On Being with Krista Tippett

Laurie Zoloth

A Theological Perspective on Cloning

Last Updated

March 3, 2005

Original Air Date

October 30, 2003

The idea of human cloning both fascinates and repulses many, and challenges us to ask difficult religious questions?


Image of Laurie Zoloth

Laurie Zoloth is director of Bioethics at the Center for Genetic Medicine at Northwestern University, and a scholar in the Jewish Talmud and ancient rabbinic texts.


March 3, 2005

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: This is Speaking of Faith, conversation about belief, meaning, ethics and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “A Theological Perspective on Cloning,” a conversation with bioethicist Laurie Zoloth. In 1996 a sheep named Dolly made history. She was the world’s first cloned mammal.

[Audio Clip]

IAN WILMUT: What we’ve done is to make a copy of an adult ewe, so that this is exactly the same as that animal having a genetically identical twin, except for the fact that one of the lambs is a few months old and the ewe from which we took the cell was already six years old.

MS. TIPPETT: That’s the voice of Ian Wilmut, one of Dolly’s creators. After Dolly, the birth of a human clone seemed inevitable, though most scientists close to the field will insist that the safe cloning of a human being remains a distant possibility. Still, there are recurring reports in the news of women pregnant with babies who are copies of themselves. Here is audio from a press conference held by an organization called Clonaid on December 27th, 2002.

[Audio Clip]

BRIGITTE BOISSELIER: I am very, very pleased to note that the first baby clone is born. She’s fine. We call her Eve. We have been discussing with her parents the last three months how we would handle today, and they decided not to show her yet. They will. I hope they will.

MS. TIPPETT: Clonaid’s claim was quickly dismissed. The purported baby Eve and her parents never came forward. But why does the idea of human cloning both fascinate and repulse, and what religious questions does it raise for our common life? This hour we’ll explore one thought-provoking perspective. Laurie Zoloth is a scholar of rabbinic wisdom and director of bioethics at the Center for Genetic Medicine at Northwestern University. Her path into the far reaches of medical ethics began in what might be called the trenches of reproductive technology, as a nurse on the neonatal ward of a Philadelphia hospital when both neonatology and bioethics were just beginning.

LAURIE ZOLOTH: I was 19, and I unintentionally fell completely in love with neonatal intensive care, which was the care and treatment of premature babies and sick babies, a field that was just beginning to be invented at that time because there was, at that point, very little we could do for babies who were born prematurely. And then really rapidly, within the first few years, they developed ways of putting babies on ventilators. And then the question emerged, as it was emerging in intensive care medicine: Since we can save lives, ought we to save lives, and for what are we saving lives? And with the very tiny preemies, we began wondering about the quality of life, about you can put a baby on a ventilator, but could you get a baby off a ventilator? And it was just then that the field of clinical ethics began to grapple with the same hard problems at the adult level and in the courts with the Karen Ann Quinlan case, with a series of cases about this issue. Because we can, ought we? And that was the animating issue for the first years of bioethics.

MS. TIPPETT: Karen Ann Quinlan was a young woman who lapsed into a persistent vegetative state after apparently overdosing on alcohol and tranquilizers in 1975. Her personal tragedy became an early case study for the new field of bioethics when her family sued to have her removed from life support. Ironically, she survived in a coma for 10 years after they won the case and the ventilator was removed. Over time that question of early bioethics — when does life end? — has led to the equally vexing question: When does life begin? Human cloning would mimic the basic reproductive act. But rather than uniting a sperm and an egg, it would take an unfertilized egg and replace its nucleus with human DNA. The resulting embryo could, in theory, grow into a copy of that human being.

Much of the focus in our public life is on the use of cloned human embryos for biomedical research, but that is not our topic for today. We’ll consider cloning for the purposes of producing offspring. Some dream that this technology might make it possible to preserve the DNA of a beloved child or adult who has died, in a sense, bringing them back to life. Laurie Zoloth has spent a lot of time thinking about how ancient Jewish tradition approaches the notion of justice in birth and in death. She says that as early as the birth of the sheep Dolly, religious ethicists missed a remarkable chance to frame the cloning debate. The whole world turned to them for help in understanding the implications of cloning, how it might change our ideas about creation and procreation. But Zoloth says she and her colleagues began their answers in the wrong place. She suggests that cloning is not really about life and birth at all.

