Despite worldwide attention given to a religious sect's claim to have cloned the first human, religious ethicists are more concerned with the issue of cloning embryos for medical research than the pros and cons of reproductive cloning, according to participants in the volatile discussion.
Most notable has been a quiet but gradual increase in the number of ethicists who once wanted to limit research to frozen, "leftover" embryos in fertility labs but now support the cloning of embryos for experimental purposes, said Sondra Wheeler, professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Northwest Washington.
"They've crossed a line they would not have crossed five years ago," she said. "They shifted from hand-wringing disavowal [of embryonic cloning] to enthusiasts of the clinical promise of so-called therapeutic cloning."
At the same time, many religious ethicists -- most notably Roman Catholics and evangelical Christians -- remain firmly opposed to all forms of cloning.
Wheeler, who called research on existing embryos "morally tolerable" but would not give her position on the creation of embryos, said the philosophical change in many of her colleagues mirrors a shift in arguments made by scientists who hope to cure degenerative diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and diabetes by growing healthy cells to replace defective ones.Scientists now believe that cells produced from cloned embryos, especially those from the person who has the disease, are less likely to be rejected by the body than cells generated from embryos created by unrelated people.
President Bush has asked Congress to ban cloning, including the creation of embryos. The House of Representatives passed such a bill last year and reintroduced the measure this week. Senate Republicans are expected to renew efforts to pass a bill that would prohibit cloning or, failing that, place a moratorium on related research. Senate Democrats would respond with a bill that allows the cloning of embryos but not of babies.
At present, cloning research is not allowed in publicly funded laboratories but proceeds at private companies.
The shift in moral thinking has introduced new theological questions into the cloning debate, Wheeler said. "What sort of entity is an embryo? Is it simply another item in the inventory of the universe" or a future human being?
"At the least it ought to give you pause that [researchers] are bringing one life into being with the intent to destroy it to help a third party," she said.
Cohen said she believes, as do many scientists and religious leaders, that "very early embryos" -- those younger than 14 days -- cannot be considered human because cells have not formed a single, individualized entity.
"There's no doubt [early] cellular material is human material and has the human genome, but you can't put it together and say you have a human being," she said. Therefore "you can't say they are intended by God to go on and necessarily form human beings."Medical research on early embryos, including the cloning of embryos to extract genetic material before 14 days, is thus morally acceptable, Cohen said.
Ronald Cole-Turner, professor of theology and ethics at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and editor of "Human Cloning: Religious Responses" (published in 1997, the year the birth of cloned sheep Dolly was announced), said he agrees with Cohen as long as research "is done within limits and under proper regulation." He advocates an internationally agreed-upon cutoff date for research, such as 14 days -- a standard the United Kingdom already has adopted.
Cole-Turner bases his support of embryonic research on such biblical texts as Psalm 139: 14, which says, "I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made." Being "made" suggests a process of development that begins with a single cell and grows into trillions, he said.
"What is early is not the same as late," he said. "An embryo is not a child." It would be "unthinkable to take apart a child," but a 100-cell embryo is a different matter, he said.
If such research leads to the healing of a person with a heart disease, particularly a child, then it's morally acceptable, he said. It's also a Christian responsibility.
"Science, technology and medicine are forms of service, and if we feel we can use them in compassionate and helpful ways, we are called to use them," he said. "If we have the know-how and skill to save [a] life we should do it. That's what Jesus did."
Theological objections to embryonic cloning begin with the belief that life begins at conception or that embryos should be given the benefit of the doubt because there's no scientific way to determine when life begins.
"No light goes on on our forehead when we become human," said Wheeler, a United Methodist.
Gilbert Meilander, professor of theology at Valparaiso University in Indiana and member of the President's Council on Bioethics, said he is perplexed by religious ethicists who reject reproductive cloning -- which is most of them -- but support the cloning of embryos.
"I don't recognize the significant moral distinction between the two," said Meilander, a Missouri Synod Lutheran who believes that life begins at fertilization and that extracting parts of embryos and destroying the rest is wrong.
Meilander said he also believes that cloning for medical research is "a greater horror" than cloning a baby because of the potential for "creating factories of cloned embryos" and the likelihood that human cells will be implanted in animals until they grow to a useful size, then extracted.
Cole-Turner, ordained in the United Church of Christ, said religious ethicists have been doing a more thorough job in recent months of discussing the moral dimensions of cloning. But they should also address the ethics of other reproductive technologies, such as gene modification and a process already being used called "pre-implantation genetic diagnosis," he said.
That procedure begins with standard in vitro fertilization to produce embryos to be placed into a woman. Genetic diagnosis allows technicians to check the embryos for defects, such as a gene for cystic fibrosis or other inherited disease and select the embryos that do not have it for implantation.
The process is viewed by some scientists as a "transitory step for something more audacious," not just testing for defective genes but inserting genes for a certain hair color or personality trait, he said. "If we become a society comfortable with pre-implantation genetics, will we be comfortable modifying DNA?"
When he raises that point with other ethicists and theologians, he said, he finds "a surprising lack of concern."