Sacred Body? Stem Cell Research and Human Cloning
Bedford-Strohm, Heinrich, The Ecumenical Review
Reading the "signs of the times" demands Christians' vivid attention to the public debate. As a consequence of the call to witness the gospel in our times, it also needs passionate participation in this debate. There is hardly an issue these days for which this is more true than that of bioethics.
In this area, the developments are so rapid that the ethical debate has already moved on when the newest textbook is printed. In spring 2000 a professor would tell students about the Human Genom Project (HUGO) and about its ambitious endeavour to decipher the genetic code of humanity by the year 2005. Half a year later his script would have been ready for recycling: on 25 June 2000, the American President Bill Clinton and the two leading researchers gave a press conference in which they announced that the project was nearly completed. The news conference was broadcast worldwide and surrounded by the aura of a historic event. No wonder that theological language was used to underline its importance: "Today we are learning the language in which God created life," said the American president. The church's participation in the debate is virtually forced, when the main actors speak in a vocabulary which contains theological terms such as "God" and "creation".
No one doubts that the issues involved are so fundamental that they touch religious concerns. There is, however, deep disagreement about the conclusions to be drawn. Many scientists share the ethical reservations voiced by religious traditions towards the new technological possibilities. Other leading scientists have explicitly attacked such reservations. The American Nobel Prize winner James Watson explicitly addresses those who believe that all human life is a mirror of God and who attribute, therefore, a sanctity to human life which excludes any human attempt to use it for ends such as medical research. Watson himself affirms that life is not created by God but is the product of an evolutionary process which follows Darwin's principles of natural selection. Religiously motivated laws which, for example, enforce the birth of genetically disabled children, says Watson, create unnecessary suffering for their parents. In the long run--thus the Nobel Prize winner--these religious voices will be isolated and their views will be ignored.
Watson's argument shows that in the current debate on the new possibilities of modern biotechnology there is more at stake than just the pros and contras of a certain scientific method or procedure. It has, in fact, to do with a possible change in ethical culture, questioning the validity of fundamental ethical values which have so far been embedded in a broad societal consensus.
This brings us to the contribution of the churches. In cultures strongly influenced by the Christian tradition, even those who do not share the churches' religious heritage acknowledge their important contributions to the fundamental ethical structure of society. In the debate about questions of modern biotechnology, as in questions concerning the development of the global economy, the churches have a special quality: they are globally organized and share their heritage across national, racial, ethnic and cultural borders. But they are, at the same time, deeply rooted in the local context, living their faith in their local parishes, always feeling connected in faith to people continents away. These qualities make the churches ideal actors in global civil society, and their contributions are especially important in issues which transcend national contexts and which can only be addressed globally.
The ecumenical movement, from its very roots and long before the term "civil society" was used for this activity, has seen participation in global civil society as an integrative part of its call. This was true in regard to questions of genetic engineering at a very early stage.
The ecumenical movement and biotechnology (1)
Already in 1970, the WCC convened scientists from all over the world to discuss the rapid development of science and the ethical implications of it. At the conference on "Technology, Faith and the Future of Man" in Geneva in 1970, the topic of biotechnology was intensively discussed. Science, said German biologist Ernst von Weizsacker, makes more and more progress in tracing the fundamental molecular mechanisms, of our genetic equipment and of our bodily functions, and develops the capacity to intervene: first it copies, then it corrects and, in the end, it constructs. With these words von Weizsacker accurately described what would happen in the decades to come. Since the WCC recognized the urgency of the issue, it initiated a five-year-study-process which resulted in a document published under the title "Genetics and the Quality of Life". The topic was taken up at the large ecumenical conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, USA, in 1979, which devoted one section to the ethical questions related to the biological manipulation of human life. In 1981, the WCC's Sub-Unit on Church and Society established a working group which published a report in 1982 under the title Manipulating Life--Ethical Issues in Genetic Engineering. It took many years, however, until the bio-ethical debate was continued with a major consultation. This led to a document which was officially adopted by the central committee Of the WCC in 1989.
