The Ethics of Cloning

About this article

Catholic ethicist Russell B. Connors Jr. explores the ethics of cloning in this article from St. Anthony Messenger. A brief review of the research involving cloning provides a clear focus for the discussion and application of Christian morality. Using a poignant story from Henri Nouwen, the author makes the point that morality is about the way we see ourselves in relationship to others and the world. Called to be stewards and instruments of God's creation, we must reverence the gift of life, which is deeply rooted in Scripture and our Catholic Tradition. The article closes with the application of the Vatican's 1987 Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation to the issue of cloning.

Amazing. Maybe it's because I can still be wowed by yet another Spielberg dinosaur film. Maybe it's because I find the processes of reproduction and the inner life of DNA to be as much about mystery as they are about medical research. And maybe, in the end, it's because I'm a theologian and not a scientist. Whatever the case, when I first heard the news about researchers in Edinburgh, Scotland, creating (is that the right word?) a lamb named Dolly by cloning her from a cell of an adult sheep, I responded first not as a Christian ethicist, but as a child of this century, as one who is still wowed by yesterday's science-fiction fantasies becoming today's realities.

I am glad for my amazement, and I think there is something rather Catholic about it. Our tradition has long been convinced that faith and reason ought not conflict, that a wonderful way to honor the Creator is to use our gifts of ingenuity and intelligence to serve the fullness of life, and that being stewards of the earth does not mean being passive recipients of the world as we have inherited it, but includes being creative in tilling the soil of the earth.

So I remain amazed. Even now as I reread the accounts of the cloning process of the researchers I find myself saying, "My, this is clever!"

But is it a good thing to do? Can the cloning of sheep or even of humans one day be considered part of stewardship? Are there limits to what we might do in the name of ingenuity, intelligence and creativity? Are there criteria that can help us recognize when an intervention might be more harmful than helpful to ourselves and others? And in light of our Christian faith, how can we discern when we are being not only clever, but also genuinely faithful to our charge to be stewards of the earth? Is cloning O.K. with God?

Those are some of the questions this article will address. I will explain what cloning is, provide some background on faith in relation to science, then look at the ethics of cloning.

Hello, Dolly

The possibility of cloning--producing genetically identical copies of a single living organism--has fascinated scientists for some time. Prior to the cloning of Dolly, researchers in the United States and elsewhere had performed cloning experiments on frogs (genetically less complex creatures) with some success. Even so, it had become clear that cloning was more successful with embryos than with mature cells.

Researchers believed that once cells differentiate, that is, once they mature and become specific types of cells (blood, muscle, brain, etc.), then segments of the DNA within those cells seem to shut down, no longer allowing those cells to perform the generative activities of embryonic cells. This is why cloning embryos has been a fairly common practice with cattle, but cloning such mammals from mature, differentiated cells had proven to be a much more difficult "trick."

Enter Dolly. As reported in Nature magazine last spring, she was created in July of 1996 by a team of Scottish researchers under the leadership of Dr. Ian Wilmut. Dolly was hailed as the first mammal to develop from a cell derived from an adult, differentiated tissue. Specifically, Dolly is the genetic clone of a Finn Dorset ewe.

How was it done? First, cells were taken from the udder of an adult sheep (a Finn Dorset ewe) and then kept in the laboratory where they were given just enough nutrients to keep the cells alive, yet not enough to allow further cell division. Second, an unfertilized egg was taken from a Scottish Blackface ewe. The nucleus of the egg cell--containing the DNA--was removed, leaving the egg empty, though still capable of producing an embryo.

Third, the cells from the Finn Dorset ewe and the empty egg from the Blackface ewe were brought together and, with an electric stimulus, induced to fuse into one cell. An additional electric pulse stimulated cell division. Fourth, after several days of growth in the laboratory the embryo was implanted into a surrogate mother, another Blackface ewe. After a period of normal gestation the surrogate mother gave birth to a Finn Dorset lamb whom the researchers named Dolly. Dolly is genetically identical to the donor Finn Dorset ewe.

