm

    You concede too much, Aaron B. You’re suggesting that at some point the person passes a point of no return. If they pass it, they have had adequate experience and can’t be sent back to earth for another go around. But if they don’t, killing them doesn’t matter because they come to earth again. I’m not willing to bet that you’re account is correct, but let’s take it as a given.

    So why would there be a point beyond which God wouldn’t return the spirit to another chance of life? Presumably because that point is the point at which the person has had adequate experience, etc., to have all the blessings of eternal life. Which means that ultimately their untimely death doesn’t matter. If God’s justice and willingness to make it up to the spirit is an argument for abortion, it is also an argument for murder (which are two sides of the same coin, in my opinion).

  23. Nate Oman on February 15, 2004 at 8:06 pm

    Russell: I am glad that you did not have an unremittentantly negative experience on your mission. For my part, I found it very difficult and often discouraging (largely because of what I learned about myself — I am quite selfish). On the other hand, it was an awesome and transformative experience for me, one that is largely responsible for whatever bits of decency I have in my character.

    Of course, I was in the Pusan Mission. Things were no doubt different in the north…

  24. Matt Evans on February 16, 2004 at 12:25 am

    I’m too busy, again, to write a comprehensive response (which I’d love to do, given my interest and passion for this issue), but a few quick points:

    – I’m curious about the idea of living human bodies that don’t have spirits. Are there any scriptural bases for the presumption that some living human bodies do not have spirits? I’ve always understood our theology to be that the temporal and spiritual creations are coterminous.

    And are these living human bodies that die before they’re inhabited by a spirit redeemed from death? Are there some living things that die, are forever subject to the Fall, and that is the end thereof?

    – The church condemns all elective abortions without regard to fetal age. Abortion is one of the few sins singled out in the Handbook of Instructions as creating a presumptive need for a formal disciplinary council, even if the person is unendowed. Even the sins of adultery and homosexual behavior aren’t included on this list. Why is aborting an embryo that’s only a fraction of a millimeter wide (implantation occurs around day 9-11) treated so severely?

  25. Grasshopper on February 16, 2004 at 11:57 am

    Matt,

    It may be important to qualify your question about “living human bodies that don’t have spirits” to “living human bodies that don’t have *human* spirits”. In some strains of Mormon thought, matter at all levels has a spirit component, though those “spirits” are not necessarily human (e.g., a blade of grass may be considered to have a “spirit” in some sense, and participate in some degree of redemption from the Fall, along with the rest of creation. It seems to me that a fetus that does not yet have a human spirit could be considered in the same light. (In a similar way, the cells in my body could be considered to have “spirits”, too.)

    Your last question is a good one and may point out an inconsistency with the recent statement on stem cell research. But there may be an important distinction between an implanted fetus resulting from sexual intercourse and a non-implanted fetus resulting from scientific research.

  26. Matt Evans on February 16, 2004 at 11:22 pm

    Grasshopper,

    Regarding the disparate treatment of embryos inside and outside a woman’s body, cynics noted that the only pro-life politicians who switched sides to support embryo-destructive research were men. Ann Coulter conceded that the pro-choice feminists were right about one thing: some pro-life men aren’t interested in protecting new human life, their pro-life convictions extend only to rules that impose burdens on women.

    As soon as researchers started speculating on all kinds of spectacular cures for their family illnesses, pro-lifers like Hatch knew right where to start. “A human life, that little thing? It’s just a blob of tissue! You think that’s a human being at an early stage of development? That’s like saying an acorn is an oak!”

  27. Grasshopper on February 17, 2004 at 12:41 am

    I was speaking of a distinction from the perspective of the Church, not from the perspective of legislators.

  28. Clark Goble on February 17, 2004 at 3:22 am

    Actually to be fair, I think Hatch was simply following the typical Mormon view of what constitutes life. Criticizing him for this seems a bit unfair. You may disagree with him. But to insinuate that expediency rules over principle is unfair in this case.

  29. Matt Evans on February 17, 2004 at 10:33 am

    Clark, I agree that we don’t know that Hatch was only acting expediently in this case. It just happens that he is a man, has only supported protecting human life when it burdens a woman, and now opposes protecting human life when it may benefit men, so his ‘principle’ has the _appearance_ of *How Convenient*! That appearance was compounded by his inability to persuade any female pro-life legislators of his ‘principle’.

    (Note that *How Convenient* should always be pronounced with irritating voice of Church Lady.)

  30. clarkgoble on February 17, 2004 at 1:56 pm

    I think Matt that goes more to metaphysical issues. I rather suspect that were there more Mormon *women* there that they’d agree with Hatch. I suspect that the majority of the women you discuss hold metaphysics quite different from Mormons and are more of the Evangelical Protestant or Catholic view of life.

    i.e. I think this a red herring.