DR. ZOLOTH: The usual move in looking at a new scientific technique is to think about the science and to think about what it reminds us of. And, of course, when cloning first emerged on the scene, it was about the birth of, well, sheep and, by extrapolation, persons. And so people busily began to look at the religious laws and norms that surrounded birth — the reproduction. My thought was that it was the wrong ground. It was the wrong arena. That was the arena of reproductive medicine and that cloning was not about reproductive medicine. If it was about children, we’d think about messy eight-year-olds. We’d think about foster children who need desperately to be in safe and loving homes or why children of color aren’t adopted in this country. What’s going on with that? I don’t think the debate’s about children. I began thinking about what the debate was really about, and I began looking at texts that suggested that it was about death. I was pointed in this direction because many of the people who had justified cloning talked about it in terms of the loss of a beloved child or a beloved person, that it was a way to overcome death of a particular person.

MS. TIPPETT: And it’s a way that inspires sympathy and compassion in the person listening to that.

DR. ZOLOTH: And, for instance, a good justification might be the reclamation of the DNA of an entirely lost family in the Hashoah, in the Holocaust. And whenever we begin to use those metaphors and those examples, I think we’re pulling in something very different from merely having a baby, giving an infertile couple a chance to have a child. I think we’re pulling in some way to reclaim lost history, a lost self or lost selves. And that’s calling on many other different theological tasks for this technique. And that’s when I began thinking about, `This is about death. This is not about birth.’

MS. TIPPETT: Well, the other thing about those ways of coming at it, it sounds, you know, sort of irresistibly ethical and good and moral. And it seems to question the motives of anyone who would want to reflect on it with other complexity.

DR. ZOLOTH: It’s a hard thing to say to grieving family members, `You can’t overcome death.’ The central tragedy, the central tragedy of mortality, is a tragedy that can’t be fixed medically in this way. And it’s a terrible loss for all, but it’s a real loss. It’s the central loss of human life. It’s that which we have religion for. Cloning thrown into that debate, of course, gets complexly intertwined with those yearnings, and it’s interesting because, of course, it’s the great yearning of Passover. One reads on Shavout Haggadah that the yearning of `dry bones could be reknit and could come back and the valley could be full of life again.’ It’s the yearning, of course, of the central story of the cross, that death has no dominion. But death does for us have an absolute quality in terms of the loss of the particular individual self.

READER: From Ezekiel 37: “The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the midst of the valley. It was full of bones. And he led me round among them and, behold, there were very many upon the valley and, lo, they were very dry. And he said to me, `Son of man, can these bones live?’ And I answered, `O Lord, thou knowest.’ Again, he said to me, `Prophesy to these bones and say to them, “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” Thus says the Lord God to these bones, “Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews upon you and will cause flesh to come upon you and cover you with skin and put breath in you and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.”‘ So I prophesied as I was commanded, and as I prophesied, there was a noise and, behold, a rattling. The bones came together, bone to its bone. And as I looked, there was sinews upon them, and the flesh had come upon them and the skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them. But he said to me, `Prophesy to the breath. Prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, “Thus sayeth the Lord God, `Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain that they may live.'” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great host.”

MS. TIPPETT: A reading from the prophetic biblical book of Ezekiel. Laurie Zoloth also finds tools for bioethics in Jewish mystical lore. One compelling story is the rabbinic legend of the golem. This is, in some sense, the original Frankenstein story. The telling and retelling of this story amounts to a centuries-long reflection on what it would mean to create a human being, and it is always a fable on the limits of human wisdom and power. In our time writers like Cynthia Ozick, Marge Piercy and Elie Wiesel have reflected on contemporary problems through the golem story. Jewish wisdom is also, of course, documented in the ancient rabbinic dialogue of the Talmud. In such sources, Laurie Zoloth grounds her reverence for language and narrative, and she finds in them rich metaphors for her work in genetics, the language of life.