This document is, to this very day, the last official statement of the WCC on questions of biotechnology. It walks a fine line between a fundamental critique of the genetic manipulation of human life and the instrumentalization of early human life on the one hand, and on the other the hope for new possibilities of healing currently incurable diseases and thus the prospect of the alleviation of human suffering. The document mirrors the fact that the ethical discourses in the national contexts of the various member churches are quite different. Nevertheless, there is a common basic understanding of the dangers of misuse of the new scientific possibilities. The WCC calls for a ban on using genetic diagnosis for selecting gender, and warns against using genetics as a basis for discrimination at the work place and in the insurance industry. At the same time, it leaves certain doors open. It calls for a ban of germ line gene therapy "at the present time". Considering the fact that germ line gene therapy means manipulating genes which influence the genetic basis of future generations--and is therefore the basis for designing future human beings--this wording shows that the WCC's critique of genetic manipulation of life in 1989 was rather cautious.
A similar conclusion can be drawn from the statement which the document makes concerning the use of human embryos for research. If we admit, says the document, that the potential of a human embryo to become one or more persons demands our respect, then we are obliged not to experiment with such an embryo at all (or, at least, only if there are grave reasons to do so). Then the document names such reasons: grave genetic diseases, or research to cure lethal illnesses. As a, consequence the WCC advises governments to ban research with human embryos. If there are exceptions then the governments are to define the conditions very clearly.
This brief look at the only elaborated WCC policy document on questions of biotechnology shows that the WCC expresses a clear ethical reservation against modern biotechnology. But it does not absolutely condemn genetic manipulation and the use of embryos for research.
Since 1989, the development in biotechnology has been rapid. Some of the techniques which are at the centre of the current ethical and political debate had not even been discovered then. Therefore, an intense discussion on biotechnology has to be at the very top of the ecumenical agenda. Not only the scientific community, but also the political actors in the global community need to know what the churches have to say on these urgent issues concerning fundamental questions of life. The international ecumenical working group on bio-ethics, which was established in 2001, needs the full institutional support of the WCC in order to reach its conclusions as quickly as possible.
Two of the most burning issues not yet treated in the 1989 document, but which are presently undergoing ethical and political discussion in various countries, will be examined more thoroughly in this article: the use of embryonic stem cells for research and the cloning of human embryos.
Human stem cell research
Human embryonic stem cells have come more and more to be the "objects of desire" for scientists engaged in research in the field of medical genetics. Tremendous hopes are connected with these cells, which can be found in human embryos in their earliest stages of development. Doctors hope to find therapies for diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's or multiple sclerosis, which have so far been incurable. The idea is that stem cells can be used as a "fire-brigade" in the human body. Where human cells degenerate and therefore lead to such diseases, stem cells could be injected into the body and help rejuvenate it by stimulating the growth of new, healthy cells.
Embryonic stem cells are so interesting for this task because they are not defined in their function. In the early stage of the embryo they are still "pluripotent"--that is, they can still develop into any kind of body tissue, be it brain tissue, heart tissue or kidney tissue. For lay observers, the development of an embryo from a conglomerate of a few cells into a more and more differentiated organism is a miracle. If scientists succeeded in exploiting this miracle by understanding the mechanisms which make embryonic cells develop into different types of tissue, they would have found the key to replacing any kind of defective tissue in the patient's body. New organs could even be grown--a prospect which would revolutionize medicine, since the lack of new organs is a major barrier in helping many patients who have a very short life expectancy.
If these new medical techniques can cure grave diseases, what is the ethical problem? At this stage, embryonic stem cells are not "totipotent" which means that these cells cannot each develop into an embryo any more. The ethical problem lies in the generation of these cells. They grow in the first few days after fertilization in the developing embryo. For researchers to isolate and use these stem cells, the embryo must die. Evidently, if the embryo is seen as a human being from the very beginning of its life, the ethical question arises whether it is legitimate to kill human life in order to gain stem cells, even if the goal is the cure of diseases.
Thus for the ethical assessment of human embryonic stem cell research a fundamental factor is how the early stages of human life are understood. If we look at the different national contexts in Europe, three levels of protection for life at these earliest stages can be identified. A first group of countries forbids any research with embryos and only allows treatments which enhance the prospect of life for the treated embryo. These countries are Ireland, Luxembourg, Austria, Switzerland, Norway, Italy and Germany. A second group of countries allows research with an embryo even if it does not serve this specific embryo; but such research must serve the development of medical methods for protecting embryos in general. That is, it has to serve the future well-being of embryos, for example in the case of artificial insemination. Denmark, France and Sweden are some of the countries that belong to this second group. A third group of countries allows research with embryos without the limitations mentioned above, as long as it occurs within the first 14 days after fertilization: Finland, Greece, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Spain are part of this third group. Given this heterogeneous picture it is not surprising that Europe's 1996 Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine does not categorically ban research with human embryos.