  31. Nate Oman on February 17, 2004 at 2:19 pm

    Ditto on Clark’s statements. I have never been a big fan of Hatch’s but I think that the charges of stealth misogyny are kind of silly hyperbole.

    Matt, I am curious to hear your response to the Grasshoper’s original speculation that not all souls need by human souls. I assume that he is refering here to Orson Pratt’s pansychism. It is an interesting angle. The idea that ALL matter is ensouled in some sense seems to create all sorts of interesting issues. If we take “respect for life” as meaning something like “respect for ensouled bodies,” and further specify that “respect” entails not dismembering or disolving or destroying ensouled bodies then it seems that virtually ANY form of research other than pure observation becomes morally suspect.

    Hmm….

  32. Clark Goble on February 17, 2004 at 2:46 pm

    Nate, I think one has to be careful regarding taking panpsychism too far. After all to a panpsychic, rocks have souls. This was, btw, the default belief among both Stoics and neoPlatonists. So it was a very widespread belief in the ancient world not including the animism of many primitive peoples.

    With regards to research, I think that it doesn’t entail only passive research. Rather panpsychism seems to have as a natural corollary that Matt’s notion of “moral worth” is matter of degrees.

    Of course one can argue for this without adopting panpsychism. Many Mormons feel higher animals have souls. But I don’t think this means they espouse say PETA’s positions on animal experimentation. It does, however, give a moral character to scientific experimentation that those denying soul often overlook.

  33. Greg Call on February 17, 2004 at 5:12 pm

    Clark says: “After all to a panpsychic, rocks have souls. This was, btw, the default belief among both Stoics and neoPlatonists. So it was a very widespread belief in the ancient world not including the animism of many primitive peoples.”

    A simple panpsychism was also a widespread belief in my mission, as Cleon Skousen’s essay “The Meaning of the Atonement” made the rounds, as these things do. If I recall the essay correctly, he says that every element, including rocks and trees, have an intelligence that *choose* to obey God out of respect. I don’t know if that essay was a last gasp of Pratt-style panpsychism, or whether it represents an enduring belief of many contemporary Mormons.

  34. Matt Evans on February 17, 2004 at 5:16 pm

    Hi Nate, I know nothing about panpsychism (aside from what I can infer from your and Clark’s claims). I’ve always assumed the spiritual creation was on a system-level, i.e., the earth was spiritually created, but that didn’t mean that each particle of earth had a different spirit. I’m most interested in the death of organisms, because that seems to be the level of death redeemed from the fall. It’s hard to imagine that the 600 layers of epidermis that die and slough off a person are going to be resurrected. (How much skin does a resurrected being need? : )

  35. Matt Evans on February 17, 2004 at 5:22 pm

    Greg, I’ve never read Skousen’s essay, but it sounds like he was reasoning from Helaman 12, where Mormon says that men are less than the dust of the earth, because the dust and the elements do what God tells them to, but men do not.

  36. lyle on February 17, 2004 at 5:23 pm

    How can the dust be more obedient that we…unless each dust particle has the CHOICE to refuse to obey to move? The scripture, maybe, implies that every type of matter has some type of agency.

  37. Brent on February 17, 2004 at 5:56 pm

    Different intelligences, some like unto God? Some act, some are acted upon. I remember the Skousen essay making the rounds in my mission as well. I heard a tape of it and read a couple of versions of it, one in English, the other in Spanish.

  38. clarkgoble on February 17, 2004 at 6:01 pm

    Lyle, I think C. S. Peirce’s panpsychism is most helpful here. (He largely started the pragmatist movement which is still very influential in philosophy) Peirce has the idea of habits. Entities allow laws to arise because they start acting in a habitual fashion. This offers many interesting parallels to recent discoveries in cosmological evolution and was itself fairly influenced by Darwinism.

    The implication is that God is in a relationship with entities such that they habitually obey him. This is actually a fairly common LDS belief, once again going back to Pratt. While I don’t recall Pratt discussing it, I susect one could say that God’s power is equal to the matter obeying him. Presumably one could say that the only matter particularly relevant are those which act in lawlike fashion – at least in the aggregate. Other matter is chaotic and thus not particularly relevant. This would parallel things like vacuum fluctuations in physics.

    I’m not saying panpsychism is correct – especially not Pratt’s version. But it actually does offer a lot of explanatory power.

  39. Matt Evans on February 17, 2004 at 9:46 pm

    Oh — another feature in favor of Skousen’s view is the typical Mormon explanation of miracles: it’s only looks to our eyes that miracles contravene laws, when matter is actually following a more fundamental law (God’s word).