DR. ZOLOTH: In traditional rabbinic texts, while you don’t find laws about cloning obviously, you find a great many stories about the creation of life of what seem to be human persons. There is a strong tradition in the Talmud of rabbinic magic, and one of the many foci of rabbinic magical impulse is to say could we make things? Could we make a cow? Could we make a person? Could we have a field of cucumbers?

MS. TIPPETT: And there’s also this tradition of golem building, this…

DR. ZOLOTH: Well, there is that tradition of the golem, this notion that if you could use the pattern of letters in a lost book, the book of life, if you could manipulate those letters, which is hauntingly familiar for someone who thinks about DNA and the manipulation therein, could you make a human person? Could you make a man? Could you make this golem? And the rabbis of the Talmud had this debate, and then they say, `Yes, you could. And only your moral inequities, your imperfections morally, would keep you from being able to do it.’ And in later medieval literature when Jews need a big, powerful sort of person, often a golem is made and then enables the Jews to resist a kind of oppression. And, again, the stakes are life and death, and will the Jewish community, in this case, overcome a death by the use of this other force, this golem force, that’s both very powerful and terribly dangerous because, again, of the unhitching of the man from morality? That always is where the golems go astray.

MS. TIPPETT: Bioethicist Laurie Zoloth. This is from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s book The Golem.

READER: “In the attic Rabbi Leib found the sacks with the clay and began to sculpt the figure of a man. Rabbi Leib did not use a chisel but his fingers to carve the figure of the golem. He kneaded the clay like dough. He was working with great speed. At the same time he prayed for success in what he was doing. All day Rabbi Leib was busy in the attic, and when it was time for the evening prayer, a large shape of a man with a huge head, broad shoulders and enormous hands and feet was lying on the floor, a clay giant. The rabbi looked at him in astonishment. He could never have mastered this without the help of almighty and special providence. The rabbi had taken with him the prayer book in which a saintly visitor had written down the name of God. Rabbi Leib engraved it on the forehead of the golem in such small letters that only he himself could distinguish the Hebrew characters. Immediately the clay figure started to show signs of life.”

MS. TIPPETT: You know, I hear all the allusions to the kinds of issues we’re dealing with, but tease that out for me. Tell me how you, as a bioethicist in the 21st century, live with a tradition like this and how you’re guided by it.

DR. ZOLOTH: That’s a great question. So, here I am in the 21st century looking, you know, wandering down the lab, down the next building and looking at the actual machine, you know, that can pull apart the cells and thinking about this and then going back and hauling out my volumes of the Talmud, you know, and thinking, `What an interesting thing. What an interesting response.’ The texts that come to mind for me are the texts of this tradition, the Talmudic texts and the arguments, in part because it’s a complicated compilation of both law and fantasy and a moral universe constructed with mere story and mere language. Of course, not `mere’ at all. But if I’m trying to think about the creation of our own moral universe, and if all we have really is words and language, then the use of story, the use of narrative, becomes quite important again because the laws might fail us. The laws are in some ways a rather impartial account of the complicated technology and the complicated possibilities we’re faced with. We are faced with what’s been called fiction science, science that’s just beyond the borders of our imagination. And it’s at that border that I think the use of midrashic accounts and stories might be best employed. Because it’s such a fantastic idea, I think we need rather fantastic and metaphorical allusions to think about them.

MS. TIPPETT: Bioethicist Laurie Zoloth. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Laurie Zoloth works on emerging issues in medical and research genetics. We’re exploring today how she brings together her thought at the frontiers of reproductive technology, especially the potential technology of reproductive cloning, with the imaginative world of her Jewish faith. When I’m reading your writing about cloning, and when you say what we really need to be reflecting on is our vulnerability and our limitations, I think about conversations I had in the wake of September 11th and how thoughtful religious voices at that time were also saying, `Look, this just reminds us of something that was already true: that we are vulnerable, that we are human, that tragedy can happen.’ I don’t know if this is a stretch, but I wondered if cloning is sort of the equivalent of 9/11 in this world of reproductive technology, of our intimate experience of the beginnings of life and death.

