Human Cloning vs. Human Dignity
by Richard M. Doerflinger
Why do Christians oppose human
It's a fair question. Sheep,
cattle and other animals have now been "replicated" by the cloning procedure
called somatic cell nuclear transfer. An unfertilized egg has its nucleus
removed or inactivated, and replaced with the nucleus from an animal's body
cell. This nucleus, containing the animal's full genetic makeup, is
stimulated to interact with the egg, and a new embryo develops that is
genetically identical to the animal providing the body cell. Scientists say
the technique can be useful for animal breeding and medical research — and
the Catholic Church does not object, as long as the norms against
mistreating animals in research are respected.
Yet the situation is very different when this technique is proposed for
humans. Catholics and other Christians are in the forefront of the effort to
ban human cloning. Supporters of cloning even accuse us of imposing our
religious beliefs on a diverse society in this debate.
That charge is false and unfair. Public sentiment against all human cloning
is strong and transcends the usual political and religious categories. But
the question still remains: Why should Christians, in particular, be so
strong in their opposition?
Cloning supporters have proposed one answer: Catholics and other Christians
oppose cloning because they are afraid of science and technical progress.
But this is false. Catholic tradition honors natural reason and the
sciences, unless these disciplines overreach themselves by claiming there is
no truth beyond them. Catholics tend to see new technology as good in
itself, or at least morally neutral — something that can be turned to good
or evil depending on how and why it is used. But our tradition insists on
the dignity of the human person and on the need to respect that person's
basic human goods — the first and most basic of which is life itself. This
is where a true answer begins.
Cloning as a Threat to Life
Cloning may seem like a new way
to create human life, not destroy it. But a closer look reveals its darker
This technique can be used for two purposes: to produce a live-born child
(so-called "reproductive" cloning), or to create human embryos to be
destroyed in medical experiments (so-called "therapeutic" cloning — more
accurately called research cloning, since therapies may never come from
Animal trials indicate that any attempt to use human cloning for
reproduction will have many victims. Well over 90% of cloned embryos
miscarry or are stillborn. Dolly the cloned sheep was the sole survivor out
of 277 attempts. Those few who survive to birth have serious medical
problems. Dolly, for example, developed premature arthritis and lived only
half a normal life span. Even carrying such a pregnancy to term may pose
special dangers to the mother, due to the risk of "large offspring syndrome"
and other problems. In short, anyone who chooses to reproduce this way must
disregard the life and health of child and mother, to fixate on the supposed
benefits of creating a much younger "replica" of oneself. Human reproductive
cloning is a dangerous and unethical experiment on women and children.
Many scientists oppose "reproductive" cloning for these reasons, but still
favor cloning for research. Yet the main difference between the two is this:
In reproductive cloning, most cloned humans will die very young; in cloning
for research, all of them will die, because they will be deliberately killed
as means to someone else's idea of medical progress. The fact that this
killing may take place at a very early stage makes no difference, for our
moral tradition regards human life at every stage as deserving respect and
Cloning for research presents a new evil not found even in the practice of
abortion: creating new human lives solely in order to destroy them. This is
the ultimate reduction of human life to an object, to a commodity that has
no value except for the use someone else chooses for it. Pope John Paul II
has underscored the grave evil of such experiments, calling them
"atrocities" that are "unworthy of man" (World Day of Peace Message,
January 1, 2001, no. 19).
Some try to obscure the gravity of such evils, by denying the humanity of
their victim. They say the entity produced by cloning is not really a human
being with a human soul. Sometimes they even claim that no embryo can be a
human being until after implantation in a mother's womb. But these are
self-serving arguments with no factual basis.
A human life begins when a new organism of the human species forms — that
is, when the human genetic makeup is complete and the development of a new
individual has begun. Implantation in the mother's womb is an important step
needed for later survival — but it is essentially a change in location, one
stage among many in a new life already begun. And while union of egg and
sperm are the normal and usual way for such human development to begin, we
now know there are other ways.
Catholics have no reason to deny that a cloned human has a human soul.
Respect for natural reason, and for the equal dignity of all human beings
under God, leads us to respect every member of the human species regardless
of his or her origins. The account of Jesus' origin in the Gospel of Luke
certainly reminds us that there may be more than one way to come into
existence as a member of the human family!
But if cloning would create a fully human being, can it be wrong in
principle? If the right to life were not under attack, and the death rate
from cloning were greatly reduced, would Catholics still reject it?
Answering this question requires an even closer look.
Cloning and Human Dignity
As the Second Vatican Council
affirms, moral judgments about procreation must be based on "the nature of
the human person and his acts" (Gaudium et spes, no. 51). To
understand the nature of the act of human procreation is to realize why
cloning does not respect this nature.
In sexual procreation, a man and woman join in a loving embrace that
expresses their love for each other, and is open to cooperating with God to
create a new person the two will love and care for together. This
openness to new life sets the stage for our lifelong attitude toward our
children. We know that our children arise from our act of self-giving love;
that their makeup will be a new and unpredictable combination of traits from
both parents; that we provided the opportunity for God's creative act,
rather than forcing the production of a particular child. By the very nature
of our procreative act, we respect God's creative role. We also show respect
for our children, welcoming them as free and equal members of the human
family with their own open future — as persons over whom we have
stewardship, not absolute dominion.