The event captured the world's imagination. One expert, J. Madeleine Nash, commented in Time magazine, "The ability to clone adult mammals, in particular, opens up myriad exciting possibilities, from propagating endangered animal species to producing replacement organs for transplant patients. Agriculture stands to benefit as well. Dairy farmers, for example, could clone their champion cows, making it possible to produce more milk from smaller herds. Sheep ranchers could do the same with their top lamb and wool producers."

If and when these procedures become mastered, it would be possible to select the finest and fittest of our sheep, horses, cows and, yes, humans, and then to produce clones of these champions. In this way, cloning would become the surest form of genetic engineering. Amazing.

But amazement isn't enough. Is it a good thing to do? What does any of this look like in the light of Christian faith?

The Lion in the Marble

Just what does Christian faith provide us as we consider the ethical dimension of contemporary issues like cloning? A little story by the late spiritual writer Henri J. M. Nouwen provides a clue. It goes something like this:

Once upon a time there was a sculptor working with a hammer and chisel on a block of marble. Standing off to the side there was a little child. The child didn't see what was really going on, but simply saw large and small blocks of stone falling away to the right and to the left. But a few weeks later the child returned to the studio and saw, with great surprise, a large powerful lion sitting in the very place the marble had stood! With wonder and excitement the child asked the sculptor, "How did you know there was a lion in the marble?" The sculptor smiled for a moment and responded, "My dear, I knew there was a lion in the marble because before I saw the lion in the marble I saw the lion in my own heart. And the secret is this: It was the lion in my heart that saw the lion in the marble."

Subdue and dominion ought not be understood as permission to treat the rest of God's creation recklessly.

The artist was not simply humoring the little child. There is truth to the idea that the artistic act begins not with what one does, but with what one sees. I suggest the same is true of ethics, including Christian ethics. Morality is not first and foremost about what we do, even though what we do is very important. Most fundamentally morality is about what we see; it is about how seeing leads to living.

Christian faith thus shapes our morality. Most Catholic moral theologians agree today that the most direct and pervasive difference Christian faith makes for the moral life is that it provides a certain way of seeing ourselves, our relationships and the world around us. Our faith serves as a lens through which we can see what is important about what is going on, and then begin to discern what is to be done.

God's Call: Be Stewards

Before jumping immediately to the "what is to be done/not done" questions about cloning, we would do well to consider first our Christian faith. How might some of the things we believe as Christians influence how we view cloning? The convergence of three features of our faith--our vocation to stewardship, our call to co-creativity and our commitment to reverence for life--provides a lens.

First, we are called to be stewards of all creation. This is how Catholic bishops and theologians today commonly interpret the biblical call in Genesis: "'Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth'" (Genesis 1:28).

But let us be careful. Increasingly, Catholic tradition has emphasized that the words subdue and dominion ought not be understood as permission to treat the rest of God's creation recklessly. Our gifts of intelligence and creativity mean that we human beings have a special role to play in caring for the rest of creation.

Stewards must be neither too timid nor too bold. Stewards know they are not creators or owners. What is entrusted to their charge is not their possession. We may be intelligent--indeed clever--but we must be mindful that what we have received we have received as gift from the creator. At the same time we are created in God's image in a unique and wonderful way. We need not shrink from using our gifts in their fullness as we respond to our call to stewardship.

Does this tell us exactly what we are to do in regard to cloning? I don't think so. But stewardship provides us a way to look at who we are and what our posture is toward the rest of creation. That is a good start.

God's Call: Create

In addition to being stewards, we are called to be instruments of God's creation. This is related to stewardship, but the emphasis here is more bold, and indeed very relevant to questions about cloning.

Although God is and remains the creator, God has chosen to use humanity (as God did in and through Jesus) to be instruments of God's ongoing creativity in this world. This idea flowers in the dramatic New Testament image of a new creation. We are invited to believe that God is fashioning a new heaven and a new earth (see Revelation 21:1-4), a new creation marked by reconciliation, healing, harmony, peace and love (Romans 8:18-25).

This new order involves not only humanity, but all of God's creatures. The new creation will be God's doing but, astonishingly, it will come about in and through the work of human hands. God uses our efforts at reconciliation, healing, harmony, peace and love as the building blocks of the new creation. In this sense we are co-creators of God's new heaven, God's new earth.

