In response to:

The Confusion over Cloning from the October 23, 1997 issue

To the Editors:

We are writing to clarify what the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) recommended in its report on Cloning Human Beings, which R.C. Lewontin reviewed in The New York Review [October 23, 1997]. Such reports are not easy to review, but no one could learn from Lewontin’s review what the Commission recommended or its reasons for doing so. Indeed, the review reveals much more about the reviewer’s position on cloning and the relation of science, ethics, and religion than about NBAC’s position or reasoning.

Lewontin reports correctly that the Commission recommended a ban on cloning humans, but he fails to describe the nature, scope, and limits of that ban or to identify its rationale. Among its several recommendations, the Commission recommended a temporary ban, through federal legislation including a sunset clause, on the use of somatic cell nuclear transfer cloning to create children. Although the Commission heard and considered many ethical arguments for and against human cloning, it based this recommendation solely on the ethical argument, in line with the available scientific evidence (which the review concedes), that the technique is not safe to use in humans to create children at this time. Our ethical concern around the issue of safety is a quite natural extension of the growing concern since Nuremberg for protecting human participants in scientific research and for avoiding the premature initiation of new clinical practices.

Protecting the children who might be born of somatic cell nuclear transfer cloning, and the women who might bear such children, was not, as we have already noted, the only moral argument the Commission heard and considered. We heard concerns expressed that such cloning was a form of hubris or would lead inexorably to exploitation and even oppression; that it would result in children being treated as objects, even as commodities; that it would damage the integrity of families; that it would somehow threaten individuality and autonomy. While we were persuaded that some of these concerns deserved serious further reflection, this was not possible given the time constraints imposed upon us. As a result, the Commission recommended a continuing national dialogue (to which the Lewontin review clearly contributes) that would focus on these and related ethical issues. Our hope was that such a dialogue involving “widespread and careful public deliberation” about a wide range of ethical and social concerns, together with new scientific evidence, would clarify society’s ultimate view regarding the appropriate use of this new technology. Thus, the Commission’s recommendation regarding the current use of somatic cell nuclear transfer cloning techniques to create children rested only on the safety argument. The Commission did not, contrary to Lewontin’s interpretation, base its recommendation for a temporary ban on other concerns such as objectification.

Lewontin also criticizes the Commission for turning to religious scholars from some of the principal religious faiths in America to gain an understanding of their views on the matters before us and for including a chapter on “religious perspectives.” We did so for two reasons. One was to access the resources they had developed over the years to deal with associated issues. Second, the simple fact that so many Americans look to these major religious faiths for moral guidance made it important for us to try to understand their perspectives.

America is a fascinating and complex nation of religious believers and non-believers of various stripes, with deep commitments to religious freedom and firm traditions regarding the non-interference of government in these matters. As a result, believers cannot look to the government to reflect back to them their particular religious beliefs, and no particular religion, therefore, can become the cultural project of the government. In our view, however, this does not bar the consideration in public debate of thoughtful arguments whatever their source. On the contrary, in a society such as ours, it is essential that we try to understand the thoughtful views of others. While recognizing that public policies in our society cannot be based on religious considerations alone, the Commission wanted to learn from diverse theological and philosophical perspectives the positions taken and the arguments made about cloning humans. While religious traditions influence the moral views of many citizens, it is more relevant to note that moral arguments in these traditions often rest on premises accessible to citizens outside those traditions, and their norms and judgments often overlap with secular ones. Holding that “all voices should be welcome to the conversation” in our pluralistic society, the Commission invited and discussed religious perspectives “in the spirit of sustaining a national dialogue,” and in the belief that we all benefit from understanding the thoughtful views of others.

Finally, Lewontin distorts both theological and philosophical positions on cloning humans. He asserts that theologians attempt to “abolish hard ethical problems” and avoid “painful tensions.” (We ignore his phrase “internal contradictions,” which he includes along with “painful tensions,” because both philosophers and theologians try to avoid “internal contradictions” in order to develop defensible positions.) We regret that Professor Lewontin was not present at our public meetings with religious thinkers, who were quite candid about the “painful tensions” they experienced in attempting to understand and explain what their traditions had to say about the difficult issues raised by these new developments. It was clear to us that many theologians as well as many philosophers, both in testimony to NBAC and in other contexts, do recognize these “painful tensions.” Neither group as a whole failed to appreciate the moral conflicts involved in cloning humans, in various scenarios, or in different public policies toward cloning humans, even if different thinkers resolved them differently. And NBAC’s own reflections benefited greatly from both theological and philosophical perspectives and considerations.


