Why We Honor the Human Embryo
My family gathered after our holiday feast to play Balderdash, a game in which players make up definitions for infrequently used words. The made-up definitions are thrown in with the real one, and each player hopes the others will choose his or her “fake” as the right one. As is often true in our house, being clever ended up being more important than winning—invariably someone in each round proposed that the word in question referred to “humans whose DNA has been genetically engineered by extraterrestrials from a planet the size of one’s finger.” It was a tongue-in-cheek way of rolling their eyes at members of the Raelian cult, who announced in December that they had cloned the first human.
At the time of this writing it is probably safe to say the Raelian announcement was a hoax. Yet even if all they’ve done is create a publicity stunt, plenty of other groups are clamoring to be the first to clone a human.
How should Christians feel about cloning? Many oppose it because of the “yuck” factor—it simply feels weird. Something tells us it is wrong, but can we support why we believe that with more than a gut feeling?
We don’t have to search very far in the Bible to find some direction, as we read in Genesis 1 about the first man and woman: “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground’” (Gen. 1:28).
The Hebrew word for “living creature” refers to animal life and is often used for four-legged beasts. So when God outlined the boundaries of human dominion, He gave the man and woman dominion over the plant, fish, and animal kingdoms. Notice that something is missing from this list: other humanity. While we might kill fish to eat we don’t kill other humans to benefit ourselves; we might experiment on mice, but we shouldn’t take enormous risks experimenting on each other. Humans are special. And killing humans, even tiny ones, in an effort to improve our lives, oversteps the boundaries of dominion that God has ordained.
Later, after the Flood, God spoke to Noah and his sons, and He repeated the admonition to “be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth” (9:1). God seems to have given humans the additional aid they will need to manage the world in their post-Fall state. He said, “The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands” (9:2).
We see from other passages that we may seek to overcome some effects of the Fall by working to cure diseases, as disease is a factor in human life. The Good Samaritan parable shows that we are to try to help the injured (Luke 10:25–37); Jesus sent the disciples to heal the sick (Matt. 10:8); Paul told Timothy to take something because of his stomach and frequent illnesses (1 Tim. 5:23). Yet if we go so far as to snuff out life, even at the tiny embryo stage, in an effort to improve our quality of life, we enter a realm that rightfully belongs only to God.
In addition to looking at the Scriptures (special revelation) we can learn from the world around us (general revelation). The Book of Proverbs tells us to consider God’s creation—to observe and gain wisdom. And what does research tell us? Animal studies to date suggest that we are nowhere close to perfecting the cloning process, nor can we ever be without destroying countless lives. It took sacrificing 277 sheep embryos to get the first live cloned animal—Dolly, who died last month. And cloned animals, if they even survive to term, have an enormously high rate of genetic defects.
Within the past year researchers, conducting the largest study of its kind, looked at ten thousand genes in placentas from cloned mice and found that one in every twenty-five genes was abnormal. A Nobel laureate and professor of biochemistry at Stanford University insisted that if the error rate was so high in animals, when it comes to humans, “it should not be done. Period.”
Holding a high view of human life, even at the embryo stage, and respecting the boundaries of our dominion have ramifications beyond cloning. There is also the question of abortion, the process of destroying a tiny developing human life. Then there’s the in vitro lab, where infertile couples choosing assisted reproductive technologies need to insist that each tiny life is respected and no embryos are destroyed. And there’s the embryonic stem cell debate. What often gets lost in the rhetoric is that there are sources of stem cells that don’t require the destruction of human embryos. In other words we can find cures for diseases without resorting to the destruction of human life. Adult stem-cell research holds tremendous promise that has been underreported in the media. Unlike embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells have already been used in ways that have saved lives.
By taking a high view of life we affirm the worth of each individual—no matter how small—to God. When He created the man and woman He pronounced them “very good,” the crown jewels of His creation. And since the creation of the first couple each human, made in His image, has unique personhood from the moment chromosomes align and unique DNA is formed. Even those tinier than the period at the end of this sentence—as we once were—are of inestimable worth to Him. He Himself was that small for a time. The God of the infinitely huge and infinitely tiny, the one who made planets and fingers, Himself once shrunk to the size of an embryo and took on human flesh.