In the other continents of the world, the situation is hard to classify. In many countries there is no legal rule in this issue at all. In Australia, Israel and the United States, liberal legal standards allow intensive research with embryonic stem cells. The limitation of stem cell research which the American President George Bush advocates and which is presently being debated in the United States only applies to public funding. Research possibilities by privately financed institutions remain untouched. The political process concerning rules on human cloning is still open. The house of representatives has banned all forms of human cloning, while the leading proposal in the senate would allow therapeutic cloning and only ban the implantation of a cloned embryo to create a baby.
In Russia and in China, the information we have does not allow a clear picture, but also implies extended research activities. Recent news, however, suggests that a leading scientist in China, Lu Guangxiu of the Xiangya school of medicine in southern China's Hunan province, has cloned more than 30 human embryos. These embryos are said to have been grown to a 200-cell stage, large enough to harvest embryonic stem cells. Up to now cloned embryos had been grown only to a 6-cell stage. At least five laboratories in China are known to be engaged in the research and all are said to have made great progress, due in part to the lack of any legal barriers.
This brief overview shows that the situation is very different in the various national contexts. This underlines the necessity of a global dialogue on this issue. The ethical questions at stake are clear: Can human life in its first days of existence be considered equally worthy of protection as in later stages? Does the affirmation of human dignity, supported by a broad global consensus, have concrete consequences for the ethical and legal assessment of embryonic stem cell research? Can the good ends for which this research is conducted outweigh the ethical reservation one might have against it? And what is it, exactly, that we call "human dignity"?
These questions are even more urgent if we look at the other issue which is presently at the centre of bio-ethical debate: cloning. Here we must distinguish two types of cloning: While in reproductive cloning it is intended to create an embryo which is actually to be born and to grow up, in therapeutic cloning the cloning technique is used only for the purpose of generating human embryonic stem cells.
The reproductive cloning of human beings has for a long time been a favourite subject of science fiction movies. We now know that it is not science fiction any more, even though no one knows exactly the extent of cloning experiments already going on. The news media regularly reports about efforts of this kind. The Italian doctor Severino Antinori has announced that he has begun the procedure necessary for producing a cloned baby; the same has been reported about the American religious sect "Clone Aid", which expects the "new creation" to arrive through cloning technology. None of these groups or persons have a basis in the professional medical world. But there is also hardly any doubt that they have access to the technology and the knowledge to perform the procedure which could lead to a cloned human being, even though this procedure is still connected with a high risk of failure.
What are we actually talking about when we speak about cloning? The technology at the centre of the debate works like the procedure which Ian Wilmuth, of Edinburgh's Roslin Institute, used to create the famous cloned sheep "Dolly": First you remove the nucleus from an egg, then take a body cell from the person you want to clone and extract the nucleus from it. Then you inject this nucleus into the first egg cell, replacing its original nucleus. Then you stimulate this cell through electric impulses until it starts dividing as an embryo. Since the cell nucleus contains the complete set of genetic information, the developing embryo is genetically identical to the donor of the body cell. In the case of the cloned sheep Dolly, there were hundreds of failures before the procedure worked and experts say that in the case of human beings the medical risks, and the probability of "misfits", are even higher, Ian Wilmuth himself has become one of those who warn most fervently against transferring the technology which he used for animals to human beings. However, since the technology exists, one has to deal with the possibility of its use and further development for application to human beings.
Most people have an intuitive reaction against such efforts to clone human beings. But what is the ethical basis of such a reaction? Genetically speaking, cloned human beings are the same as identical twins. The intuitive reaction against cloning is, nevertheless, very appropriate because there is one major difference between identical twins and cloned human beings: while twins have come into existence as genetically identical human beings by coincidence or--from a religious standpoint, by the will of God --cloned human beings are produced by other human beings according to the latter's own personal will. Thus cloning violates the dignity of the human person because a cloned person is not an end in itself, but in its genetic design is completely predetermined (and therefore instrumentalized) by somebody else. Horrific visions of an army of genetically optimized cloned human beings, as we know them from films, are only the tip of the iceberg of the possible uses of the cloning technology. The more immediately probable uses might be, for example, desperate parents who loose a child and try to regain this child through cloning technology.