DR. ZOLOTH: What an interesting way to think about it. I think what’s interesting about that is that religion is a lot about a world that is as yet to be redeemed, a world that is more still dark than light, though with the extraordinary possibility of light. And I think that’s what the story of Exodus, the story of redemption, is a lot about. Here, this impossible light in this great darkness. And the darkness is, of course, death, also defeat, also slavery, also the terrifying future and the little human beings against it. So it’s always about the human reach, slightly impossible reach, against this darkness. So cloning is at the far edges of that. Reproductive cloning is at the far edges of that. It might have tumbled us over the edge into it, in which we have to just acknowledge that there are some things right now we absolutely cannot overcome. Science, on the other hand, is often about power and is often about control and is often about that sort of power that seeks to finally know and to finally name. And religion is, I think, often seen as against that power if that power would become overweening power or hubric power. And I think that’s one of the tasks of the religious and prophetic voice, is to raise the question of what about the vulnerable, and what about the darkness that is yet before us and what kind of light we carry into it.

MS. TIPPETT: What is it you say? We need to make tangible that which is not seen in the cloning debate, and you say something, `At stake will be the surprising stranger who will live at your side.’


MS. TIPPETT: Which is the experience of parenting, right?

DR. ZOLOTH: Exactly. The experience of parenting, I suggest in that article, might be to teach us that even out of your very own body, out of the very core of your love for your partner could come a totally surprising stranger. And nothing is more surprising and more strange than this, a yowling, howling, wonderful but messy infant or a teen-ager or anyone who just isn’t you. So the task of caring for the stranger is the task of caring for the not-perfect stranger. And so that’s one other peculiarity of the cloning debate,that we try to make these strangers perfect, and we try to make them completely known. And there’s something, again, peculiar about that yearning. One of the points of having children is to do the very task that we’re called to do in the biblical account: Love the stranger as if the stranger is us when, in fact, the little joke of that phrase is the stranger who is most like us, our own child, can often be the most paradoxically complicated person to love.

MS. TIPPETT: And that is so true from life, from living as a parent. But what it also made me think about in terms of reproductive cloning is how, you know, part of the task of being human is that we are also strangers to ourselves. And the idea of raising myself through all those different ages that I got to to be at this age, I don’t think that would be less of a stranger than my children are.

DR. ZOLOTH: Well, the interesting thing, here’s a country that tends to put parents in nursing homes. And there’s this long, complicated story of estranged families and brothers who don’t speak to one another and never speak and that go off and — if DNA was that which bound us, our families would be a lot cozier and more beloved than they are. I think it’s really an interesting and complicated point about: What does likeness mean to us, and what does estrangement mean for us? So many people say, `Well, cloning’s not so bad. Think of twins.’ And, of course, you know, twins aren’t clones for a variety of reasons. But, again, I think that it’s not about twins. I think, again, it’s about recapitulating a particular life story that you yearn for, either your own, in a narcissistic way, or someone you’ve loved terribly and cannot stand to be in the world without. So I think because it awakens that in us, it becomes a theological problem, not really only a scientific one.

MS. TIPPETT: Laurie Zoloth is a professor of medical ethics and humanities and religion and director of bioethics at the Center for Genetic Medicine at Northwestern University. Today on Speaking of Faith, a theological conversation on cloning. One of the ethical issues that bioethicists see at the far horizons is the way in which cloned individuals would be received in society. Would they have a lifelong crisis of identity? What particular forms of prejudice would they awaken? And on a religious level, how would they think about creation, about the reality of their own souls? Here’s a poem by the contemporary writer Fred Dings, another kind of imaginative look at the moral risks and duties of cloning.

READER: “Letter to genetically engineered superhumans: You are the children of our fantasies of form, our wish to carve a larger cave of light, our dream to perfect the ladder of genes and climb its rungs to the height of human possibility, to a stellar efflorescence beyond all injury and disease with minds as bright as newborn suns and bodies which leave our breathless mirrors stunned. Forgive us if we fail to imagine your loneliness in the midst of all that ordinary excellence, if we fail to understand how much harder it would be to build the bridge of love between such splendid selves, to find the path of humility among the labyrinth of your abilities, to be refreshed without forgetfulness and weave community without the threads of need. Forgive us if you must reinvent our flaws because we failed to guess the simple fact: that the best lives must be less than perfect.”

MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, more of my conversation with bioethicist Laurie Zoloth. She suggests that the prospect of human cloning forces us to reconsider the ethical stakes of pregnancy and birth in our time. On our Web site at speakingoffaith.org, you’ll find in-depth background, reading recommendations, and information about purchasing a copy of this program. You can also sign up for our weekly e-mail newsletter, which includes program transcripts and my reflections on each week’s program. That’s speakingoffaith.org. I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us.


MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, conversation about belief, meaning, ethics and ideas. Each week we explore a different theme, asking writers, thinkers and theologians how religion shapes everyday life. Today we’re exploring one thought-provoking perspective on the topic of cloning human beings. Bioethicist Laurie Zoloth brings together a learned Jewish faith with her philosophical and moral consideration of the ethics of medical technologies. Human cloning is in medical terms a new ART, or advanced reproductive technology. It has never been tried successfully, and at present the risks are prohibitive. But in theory it might one day allow a couple to have a child who is a genetic copy of one of the pair. Seen in that light, this is the latest in a long line of technologies which have become part and parcel of our 21st century culture of pregnancy and birth. In 1960 the introduction of the birth control pill changed the world forever. Forty years later neither fertility nor infertility is something modern Americans leave up to nature. I asked Laurie Zoloth whether a moral debate about cloning might drive us back to reconsider the ethical stakes of all the technologies that got us here, such as contraception, artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization.

DR. ZOLOTH: Of course. It is not a long time ago that the idea of in vitro fertilization, surrogate parenting were very strange and very, very disturbing new ideas. And now I’ll bet a lot of us have friends, dear friends, who have used a variety of these techniques to create a family. And they have been an extraordinary window of opportunity, one could say, for women who have chosen to have children without partners. And many close and dear friends who struggled with infertility have, in fact, been able to have children. And then so one doesn’t want to say that that is a bad thing. How could that be, looking at the sweet pink toes of…

MS. TIPPETT: Exactly. Looking at the babies.

DR. ZOLOTH: Well, looking at the babies, one’s friend’s babies. Of course, this cannot be a bad thing or an immoral act. And yet it has placed before us a reconfiguration of the essential narrative that we see biblically, and we have to give thought to why that might be. And it might be that it’s to teach us something about the mutability of ourselves and of our society and to know that a loving family can come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes. But on the other hand, there is something extraordinarily disturbing and destabilizing about the commodification and the fragmentation of the reproductive process and the way that parts of the process can be bartered, bought, sold, broken down, made less whole. And I think many, many thoughtful both theologians and ethicists and feminist scholars have been worried about the possibility for exploitation and coercion that might be concomitant with the idea of taking an egg or taking a sperm and manipulating it outside of relationships, of having banks of reproductive material. The very language, I think, alerts us to the possibility of harm, and I think we have to be careful and think through, not ban or not do, but to make sure that there’s care and there’s oversight and, I guess, a big handful of worry.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. What you point out as a Jewish ethicist you are compelled to do.

DR. ZOLOTH: Compelled to worry. And so just to sort of worry at every single point and to say, `Are we sure we know what we’re doing? Are the duties that we have towards each other brought into play here? Are we thinking about this carefully enough?’ And whenever you have the mix of women’s bodies, blood and money, I think there’s a way that one worries a great deal about that. In my campus paper, the ad that offers $10,000 for eggs whose mothers or whose bearers have scored 1300 on the SATs certainly makes me wonder what’s being bought and sold here and what sort of illusions are being traded in the magical marketplace.

MS. TIPPETT: And it seems to me that those questions are being raised with regard to reproductive cloning, which is still really a potential technology more than an actual technology, but I don’t think this deep reflection happened with things like artificial insemination, which have led to this, you know, the ads in the campus paper that you’re talking about, or even in vitro fertilization because it seemed to be serving a greater good, which was helping people have children.

DR. ZOLOTH: And because religion is so often pro-natalist and because think of the biblical scriptural account of infertility being such a heavily vexed account. I mean, we begin with the story of Sarai and Hagar, and it’s such a tragedy at the very beginning around this problem of infertility. And the text tells us that the problem of infertility is largely a problem of theology, is of one’s relationship to God. And the struggle around infertility happens over and over and over again in Genesis. MS. TIPPETT: And there’s Hannah as well. Yeah.