Some reproductive technologies assist this natural process. But some ignore
or violate its central features. These technologies make children result
from the meeting of sperm and egg in a Petri dish, rather than from parents'
act of embodied love. They introduce third parties into the procreative act,
and allow technicians to manipulate and control life at its very beginning.
Human cloning is the final step down this path of depersonalized
procreation. It involves no meeting of male and female at all — in fact, a
child produced this way has no "mother" or "father" in the ordinary sense,
but only a template or model. Instead of openness to life, it involves
domination over life — for a technician manufactures the new embryo in a
laboratory, and even controls his or her genetic makeup to be identical to
that of someone else. This act has the nature of a manufacturing process,
suited to a commodity rather than a human being. It dehumanizes in the act
This is not only a Christian insight, for it is imbedded in our human
nature. Says ethicist Leon Kass: "Human cloning would ... represent a giant
step toward turning begetting into making, procreation into manufacture
(literally, something "handmade") ... [W]e here would be taking a major step
into making man himself simply another one of the man-made things."1
Yet Christians above all should realize how important this insight is. Our
Creed underscores the equality of God the Son with God the Father by
insisting that He was "begotten, not made." The Son is not a creature like
others, but arises in an eternally spontaneous outpouring of the Father's
love. Our humility before God begins with the fact that although we are made
in God's image and likeness, we are indeed creatures he has made, "the work
of His hands." This is central to the infinitely vast difference between the
divine and the human — a difference bridged only by God's free act of
infinite love toward us.
When we manufacture offspring according to preset specifications, then, we
are violating a fundamental aspect of human procreation. We are treating our
children as inferior beings, as our "creatures." The other abuses of human
cloning — the selfish fixation on producing a child "just like me"; the
willingness to subject cloned humans to high risks of death and disability;
even scientists' willingness to clone embryos solely to exploit and destroy
them — flow from this first fundamental error.
Human cloning would create a human being who deserves to be treated as our
equal, but would do so in a way that undermines this equal dignity. It is
not a worthy way for humans to bring other humans into the world.
And there is still more.
Cloning and God
Cloning invites humans to treat
their "creations" as less than themselves, as less than human. But it also
tempts them to think of themselves as greater than human, as gods with the
power to "create" life. This is, of course, the first and greatest
temptation presented to human beings, to Adam and Eve: "You will be like
gods" (Gn 3:5).
If this seems an exaggeration, we have only to look at statements by cloning
Dr. Lee Silver of Princeton University titles his book in favor of cloning
Remaking Eden. In this Eden, the genetics expert plays the role of God,
driving humanity to "self-evolve" into a superior race. He envisions a
future in which "mental beings," "as different from humans as humans are
from the primitive worms with tiny brains that first crawled along the
earth's surface," find themselves "coming face to face with their creator" —
and perhaps seeing "simply their own image in the mirror."2 The
scientists who created Dolly the sheep call their recent book The Second
Creation and they don't just mean creating sheep. "Cloning of the kind
we have developed," they say, "makes it possible in principle to apply all
the immense power of genetic engineering and genomics to animals .... and
human beings, of course, are animals too."3
These scientists are not talking only about laudable efforts to use genetics
to eliminate terrible disease. Cloning is a "gateway technology" to efforts
to engineer the human species, for two reasons. First, genetic engineering
is such a hit-and-miss procedure that one must be able to duplicate one's
rare successes. Second, if scientists can make a new being who is exactly
the same as another, they can refine their procedure to make that new being
the same except for one or two "superior" traits, and then build on this.
The human species itself would be the laboratory bench and the research
animal for such experiments.
Tragically, many scientists are blind to the paradox in this grand scheme.
When the true God makes people in His image and likeness, He produces an
inexhaustible variety of people who reflect different facets of His infinite
goodness. When we mere humans try to do the same, we only replicate one
narrow set of traits already provided to us in the past ? and when we try to
"improve" on that heritage, all we can apply are our own narrow, biased and
imperfect ideas of a "better" human. By imposing those biases on our
offspring, we would still treat them as objects we can control and dominate
— even if we are trying to create a "superior" product. As C.S. Lewis
prophesied over a half a century ago in The Abolition of Man, these new
powers for controlling the species are not a net gain of power for humanity
— they are ways for a few imperfect humans to exert control over many other
humans and the future of humanity.
To imagine we are ready for such control over fellow humans is to commit the
ultimate sin of overweaning pride — what the Greeks called hubris, the pride
of grasping at what belongs only to gods. While any reasonable person can
see the destructiveness of such pride, Christians know above all that the
road to human progress is paved instead by humble service to others. Jesus'
sacrifice blazed the right path for us long ago. From this perspective,
human cloning and the mentality that accepts and uses it is an affront to
Catholics and others who
respect human life stand at a crossroads. For decades we have waged a
sometimes lonely fight to insist that innocent human life must never be
attacked. Today we face a challenge that is more subtle, but even more
overpowering, as human beings are tempted to exert ultimate control over the
origins and traits of fellow humans. As ethicist Nigel Cameron has said, we
are moving from the "Cain and Abel issues" to the "Tower of Babel issues,"
from denying human lives to denying our human limitations.