What this image of co-creativity suggests is that science and technology are not the enemies of Christian faith and tradition. Reason and faith ought never to conflict. Both have their origin in God. This, of course, does not mean that any and all scientific and technological endeavors should be automatically thought of as part of human progress.

But we shouldn't be suspicious of science and technology either. The test is whether or not a new scientific achievement can be found to be compatible with God's creation.

Is it designed to cure, to heal or to ease the pains and scars of humanity or of the earth itself? Does it contribute in this manner to reconciliation or healing? Is it likely to promote peace and love among people? Is it likely to foster harmony among all of the creatures of the earth?

These questions may seem far removed from the complexities of contemporary scientific and technological questions. But this kind of question can help us see whether or not what we are doing fits with the ongoing work of God's creation.

God's Call: Revere Life

Finally, we are called to reverence the gift of life, particularly human life. All that has been created is the handiwork of God. Thus, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, "The world is charged with the grandeur of God."

Anyone who has ever been brought to silence by the beauty of the autumn trees, been spellbound by the magnificent diversity of the creatures of the earth and of the seas, or been awed by the dearest freshness of a newborn baby knows this. For those of religious faith, the world is not only beautiful, but also holy. It is not only to be respected, but reverenced as well.

In both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, there is a special twist on our call to reverence life. God, it seems, has a special care for the life and well-being of those who are most vulnerable. So God hears the cry of Israel and God responds to their needs and begins to fashion a holy people. Consistent with that, Israel's prophets often remind the people that their greatness should be measured by their care for the widow and the orphan, the enslaved and the estranged.

Jesus displays the same commitments. He regularly chooses fishermen for followers, outcasts for friends and sinners for tablemates. In word and deed, the ministry of Jesus makes it clear that the life of every human being is of immeasurable worth. Reverence for life, especially the most vulnerable of persons, marks the ministry of Jesus. It is the call for all who follow him.

Does this commitment to revere life answer all questions about scientific interventions? Certainly not. Nor does it even mean that physical life is always the highest of values (if so, we would not honor martyrs). Nor does it mean that preservation of life is always morally obligatory (if so, we would not be permitted to forgo burdensome medical treatment). The call to revere life in all its forms gives us a way of seeing and assessing scientific achievements like cloning.

Cloning Humans: No Way

What, then, shall we make of cloning? Seen through the lens of our faith, in light of Catholic teaching and tradition, does it fit with our call to stewardship, co-creativity and reverence for life? In response, let us consider first the possible cloning of human beings and then reflect briefly on the cloning of animals.

The possible cloning of human beings has been roundly decried by Catholic theologians, ethicists and the hierarchy as immoral. Consider the Vatican's 1987 Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation.

The first part of that document addressed questions related to the moral status of the human embryo. It reasserted the Church's fundamental conviction that human life begins with the fertilization of the egg by the sperm. From that point forward the embryo should be respected as a person. Accordingly, not only are interventions that result in the destruction of human embryos morally inappropriate, but so too are experiments that impose "grave and disproportionate risks upon embryos obtained in vitro" (in a "test tube").

Concerning cloning itself, the Vatican Instruction is clear in its assessment: "Also, attempts or hypotheses for obtaining a human being without any connection with sexuality through 'twin fission,' cloning or parthenogenesis are to be considered contrary to the moral law, since they are in opposition to the dignity both of human procreation and of the conjugal union."

It should be noted that the cloning procedures that this statement presumes are procedures that involve embryos rather than mature (differentiated) cells as described earlier. Even so, in my judgment, that difference would not likely alter the Vatican's assessment of the cloning of human beings. In fact, one could argue that cloning procedures involving mature cells might be even more problematic morally in that they require determining which human beings are worthy of duplicating (all of us, some of us?).

The reasons behind the Vatican Instruction's negative judgment about the possibility of human cloning are important. Most fundamentally, cloning seems not to fit with our call to reverence human life, particularly in its most vulnerable stages. Relating this to the procedures used in the cloning of Dolly the sheep, Dr. Wilmut reported that, out of 277 attempts to fuse the two cells, only 29 embryos survived longer than six days, and only one live birth--Dolly--resulted.