News of ongoing efforts to clone human beings has alarmed the churches worldwide. The Society, Religion and Technology Project of the Church of Scotland--to name just one institution--has been in the forefront of ethical debate on cloning since Dolly hit the headlines in 1997. Its director, Donald Bruce, has been in dialogue with the Roslin scientists since 1994. Thanks to this intensive dialogue and discussion process the Church of Scotland, in its statement in 1997, was among the first bodies in the world to call for legislation to ban human reproductive cloning. It has also consistently stressed the immense dangers of applying to human beings a procedure which has caused so many problems in animals.
Meanwhile, credible efforts to clone human beings have also alarmed governments and led to a diplomatic initiative, started by Germany and France, to achieve a legally binding international ban on human reproductive cloning. It has already generated a resolution of the United Nations general assembly (no. 56/93) which was cosponsored by fifty delegations from all regions and was adopted unanimously, laying the ground for a negotiating process. The goal is to achieve a legally binding convention before the end of the year 2003.
Binding universal norms [said Christian Much, Germany's representative, in his statement at the UN on 26 February 2002] are an effective tool to combat serious threats to human dignity ... Reproductive cloning of human beings poses a threat to human dignity. We think that only an international binding global norm, with its legal and moral power, is the appropriate answer. It will enable us to prevent dishonest competition among researchers and research institutions in the field of reproductive cloning.
His statement led to a call to action: "We must win the race against those who want to perform reproductive cloning of human beings and we can win it."
But while the consensus on the ethical questionability of human reproductive cloning is wide, the other way of using the cloning technology is not unanimously rejected by the international community, and not even by the worldwide church community.
The immediate cause for a wide international discussion on therapeutic cloning was a decision of the British parliament. On 19 December 2000, the House of Commons, after an intense and emotional debate, passed a law which, for the first time anywhere, allowed the cloning of human beings for the purpose of gaining human embryonic stem cells. As we have noted, the decisive difference between therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning is the fact that the former never intends to lead to the birth of a cloned human being. Rather, therapeutic cloning promises to remedy one big disadvantage of the human embryonic stem cell technique. As with any organ transplantation, the injection of stem cells in a patient's body in order to restore his or her healthy cell growth runs a certain risk: since the genetic code of the injected stem cells is not identical with the patient's genetic code, the injection of these cells can lead to an anti-immune reaction by the patient. Knowing that this problem is the main risk in organ transplantation and that it requires the use of strong medication in order to stop the rejection of the new organ by the patient's body, one can understand why the prospect of overcoming this risk is so tempting. This is exactly what the technique of therapeutic cloning should be able to do, once it is sufficiently developed.
By analogy with the reproductive cloning technique, the cell nucleus of a patient's cell is injected into an egg cell whose nucleus has been removed. The embryo which begins to grow after electric stimulation therefore contains the patient's genetic code. After a few days the embryo produces stem cells which also carry that identical genetic code, and therefore no anti-immune reaction will occur.
The potential of this technique is obvious. It could be used not only for the injection of stem cells into, for example, a damaged brain; it also could lead to the production of organs to replace damaged ones, with no risk of anti-immune reactions. No wonder that experts see a multi-billion-dollar market in the future use of this technique.
However, medical scientists have emphasized that the medical prospects of therapeutic cloning are quite unclear, and may be realizable only in 20-30 years. Others have pointed towards a serious problem in its practical application for many patients: as we have seen, female egg cells are needed for the cloning technique. If only 10 percent of Germany's Parkinson patients were treated with this technique, 25,000 human clones would be necessary. As the experience with the cloning of animals has shown, hundreds of egg cells are necessary to produce just one clone. Thus, millions of female egg cells would be necessary to treat just a small portion of all patients who would be eligible for this therapy. It does not require much imagination to see how unrealistic this is. A look at the internet homepages of North American reproduction clinics shows that prices for donated egg cells range between 6000 and 17,000 dollars. But more important than the financial limitations is the troubling prospect of women being humiliated as mass donors of egg cells.
Scientists look therefore for alternatives to therapeutic cloning, but also to embryonic stem cell therapy in general. The most promising path towards alternatives which are ethically less problematic is the exploration of the potential of "adult stem cells". Adult stem cells exist in adult organisms only in small numbers. They are also less promising in their potential development than embryonic stem cells. But, in principle, they can be used for the same therapeutic purposes without carrying the ethical burden of existing only at the expense of a sacrificed embryo. However, if what leading medical scientists say is true, it cannot be denied that work with embryonic stem cells would lead to practicable therapies more quickly than comparable work with adult stem cells.