To be sure, the debate on "cloning for research" demonstrates that there
will be much outright destruction of life along this path as well. But this
willingness to destroy life is a symptom of a new level of disdain for human
dignity, a mentality that treats other human beings as objects for our
control. Nothing could be more alien to the attitude needed to build a
culture of life.
Richard Doerflinger is deputy director of the USCCB Secretariat for
In most states, the pro-life
movement is on the front lines in challenging cloning and other immoral
biomedical research. However, when pitted against "the scientific community"
in a debate over research, the pro-life movement, by itself, is
disadvantaged in having scientific credibility. Having a more credible voice
to challenge immoral research and promote moral research was the impetus for
the formation of the Nebraska Coalition for Ethical Research (NCER). NCER is
comprised of a diverse group of leaders in science, medicine, religion,
ethics, business and politics who wish to promote cutting-edge biomedical
research that protects the life, dignity and rights of every human being at
each developmental stage. The Coalition's vision, objectives and position
papers on fetal tissue, embryonic stem cell and cloning research are
available online at www.ethicalresearch.net. Information on the mechanics of
forming such a group is available by contacting Greg Schleppenbach, State
Director of Pro-Life Activities for the Nebraska Catholic Conference, at
402-477-7517 or email@example.com.
Begotten, Not Made: Pastoral Care for Couples Experiencing Infertility is a
program developed by the Family Life Institute. This program manual is used
to aid dioceses in their counseling of couples and providing moral teachings
on how to deal with infertility. For more information on how to start this
program in your diocese contact the Family Life Institute at 703-365-7281 or
visit their website www.familylifeinstitute.com.
Declaration on the Production and Scientific and Therapeutic Use of Human
Embryonic Stem Cells. Pontifical Academy for Life, 2000. Visit
Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of
Procreation. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 1987. USCCB:
Call 800-235-8722 or visit
The Gospel of Life. Pope John Paul II, 1995. USCCB: Call 800-235-8722
Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human
Life. William E. May, Huntington, Ind.: Our
Sunday Visitor Books, 2000 ($17.95).
Cutting-Edge Bioethics: A Christian Exploration of Technologies and
Trends. John F. Kilner, et al. (eds.), Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm.
B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2002 ($22.00).
Ethical Issues in Human Cloning.
Michael C. Brannigan (ed.), New York: Seven Bridges Press, 2001 ($19.95).
Human Cloning: Assault on Life and Dignity.
National Committee for a Human Life Amendment: Washington, D.C. Flier is
available at www.nchla.org/campaign.htm.
Human Cloning and Human Dignity: An Ethical
Inquiry. Washington, D.C.: The President's
Council on Bioethics, 2002. Available at www.bioethics.gov.
Human Cloning: Playing God or Scientific
Progress? Lane P. Lester and James C.
Hefley, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Fleming H. Revell, 1998. Visit
www.bakerbooks.com or call 800-877-2665.
Issues for a Catholic Bioethic.
Luke Gormally (ed.), London: The Linacre Center, 1999. Visit www.linacre.org.
Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics.
Leon R. Kass, M.D., San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002 ($26.95).
The Future is Now: America Confronts the New Genetics. William
Kristol and Eric Cohen (eds.), New York: Rowman & Little Field Publishers,
Respect for the Human Embryo, Summer 2001 (Vol. 1, No. 2). Edward J.
Furton, M.A., Ph.D. (ed.), Boston, Mass.: The National Catholic Bioethics
The Whole Truth about Stem Cell Research, What Hollywood, Biotechnology
and the News Media Leave Out. William L. Saunders, Jr. and Charles A.
Donovan. Washington, D.C.: Family Research Council, 2001 ($4.50).
What is Man, O Lord? The Human Person in a Biotech Age. Edward J.
Furton, M.A., Ph.D. and Louise A. Mitchell, M.T.S. (eds.), Boston,
Massachusetts: The National Catholic Bioethics Center, 2002 ($24.95).
Without Moral Limits: Women, Reproduction, and Medical Technology.
Debra Evans, Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2000 ($14.99).
Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities
The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics
Americans to Ban Cloning
National Committee for a Human Life Amendment
1 L. Kass, "The
Wisdom of Repugnance," in The New Republic, June 2, 1997, p. 23.
2 L. Silver,
Remaking Eden (Avon Nooks 1998), pp. 292-3.
3 I. Wilmut, K. Campbell and C. Tudge, The
Second Creation: Dolly and the Age of Biological Control (Farrar, Straus and
Giroux 2000), p. 9.
Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
3211 4th Street, N.E., Washington, DC 20017-1194 (202) 541-3070