Cloning and the New Ethic: Commentary on Yael Weiler

- Frank J. Leavitt, Ph.D.
The Jakobovits Centre of Jewish Medical Ethics
Faculty of Health Sciences, Ben Gurion University of the Negev,
Beer Sheva, ISRAEL (Home Tel/FAX: +972-2-9963048)
(Email: yeruham@bgumail.bgu.ac.il)

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 8 (1998), 12-13.


Yael's open-minded attitude on cloning reflects what appears to me to be a prevailing liberal attitude in Israel towards all kinds of biotechnology. And liberalism seems to be realism because what will be will be and I don't think we can stop the world from changing beyond recognition, just as we have been changing nature beyond recognition by selective breeding of plants and animals (such as the Holstein-Fresian cow and the modern chicken which would probably never survive in nature), through burning or cutting forests to create farmland, through grazing green places and creating deserts, through paving paradise and putting in a parking lot.

I want to ask those who are raising a storm over human cloning why they were so silent when human artificial insemination was introduced. For this radically changed our fundamental concept of what we are and what we share with the Drosophila, the hummingbird and the elephant.

All religion, all myth, all literature, all psychiatry are charged through with the idea that we all were created through that act which man and woman like to do together and which Yaakov did with Leah and Rahel, Oedipus, did with his mother, Krishna did with Krishnika, and it is said that nobody (, in Christian belief,) did it with Mary. The mere thought of this act provokes the feelings and jealousies and tender love and violent hatred which it provokes because of this connection to the deep mysteries of our creation. It is because of their role in the secrets of creation that so many people are secretive about their sex organs. Our psychologies are to a large extent based on our childhood relationships to that man who performed that act with ones mother. And the unending Israeli-Arab conflict goes back to a quarrel between two women, Sara and Hagar, who had to share with one another the right to having that act with Avraham.

Human artificial insemination changed all that. There are now many people who never had fathers in the old sense of the word. Indeed they never had mothers in that old sense either because being a mother didn't use to mean only giving birth or contributing genetic material. It also meant having participated in that act which was so profoundly associated with holy creation.

I must apologize because I don't want to offend parents of AI children or AI children themselves who feel a complete parent-child relationship. Those who have adopted children also often give them no less love and self sacrifice and maybe a little more than people who became parents in the old way. But we have to admit that the words father and mother have taken on new meanings different from those meanings these words had in the old human culture. So after several years of vacillation over the question whether the new genetic requires a new ethics, I have concluded that it does indeed. And if you count the scriptures in the Bible which are somehow connected with the creative act of sex perhaps you will agree. Culture, literature, art, myth religion and life will have to be re-examined, re-written, re-interpreted.

I think this is why although many rabbis (religious authorities) in Israel do not oppose reproductive technologies and in fact cooperate with such clinics as a way to help people who cannot have children otherwise, many people don't like what is happening and say that the new technologies will cheapen the holiness of sex.

But I don't think the job of bioethics should be to say: this is good and this is bad: the moral praise and moral blame of British ethics two hundred years ago. I am not on a high enough spiritual level to judge other people. Probably only a prophet can do that and there are not many prophets around these days. I would not say a word to lessen the joy of a hitherto childless couple or even a single person who now have a child through fertility technology, including cloning if that becomes a reality. But new psychological complexes will come up to replace Oedipus and others. And just as we have grown accustomed to sex without children, we shall become accustomed to children without sex. And a new cultural-conceptual framework, a new bioethic will emerge whether we like it or not. Perhaps we shall need new prophets to write new books of the Bible to teach us how to live with it.

After I finished writing this commentary I was shown a Time Magazine article (19 - 1 - 98, p. 56) about a new and nauseating idea to clone headless people as organ farms. Of course I never believe the popular press but lets assume there is something to this. The idea is that since they would have no head they would not be human. This thinking relies on the dogma which has been pushed upon us over the last thirty years, that being human is something in the brain and not in the heart or the blood or the whole body, and that if your brain is missing or not functioning then you are not human. Let us be honest and admit that this departure from worldwide tradition was invented in order to declare people brain dead to get their organs for transplantation or to turn off life support systems and save money.

As an Israeli I want to say for the record that in Jewish tradition there is just as much or more basis to say that life is in the heart and blood than there is to say its in the brain.

God blew the breath of life into Adam. So since the brain stem controls breathing you can say that life is in the brainstem. But on the other hand the Bible forbids eating blood for the blood is the life. And innumerable sources in rabbinical tradition refer to the thoughts in the heart. Indeed if you look at a Hebrew concordance to the Bible you will find a vast number of references to thoughts, ethics and feelings being in the heart and kidneys. (The word for kidneys, kliot, does not seem to get translated in the King James English version) Of course I don't know how much of this is metaphorical and I would not say that thoughts and feelings are literally "in" the heart any more than I am sure that they are literally "in" the brain. The point is simply that I see no more reason to say that being human is "in" the brain than that it is "in" the heart or any other organ.

Jewish tradition always required both the cessation of heartbeat and the cessation of breathing for the determination of death. And many Israelis both religious and non-religious to this day (like many Japanese) refuse to accept brain death (which is the real reason for the so-called shortage of organs in Israel. And many people feel that when the chief Rabbinate accepted brain death they were permitting the prohibited by a slick redefinition of words.

Returning to the idea of cloned organ farms: in my humble opinion whoever is born of woman is human, whether they are headless or brainless or whatever. We are not required to save every human life in all circumstances. And I favor DNR for infants born without brains as well as for certain other extremely severe anomalies (each case to be decided on its own merits). But this does not mean we may use them however we feel like, even to save a life. As our Mishna says we may not sacrifice one life for another. So I cannot lend a hand to using any baby, cloned or otherwise, as an organ farm.


Go back to EJAIB 8(1) January 1998
See also:
Human Cloning - The Global Response - A.K. Tharien
Israel Faces the Issue of Human Cloning: A Discussion of the Ethical and Social Implications - Yael Weiler
Human Cloning: Commentary on Tharien, Weiler, & Leavitt - Masahiro Morioka

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