Harold T. Shapiro
Chair, National Bioethics Advisory Commission
Princeton University
Princeton, New Jersey

James F. Childress
National Bioethics Advisory Commission member
University of Virginia
Charlottesville, Virginia
Thomas H. Murray
National Bioethics Advisory Commission member
Case Western Reserve University
School of Medicine
Cleveland, Ohio

Richard Lewontin replies:

The complaint of the members of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, that I failed to report their final recommendation to the President, is a just one. They did, indeed, recommend a temporary ban on the creation of cloned children because it is not safe, and I should have said so explicitly. But that very recommendation, as well as the rest of their letter, simply underlines the shortcomings of the report to which I drew attention. As I pointed out at the beginning of my review, we do not ordinarily ask an ethics advisory commission for advice on the safety of medical research and procedures. Such matters are technical issues for the NIH or the FDA and if there are serious doubts about safety, the ethical issue would seem to be settled. It is disingenuous of the Commission members to suggest that these technical issues and their recommendation were somehow the central point of the whole affair, while they incidentally “heard concerns” about questions of individuality, exploitation, objectification, and the like and that they thought that “some of these concerns deserved serious further reflection.” The Commission asked for and received a great deal of testimony from theologians and ethical and political philosophers, and a large part of the 115-page report of the Commission was taken up with these considerations. There were chapters devoted to “Ethical Considerations” and “Religious Perspectives” and the majority of the Commission members were not even professionally competent to make judgments about technical biological issues. This was indeed an ethics inquiry in the broadest sense. The reliance of the Commission on purely technical matters of safety for their recommendation seems a neat way of finessing the political problems raised by the ethical, but especially the religious, issues. After all, if it is unsafe, we really don’t have to struggle over all the rest.
It is all the rest that raises unsettling social and political issues. A serious consideration of objectification could not avoid confronting the actual nature of relations between employer and employed and the degree to which most people have an actual choice about being objects whose value is calculated on the difference between their productivity and the cost of their wages. But that gets us into pretty deep political waters. A real concern with the false belief that genetic identity determines personal identity would involve an ethics commission in recommending some kind of serious state effort to enlighten people about the fallacy of biological determinism. And the Commission certainly did not want to have to take a position on abortion, a position that would certainly have led into problems of the relations between religion and the state. It was much the better part of valor to rest their case on safety and they have my genuine sympathy.

The discussion about religion in the letter from the Commission members is rather contradictory. It is undoubtedly true, as they say, that religion informs either directly or indirectly the ethical and moral views of Americans. Indeed, I would even want to claim that Western secular moral philosophers cannot avoid the influence of Biblical morality that has permeated the atmosphere of the culture in which they exist. But how can they, on the other hand, argue that “the fact that so many Americans look to these major religious faiths for moral guidance made it important for us to try to understand their perspective” while excluding testimony from precisely the major religious tradition, Protestant fundamentalism, that most deliberately enters public debate on issues of morality and state policy? The answer seems pretty obvious. It was a matter of safety again, this time political safety. The struggle over the role that religion is to play in forming state policy has never been more acute than it now is, and the Commission needed to avoid getting embroiled in it.


Finally, Iunderstand the state of moral philosophy differently from Shapiro, Childress, and Murray. Philosophers do indeed try to avoid contradictions, but these are what we may call “analytic” contradictions. That is, one is not allowed to say both “A” and “not-A” (unless the whole purpose is to demonstrate that such an analytic contradiction is contained in the very structure of the logic.) The problem in moral philosophy, however, is not that there are analytic contradictions but that no system yet devised of constructing “ought” statements from basic axioms has been able to avoid practical contradictions like the conflicts of different but equal rights in theories of justice. That is, moral philosophy does not give us unambiguous directions about what to do in all situations. What religious revelation does is to provide the certainty that in all situations there is an unambiguously right thing to do, as given by Divine Law, and leaves only the question of how to know God’s will. We may hear an inner voice or we may need help from an expert. We may be dissatisfied with what we hear and try to get a second opinion (the use of Talmudic Law is filled with second opinions). The text is there. The problem is to decipher it.

The contradiction facing the Bioethics Commission was that between practical politics and philosophical coherence.

This Issue

March 5, 1998