The ethical dilemma concerning both embryonic stem cell research and the related technique of therapeutic cloning is, therefore, not resolved simply by pointing towards possible alternatives. If, by stopping a certain line of research, suffering patients must wait longer for a cure or run a greater risk of never being cured, there have to be good ethical reasons for that.
Most Christian churches oppose research with embryos because they see the dignity of the human person violated when embryos are sacrificed for reasons outside themselves, as good as those reasons might be. If there are thoughts of liberalizing this ethical opposition, they relate to embryos which are "left over" from artificial insemination procedures and do not have in any case a realistic prospect of being born from a mother. The production of embryos with the goal of then sacrificing them in order to gain stem cells, as is the case with therapeutic cloning, is almost unanimously opposed.
There is one church in Europe, however, which takes a different stand on this issue. The Church of Scotland, which we have already mentioned for its clear condemnation of reproductive cloning, issued a statement at its 2001 general assembly in which it opposed the use of embryos from artificial insemination procedures for any other purpose than for human reproduction research, but declared "that human embryos created by cell nuclear transfer [that is to say, for therapeutic cloning] may be used in medical research and therapy, subject to the 14-day limit".
Insofar as God--argued the Scottish church--created human embryos for the end of human reproduction, such embryos, within the 14-day period, should only be used for research serving human reproduction. But since embryos created by therapeutic cloning have never served the end of reproduction, they can be used for medical research and the production of embryonic stem cells.
This controversial position makes it all the more necessary to look more thoroughly at the ethical questions which underlie the debate on the application of biotechnological possibilities.
The fundamental importance of human dignity
It has often been affirmed that it is pointless to invoke the principle of human dignity in the bio-ethical debate because this principle is as uncontroversial as it is empty. There are, however, good reasons to disagree with this assessment. This becomes clear if we look at the German philosopher Immanuel Kant's classical definition of human dignity: reasonable beings all have the obligation to see and treat each other never only as a means to another end, but always as an end in itself. If human life at its beginning is seen as subject to the principle of human dignity, then it is hard not to see the tension between this ethical principle and the practice of embryonic stem cell research or, even more so, of therapeutic cloning. To gain human embryonic stem cells, the embryo has to be sacrificed. It has to die for the good end of developing therapies for people who otherwise have to suffer--but it is still not being treated as an end in itself, but as a means to another end. This is even more true for therapeutic cloning, where embryos are called into existence for no other reason than to be sacrificed for other ends. The argument of the Scottish church is not convincing, because the fact that human life has been called into existence by human action solely for the purpose of generating stem cells does not justify depriving this life of its God-given dignity.
The closeness of Kant's philosophical argument to biblical thinking has often been shown. The biblical option for the poor, as well as the golden rule (Matt. 17:12) and the "love commandment" (John 13:34), can be understood as ethical barriers against the reduction of human beings to an instrument for someone else's ends. There is a distinctively theological argument which can further develop what is meant by the dignity of the human person. From a theological standpoint, this dignity is not based on the nature of humans as reasonable beings, as in Kant's thinking, but it is rooted in the relationship which God establishes with the human being. The biblical affirmation that humans are created in the image of God has often been understood as something which humans have to prove themselves "worthy" of. Sin was then understood, by some, as destroying the status of human beings as beings created in the image of God. This is why it is so important to affirm the emphasis of the New Testament on the unconditional acceptance of the sinner by God. The love of God, as Jesus describes it in the parable of the prodigal son, reaches beyond the empirical "worthiness" of God's creatures. Neither moral merit, nor physical ability, are the basis of God's relationship to human beings, but exclusively God's own love and joy in the face of life. Thus it is God who makes human beings an end in themselves and if human beings take the right to decide about the worthiness of human life, then they forget that life receives its dignity from God.
This argument also has consequences for the other ethical question that is at stake in the bio-ethical debate: What is the status of human life in its earliest beginnings?
The status of early human life
The landscape of the ethical discussion on this issue can be described in terms of five positions.