DR. ZOLOTH: And Hannah and in Rachel, Leah, and all of the stories of the complexities of birth. It doesn’t go well for the matriarchs.

MS. TIPPETT: Northwestern University bioethicist Laurie Zoloth.

READER: A reading from the book of Samuel, Chapter 1: “And it came to pass upon a day when Elkanah sacrificed that he gave to Peninnah his wife and to all her sons and her daughters portions. But unto Hannah he gave a double portion for he loved Hannah, but the Lord had shut up her womb. And Elkanah, her husband, said unto her, `Hannah, why weepest thou, and why eatest thou not, and why is thy heart grieved? Am I not better to thee than 10 sons?’ So Hannah rose up after they had eaten in Shiloh and after they had drunk, and she was in bitterness of soul and prayed unto the Lord and wept sore. And she vowed a vow and said, `O Lord of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thy handmaid and remember me and not forget thy handmaid, but will give unto thy handmaid a manchild, then I will give him unto the Lord all the days of his life, and there shall no razor come upon his head.’ And it came to pass when the time was come about that Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, `Because I have asked him of the Lord.'” A reading from Samuel, Chapter 1.

MS. TIPPETT: You’ve said that infertility in the Bible is a reflection of one’s relationship with God. And I wanted just to ask you to expand on that because that kind of statement could sound dangerously like, you know, like saying that women who have gone through this agony of infertility somehow brought it on themselves or deserved it. I know that’s not what you’re saying, but what are you saying? How do you reflect on those texts and these real-life situations?

DR. ZOLOTH: In the biblical text, the yearning for what one sees just beyond one’s grasp is the beginning of desire, and it’s that sense of wanting the next or the more or fecundity of the place that the child would fill in the imaginations, the religious imaginations of the writers of the text or the receivers of the text. That yearning is the existential human yearning. Now in the life of any individual person, I firmly believe that infertility, the inability to naturally conceive one’s own children, can be answered by many, many different responses. There’s many responses to that that range from adoption, obviously, which was strongly put forward in the Talmudic and medieval texts, from teaching, the extraordinary possibilities of mentorship and teaching. So there are many different answers. It’s a peculiarity of modernity that infertility is seen primarily as a medical problem with a medical solution. It is also that.

MS. TIPPETT: You wrote, `All reproduction is a kind of hunger,’ and that’s the word that also resonated with me. And also it’s not just, I think, necessarily to raise a child but to create a child of one’s own with one’s beloved. Right?

DR. ZOLOTH: Exactly. I mean, I think what’s interesting to me — and this pertains to the issue of what it meant to be an intensive care nursery nurse and work night shift beside the very wanted and very broken bodies of premature babies night after night and sit with their parents and watch them become a part of this complicated miracle and slash tragedy — there’s something about the reality of the hunger for children, the yearning for babies that is exquisite and intense and, I think, cannot be made a trivial matter or even a selfish matter. It’s often spoken of disparagingly sometimes in bioethics as though this is an inconsequential or a selfish motivation. And it’s…

MS. TIPPETT: Something you could reason away.

DR. ZOLOTH: Something one could reason away, something one could make a separate moral choice about. There’s something important and essential to who we are that we have and know this hunger, this yearning. It’s one compelling moral appeal that I’m hauntingly aware of, but it’s only — there are other moral appeals: keeping societies together, not exploiting the bodies of other women, that the buying and selling of gametes doesn’t dominate the actual process of the creation of children, that there’s many other children that are outside this process that need adoption, that need foster care, that need, you know, in the city of Chicago, a decent place to live, even good schools and good health care. So there’s something about the lostness of children starting from the nonexistence of children all the way to the lostness of teen-agers, you know, living on the streets, that seems to me to be a piece of the problem of what do we do when we yearn to raise children. And taking any piece of that seems inadequate, seems religiously inadequate.

MS. TIPPETT: And those are such important and compelling observations about the moral quandary, and yet I can’t help but acknowledge, as we talk, that here we are two women who’ve given birth to beloved, biological children, right? And I wonder if you also, as a bioethicist, interact with women who have not been able to achieve this and how easy is it or even — is there an ethical problem in trying to talk to their pain about, you know, the slippery slope or the larger context.

