London (CNSNews.com) - Leaders across the religious spectrum in Britain have made a united appeal to lawmakers not to rush ahead with a decision to permit the cloning of human beings and exploitation of human embryos.
In what may be the broadest show of support for a common position in decades, leaders of the Jewish, Muslim and Sikh communities have joined those of major Christian denominations - Protestant, Catholic, Evangelical and Orthodox - in putting their names to a letter sent to the members of the upper House of Lords.
The Lords will on Monday consider a measure passed last month by the elected House of Commons, to allow scientists to harvest stem cells for research from existing human embryos, and also to clone embryos for this purpose.
The government, which backs the move, is trying to push through an "unamendable order" - a fast-track step that requires only a brief debate before a vote - rather than use the usual legislative route, whereby a draft bill goes through a series of committees and amendments before being put to legislators.
In their letter, a copy of which was released Wednesday, the religious leaders said that although there were varying views on the proposals, there was widespread agreement that their "huge philosophical and ethical implications" had not been considered fully.
They urged the Lords to refer the issue to a select committee to weigh all the evidence "in a calm and sober manner." Opponents in the House have tabled an amendment that would allow such a committee to be set up.
Proponents argue that stem cells, the constituent ingredients of skin, bone and tissue, may be able to be used to help cure diseases and heal severe injuries. They say stem cells from embryos offer the best potential of achieving this goal.
Opponents say manipulation of early-stage human beings - which are subsequently killed - is immoral as well as unnecessary, as recent research shows that "adult" stem cells from placentas and umbilical cords may offer the same therapeutic benefits.
The signatories of the letter refer to this position, saying: "Scientific opinion is also divided about the alleged benefits of therapeutic cloning - pointing to the morally uncontroversial use of stem cells from other sources."
The letter cites the late lawmaker, Lord Jakobovits, who warned in an earlier debate on human cloning that "one slight miscalculation" could lead to implications for future generations "that cannot be undone."
The leaders' setting aside of theological and historic differences to voice concern about one specific moral and political issue is a rare occurrence. Some commentators said Wednesday it may be unprecedented.
The signatories include the head of the world's Anglicans, Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, the heads of the Catholic Church in England and Wales and in Scotland, Archbishop Cormac Murphy-O'Connor and Cardinal Thomas Winning, and Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
Leaders in the Muslim, Sikh, Greek Orthodox, Baptist, Free Churches and Evangelical communities also signed up.
It was reported earlier this week that religious leaders had tried unsuccessfully on four occasions to schedule a meeting with Prime Minister Tony Blair to discuss the cloning issue.
The Catholic Church position on cloning is based on a 1997 document issued by the Vatican's bioethical institute, the Pontifical Academy of Life, which concludes two fundamental objections to the practice.
The first is that each human should have the right to be born of the natural union of a man and woman. "Cloning is the production of a life in a process that is the most removed of all from the truly human process."
The second objection is that no person should be treated merely as a means to another end. Cloning would subordinate cloned human beings "to the purposes of others, for utility or satisfaction or even mere curiosity."
Expressing a Jewish view this week, Rabbi Chaim Rapoport said Jewish theologians believed that the harnessing of modern technology to alleviate human suffering was one of the greatest contributions man could make to society.
However, there was an "equally challenging responsibility" to avoid the temptation to follow paths that could "wreak havoc for mankind," continued Rapoport, a member of the UK chief rabbi's cabinet, and responsible for medical ethics.
He warned of the risks of ending up with a disproportionate number of clones of a particular gender, or an imbalance in the distribution of attributes and talents. Cloned humans could also suffer physical, psychological and sociological damage, he added.
Finally, Rapoport said, Jewish law had never been comfortable with fertility techniques involving "different men and women who do not themselves represent organic family nuclei."
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