Currently at least, the success rate in attempts at human cloning would not likely be better. Since human life begins at conception, these procedures fall far short of the kind of reverence for life which our tradition upholds.

Cloning or other experimental procedures carried out on human embryos involve their necessary or even deliberate destruction. The Instruction explains: "By acting in this way the researcher usurps the place of God; and, even though he may be unaware of this, he sets himself up as the master of the destiny of others…."

In the categories I have described earlier, part of what is wrong with human cloning is that it does not fit with our charge to be stewards of creation, but rather seems to involve an inappropriate form of manipulation and domination.

Another concern of the 1987 Vatican Instruction with human cloning is that it takes reproduction out of the context of human sexuality. A human being may be brought into this world totally independently of the sexual intimacy of a loving, committed couple.

Is it simply an outdated romantic idea that the procreation of new life is best linked with loving marital relationships? Catholic moral teaching thinks not. Cloning human beings independently of any kind of interpersonal relationship is not the kind of co-creativity Catholic tradition teaches as God's will.

To be sure, we might be able to imagine some seemingly worthy scenarios for duplicating ourselves. Having a second self to be available when one's first self is in need of an organ transplant, for example, is quite an interesting idea. So too is the scenario of grieving parents requesting a genetic duplicate of a recently deceased infant. The possibilities are many. But in some way such possibilities all flirt with reducing persons to DNA. They seem to involve treating the second self, the duplicate, as an object rather than as a genuine subject.

Moral theologian Father Richard McCormick, S.J., has consistently argued that science and technology must be assessed by the manner in which they serve human persons. He told Time magazine, "I can't think of a morally acceptable reason to clone a human being." I concur.

Cloning Plants and Animals: Be Careful

When Dolly's birth after cloning was announced the media understandably jumped on it. Almost immediately the focus of attention became the possibility of cloning human beings. Indeed, the ethical questions and concerns surrounding the cloning of humans are the most dramatic.

But it would be a mistake to ignore an important ethical concern about cloning animals and, for that matter, even plants.

In a word, that issue is one of diversity. The desire for champions could result in the loss of the critically important diversity of animal and plant species. Is that concern unfounded, even alarmist? The track record of human activities in rain forests is dismal. Astonishing numbers of species of both plants and animals have become extinct due to our drive to uncover land for more immediate and productive purposes.

The cloning of plants and animals for the purposes of greater productivity may well fit with our charge to be stewards of the earth and instruments of God's creation. But it would ultimately benefit none of the inhabitants of the earth if cloning were to take place at the expense of plant and animal diversity.

Fostering productivity creatively may well be part of good stewardship. Yet reverencing life is also part of our vocation. Let us be creative, even clever; but let us be faithful as well.

Russell B. Connors, Jr., is a widely published free-lance writer in the field of ethics, with a doctorate in Christian ethics from Academia Alfonsiana in Rome. He taught at Saint Mary Seminary in Cleveland, Ohio (1983-95), and now is assistant professor of theology at the College of Saint Catherine, Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is coauthor of Character, Choices and Community: The Three Faces of Catholic Morality.

Cloning Plan Draws Ire
By John Bookser Feister

The cloning debate moved quickly from sheep to humans in January. Chicago scientist Dr. Richard Seed announced January 6 that he has plans to clone human babies within two years.

Reaction from the Catholic community and from government lawmakers was swift. Catholic ethicists roundly condemned Dr. Seed's plans as unethical and irresponsible.

"He's an entrepreneur who wants to make money from exploiting people who aren't able to have children," moral theologian John Haas told Catholic News Service. On January 10 President Bill Clinton called for a congressional ban on human cloning. Two days later 19 European nations signed a human-cloning ban.


Article from St. Anthony Messenger magazine. © Copyright St. Anthony Messenger Press. This article was published with the permission of St. Anthony Messenger magazine, which provides study guides to accompany many of its articles. You can access these guides by going to the magazine's Links for Learners page. Teachers will find a wealth of other resources at the St. Anthony Messenger Press web site by clicking on this link:

Published March 1, 1998.