DR. ZOLOTH: That’s an exquisitely interesting problem. And I remember sitting here actually in this radio studio with two of my children off from school next to me drawing and aware of the miracle of their existence and of their births. One time when I was pregnant, very pregnant, with one of my children, I was asked to speak at a forum around this issue, around the issue of surrogacy and the ethics of surrogacy. And surrogacy was, for me, the most difficult issue because it actually meant men and women using their gametes and then using the body of another almost always younger, almost always socially and economically disadvantaged relative to them, woman to bear their child. And I gave a speech a little like that eight months pregnant and was aware of when people came to me and said in the question period, `How can you possibly say this when you don’t have to face this as the only way to have a child that is your genetically matched child?’ And that’s why I think bioethics has to be grounded in the real experiences of actual women and men struggling with these issues, making their choices. I still felt compelled to say that I thought that there was ethical issues and ethical norms that we were in trouble with and violated with the use of surrogacy. Do we have the answer to this? Do we have good other ways to do it? Are there wonderful people who are involved in it on all sides of that equation? To be sure. But does it raise troubling issues for a society as we struggle with this stage of reproductive technology? To be sure. And I think that it is wise to then understand it as, in part, a question of faith.

MS. TIPPETT: Bioethicist Laurie Zoloth. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today we’re exploring Laurie Zoloth’s theological perspective on human cloning. She says that in order for our culture to adequately discuss the potential for creating human life, religious voices need to frame their concerns in new ways. In recent decades when medical processes involving the human embryo have become controversial, some Christian ethical voices have focused the debate on the rights of the embryo, insisting that an embryo has a soul and the full moral status of a human being. Laurie Zoloth proposes a new framework for our common deliberation centered on religious values that might be shared more widely, such as duty and justice. Rights, she says, are not a religious starting point for discussion.

DR. ZOLOTH: The strong Jewish tradition is it takes three to make a child. There is three in the place of the creation of a child, a man and a woman and God, and that the child’s beingness, nefeshness, is a product of his or her relationship to God. Be that as it may, there’s not a strong dualistic tradition in many Jewish texts, and so what’s of interest, again, to the normative Jewish tradition isn’t this business of soul. What’s of interest is what are our duties to human persons, and when do the duties begin and when do they end? So all the text again has a different problem to solve. It’s when do our duties begin and when do our duties end? It’s life — the end of life and the beginning of life even today.

MS. TIPPETT: I think your use of the word `duty’ is so significant because, again, what polarizes a public discussion about reproductive technologies or abortion or cloning at the extreme ends is we tend to divide along rights. It’s the right of the mother or the right of the fetus. You actually, in focusing on duties, I think, are coming at the debate in a completely different way.

DR. ZOLOTH: I think it’s a more useful way to think of it. I think pitting maternal rights against fetal rights is not only counterintuitive; ask anyone who’s pregnant about that. But going about it with duty both honors the reality of what pregnancy is — mostly, for most women, it’s an act of extraordinary love — and one in which the duty of being a mother begins. But it also says a duty-based system means that the community has responsibilities from the beginning, too, to protect, to nurture, to shelter a woman who is pregnant already and that it’s a different sort of duty once a child is born.

MS. TIPPETT: Including if she does not desire to keep that child.

DR. ZOLOTH: Including if she does not desire to keep that child, the duty still attends upon the community. And it’s that struggle to balance personal, family, society, tribe, people that’s the subject of the Hebrew texts as they continue past the Genesis narrative of fecundity.

MS. TIPPETT: I like your insistence that, especially as a Jewish ethicist, as a Jewish person, you say we are meant to be namers of the world, that that is also…

DR. ZOLOTH: First calling. Call the world into its names.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. And so, you know, we’re naming something here, and just that, I suppose, has a power.

