The Raelian movement may or may not prove it produced the first cloned human, but the sect can already claim another distinction: It is virtually the only religious group that says this type of reproduction is a good idea.
In fact, the Rev. Eileen W. Lindner, who heads the National Council of Churches' new project studying biological technologies, knows of no faith besides the Raelians that advocates producing genetic duplicates of humans.
This broad consensus on cloning is striking because religious bodies disagree on many issues.
For instance, they divide over the related but distinct practice of therapeutic cloning, which destroys human embryos to harvest stem cells and produce hoped-for medical advances.
The first mammal to be cloned from adult cells was Dolly the sheep in the 1990s. But the moral debate over cloning people dates from at least the mid-1960s, when prominent U.S. biologists mused about the possibility. The late Paul Ramsey, a Methodist ethicist at Princeton University, anticipated much of today's anti-cloning case in ''Fabricated Man,'' published in 1970.
Summarizing current religious attitudes against playing God and preserving the sanctity of human life, Philadelphia's Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua says that creating lives in the laboratory ''reduces human beings to mere products of a manufacturing technique. ... The child is produced and wanted not for his or her own sake, but because he or she will carry traits that someone else values.''
A report last year from the conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod said cloning is ''a fundamental assault on the created order of God'' taught in the Bible, in which each child is unique.
''Talk about having 'no graven images,''' Lindner comments. ''Einstein, Jesse Owens and Yo-Yo Ma all rolled into one? Where you have a superhuman, that is a kind of quintessential idolatry.''
Religious thinkers also echo standard secular medical ethics, typified by the 1947 Nuremberg Code, which requires research subjects' voluntary consent for experiments -- an impossibility for the cloned child-to-be -- and opposes physical and psychological harm to them.
For example, the Rev. Richard Land, social-issues spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, notes the premature aging among cloned mammals and says ''sooner rather than later we are going to be presented with horrific human tragedies coming out of these laboratories.''
Conservative Judaism's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards observed last year that it took 272 discarded attempts to produce the first cloned sheep and said ''it would be quite another thing to create and kill multiple human beings with major birth defects.''
The 2000 General Conference of the United Methodist Church raised alarms over cloning's unresolved ''social and theological ramifications: use or abuse of people, exploitation of women, tearing of the fabric of the family, the compromising of human distinctiveness, the lessening of genetic diversity, the direction of research and development being controlled by corporate profit and/or personal gain and the invasion of privacy.''
The Roman Catholic view is distinct from that of many religious groups in that its opposition to cloning is part of the church's broader aversion toward any reproductive technique that divides conception from marital intercourse, including artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization.
In its first report last year, the 18-member President's Council on Bioethics unanimously declared reproductive cloning ''morally unacceptable'' and urged a permanent, nationwide legal ban. (Though large majorities in both houses of Congress support a ban on cloning to create babies, only the House passed a bill last year that would prohibit both reproductive and research cloning. Proponents hope the new Senate will do the same this year.)
But the council also listed the justifications that have been offered for the practice: Helping infertile or same-sex couples produce children, avoiding genetic diseases, providing a perfectly matched source for tissue or organ transplants, replicating a beloved spouse or child, producing offspring with desired genetic traits and simple freedom to do whatever people want.
No matter the result of the Raelian controversy, many observers believe human clones are coming. And since someday they ''may walk among us,'' the Lutheran report teaches, Christians should not suppose that ''some people either are more human or less human because of their origins.''
On the Net:
President's Council on Bioethics cloning report: http://www.bioethics.gov/cloningreport
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