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BEHIND THE HEADLINES In whose image? Cloning debate triggers theological questions

WASHINGTON, March 4 (JTA) — Forget about counting sheep. Dolly raises enough pressing questions about faith, immortality and the nature of self to last an insomniac’s lifetime. A genetic clone created by scientists in Scotland and unveiled to the world last week — the first carbon-copy mammal and most-famous sheep — has generated a host of theological and moral concerns. Across denominational lines, there appears to be clear consensus within the Jewish community that the controversial feat — which could presage the ability to clone human beings — constitutes a morally unjustifiable intrusion into the realm of the Divine. Some see cloning as a kind of modern day Tower of Babel — an attempt by people to raise themselves to the level of God through human achievement. “Do we move into the area of God by creating human beings? said Rabbi Kassel Abelson, chairman of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. “How does the clone relate to the original subject? Who is responsible for the clone? These areas need thought, exploration and careful consideration.” From a biblical perspective, rabbis are particularly troubled by the notion of a human made in one’s own image rather than the image of God, as stated in the Book of Genesis. “If you begin to manufacture people, that flies in the face of the very value system that is inherent in the text,” said Rabbi Richard Address, director of the Reform movement’s committee on bioethics. “It flies in the face of the mystery of human existence, what makes you you.” Rabbi Moshe Tendler, an Orthodox professor of Jewish medical ethics at Yeshiva University in New York, sees additional dangers in the new technology. “The real problem is whenever man has shown mastery over man, it has always meant the enslavement of man,” Tendler, who could not be reached for comment, was quoted as saying by The New York Times. Some of the more ghastly scenarios batted about include the possibility of cloning donor bodies that could be harvested for organs, as well as the creation of a sort of techno-slave culture. The scientific breakthrough also sounds a particularly disturbing note for Jews, given Nazi Germany’s pursuit of a society of superior beings. “Can you really do this in a Jewishly sanctioned framework in light of the Holocaust, where you had genetic experimentation on human beings carried out in that context?” said Address of the Reform movement. Most ethicists believe that the practice of cloning humans would fly directly in the face of lessons derived from the Holocaust. Robert Pollack, a professor of biological sciences at Columbia University, believes that cloning humans would stand as a violation of medical ethics standards adopted at an international conference in Nuremberg in the 1940s. In the wake of the Holocaust and the horrible medical experiments performed on its victims, physicians gathered at that symbolic site to formulate a set of guiding principles on issues surrounding human experimentation. They agreed that no experimentation should be performed without full disclosure and voluntary participation. Moreover, the volunteer must be free to withdraw at any time. Pollack believes that cloning violates that standard: “I don’t see how” a cloned person “can withdraw without committing suicide,” he said. Despite a frantic waving of red flags in the wake of the cloning breakthrough, the reality is that human cloning may be impossible to stop. The biotechnology, scientists say, is relatively simple. “In science, the one rule is that what can be done will be done,” Tendler said. That is why Jewish theologians and medical ethicists see a pressing need to weigh in on the cloning debate as it begins to be shaped. Their hope is that society will think twice about trying to play the role of God and focus instead on less morally objectionable applications of the scientific knowledge. “Technology by definition is neutral,” Address said. “What we do with it and how we choose to use it will determine whether it’s a blessing or a curse.”