DR. ZOLOTH: It’s also — it’s the power of ethics itself is to name and to define. The power of philosophy begins with knowing what to call the thing and how to define the thing and coming to terms with do we have a shared name, and what if we really disagree? What if people who have deeply held faith positions differ on when a human life becomes a human life? It’s such a fundamental difference. We’ve had that difference in bioethics before. When is dead dead? There has been a struggle around that. There’s an equally important struggle around when does a human person become a human person? For a Jew that means how are my duties toward this person different? When do I become absolutely obligated to this individual? We can never agree, really, on the moral status of the human embryo. It’s just, we’re going to have to agree to fundamentally disagree for now on that. But I think we could agree on our duty to justice.

MS. TIPPETT: I’d like to end where you ended in this wonderful essay you wrote about reproductive cloning with a great title, “Born Again: Faith and Yearning in the Cloning Controversy.” You tell a story about being a member of a volunteer Jewish burial society about the death of a child.

DR. ZOLOTH: It has to do with a time many years ago when I was in graduate school and working as a nurse. And it was a volunteer burial society in which the women of the congregation prepared the bodies of women who had died for burial by washing them both physically, actually washed, and then she’s ritually washed and purified. And one day — it was right before Passover, it was Erev Pesach, so everyone was finishing their work and rushing off to make a Seder — I got a call as I was about to leave work, and I was asked if I could come over right then to the funeral home. And what had happened was, tragically, a visitor from out of town, a family from out of town, had been crossing the street, and one of their little girls, who was only four at the time, got hit by a car as she was crossing the street, running towards her father actually, and right before their eyes was killed. And this family is, of course, bereft. And she was taken immediately because a person who is killed has to be buried before sundown, if at all possible.

She was the tiniest person we had ever prepared, of course, the youngest person we’d ever prepared for burial. And we did something because her mother asked that we normally don’t do, which is we allowed her mother to come and say goodbye to her, and normally that’s not done. But we did it because we knew that the last her mother had seen her she had been so broken, and we had made her again very beautiful in this act. And her mother thanked us and said goodbye to her. And I and all the other women there were frantic with grief, and I knew at that point that I would have cloned her if I could have. If I could have, if I’d had the technology, I would have. There was no question that I wanted medicine to do every single thing. I didn’t care if it was artificial. I didn’t care if it was risky. I didn’t care if it made social chaos down the road. I wanted that baby girl back. And I would have, and I understood the impulse. But the mother of the child, who was a wise young woman, said to me, `Do what you need to do in the world, do good deeds and study hard to bring my baby back to me because what we need to make the lost ones, the dead ones, come back is the messianic age, is the Moshiach.’

And she believed completely firmly in the necessity for acts of hesed, of kindness, of loving kindness and of justice, that it was only through justice, only through a changed, radically altered world that she could get what I wanted through medicine, which was that child returned, restored. That taught me something about the dangers of simply restoring, simply being born again in the flesh. I don’t think the story is an answer. I think it’s a cautionary tale. And I think we have to listen to one another’s cautionary tales when we think about our future, when we think about that which may well be possible for us as a human society.

MS. TIPPETT: The mother in this story is referring to the fact that in Jewish belief the messiah will come to a world in which justice prevails. At that time, the dead will be restored to life.

And here in closing is a passage from Laurie Zoloth’s essay, “Born Again: Faith and Yearning in the Cloning Controversy,” as she ends that story. “We all had to leave and make Passover, the story that begins with the death of the babies of the Jews and ends with a free people. I understand the urge for second chances, the love of the particular little face. But it is at this very moment, like her mother, that we need to look death in its terrible, beautiful white face and think of justice. As the resolute, obligated, doubtful bearers of the stories of grace and loss, we need to worry not about playing God or the towers we can make, nor of how we can outwit the nakedness we were born into, but about the slow work of repair that falls to us, bewildered, freed slaves holding the law in our hands, meaning not in the narrow place but on the vast plain of the possible, set free with much to do.” From Laurie Zoloth’s essay: “Born Again: Faith and Yearning in the Cloning Controversy.”

Laurie Zoloth is professor of medical ethics and humanities and of religion at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on this program. Please write to us at [email protected]. While you’re there, you’ll find in-depth background information about cloning and a copy of Laurie Zoloth’s fascinating essay “Born Again: Faith and Yearning in the Cloning Controversy.” You’ll also find other relevant links. And you can sign up for our e-mail newsletter. That’s speakingoffaith.org.


I’m Krista Tippett. Please join us again next week.