The weakest position has been publicly discussed in connection with the theses of the Australian ethicist Peter Singer, now teaching at Princeton University. This position links the full protection of life, and its personal status, to the empirical existence of certain characteristics such as sensitivity to rationality, consciousness and self-esteem. For Singer human beings deserve this protection only a few weeks after birth. The second position sees the act of birth as constitutive for the attribute of human dignity and its protection. A third position is based on the high estimation of reason and wants to protect fully human life beginning with the fifth week after fertilization, when the brain starts to develop in the embryo. A fourth position affirms the 14-day period which we have already mentioned. This is based on the fact that until the end of this period there is a possibility that the embryo will divide into twins, and therefore the individuality of the embryo is seen as beginning only after this period. (The other reason given for the 14-day period is the nidation of the embryo in the womb of the mother which takes place within this period.) Finally, the fifth and strongest position affirms that the embryo is a human being from the very beginning, and therefore also deserves full protection from the moment of fertilization of the egg cell on. This position is not only affirmed in many church statements. It has also entered legal codices such as the German embryo protection law.
This fifth position might trouble women who are involved in the discussion on the issue of abortion, and are rightly suspicious of any ethical views which ignore the conflicts faced by women in this question. And, indeed, the bio-ethics discussion touches many questions which are also discussed in dealing with the issue of abortion. Nevertheless, there are also clear differences. While in the issue of abortion issue we are dealing with a conflict within the body of a woman, in the biotechnology debate we are talking about methods which objectify human life and therefore pose the danger of leaving such human life without any protection. Therefore it actually makes sense to establish especially strict standards for human life in laboratories, while refusing the temptation to draw any direct conclusions for the debate on abortion.
With this proviso in mind, there are good reasons to see the fifth position as the one which is ethically most convincing. The first reason for this assessment has gained plausibility especially through the knowledge developed through genetic research in recent decades. We know today that with fertilization, all the genetic information which is the biological basis of the development of a human person is existant. Nothing is added later on, no matter whether the embryo divides into twins or not, his or her developing body exists from the beginning without limitation. Therefore it is appropriate to say: the embryo does not develop into a human being, but develops as a human being.
The second reason for the validity of the fifth position is a consequence of the theological reflexion in which we have engaged. If human dignity is something which cannot be rooted in any empirical characteristic of a human being, but is something attributed to a human being through a relationship established by God, then this cannot be without consequences for the status of early human life. It means that human dignity cannot be based on reaching a certain state of biological development, be it the exclusion of development as twins, or the development of a brain, or the beginning of consciousness.
Therefore in deciding when human life is worthy of protection, the only approach which is not arbitrary is to take fertilization at the point in time at which the new human being comes into existence. We have seen that there are also theological reasons which must not to be neglected and which lead to this conclusion.
Accepting the finiteness of human existence
Our ethical reflection on human embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning leads to the conclusion that these new techniques are in conflict with ethical norms, because they use early human life as a means to achieve an external end. This conclusion does not deny the good ethical reasons which can be named in favour of such techniques. Certainly there can be no doubt about the high ethical value that medical efforts to alleviate human suffering enjoy. Indeed, in the biblical tradition, human beings are never simply called to accept passively their fate, but rather to shape it with the abilities which God has given them.
This vocation of human beings as shapers of their existence, however, becomes destructive if they neglect the ethical "points of orientation" which God has also given them. The story of the tower of Babel is the best example of this danger. The affirmation of human dignity has come to be a widely accepted point of ethical orientation, serving as a barrier against the all-too destructive human desire for power. This ethical perspective received many of its impulses from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Therefore it is more than appropriate if the Christian churches watch carefully how culture deals with ethics, and lift up their voices whenever they see human life treated as a goods in a medical and technological market, rather than as an end in and of itself.
The temptation to overcome human finiteness by any available means seems to have accompanied humanity from the very beginning. The biblical creation story describes Adam and Eve neglecting the prohibition of eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. There is a second tree in this story: the tree of life. It is often overlooked that the tree of life is the reason why God drives Adam and Eve out of the garden Eden and places the cherubim at its entrance:
Then the LORD God said, "See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever." Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life (Gen. 3:22f.).
The wisdom in these words could not be more up to date. When human beings try desperately to overcome their finiteness and use any means to do so, they miss the fullness of life that God has promised them. Placing the cherubim at the entrance of the garden Eden was an act of God's love and affection towards the human being. Our accepting the finiteness of human life when the price for its extension is too high is a consequence of God's loving will in creating us: God's will for us to be truly human.
(1) For this topic see also my comments on ecumenical thought on creation: H. Bedford-Strohm, "Schopfung", Okumenische Studienhefte, 12, 2001, pp. 174-78.
Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, after teaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York and at the University of Giessen is now a minister in the Bavarian town of Coburg and is teaching at the University of Heidelberg. He is a member of the social affairs committee of the Protestant Church in Germany and a member of the WCC working group on bio-ethics.…