by Richard Doerflinger
April 27, 2001
Human cloning is in the news again. A UFO cult called the Raelians, and some physicians who are a bit less colorful, have announced plans to produce a liveborn child by cloning. Congress may consider a federal ban on the practice, which is supported by the Catholic bishops' conference and an agency of the United Methodist Church among others.
So what would I say if a couple of my acquaintance said, "We'd like to have a daughter by cloning"? What's wrong with that?
My first questions might be: "What do you mean, 'we'? What do you mean, 'daughter'?"
These terms suddenly become unclear, because cloning is so radically different from any reproductive method we have seen in humans. The nucleus from a human body cell is transferred into an egg whose nucleus has been removed or inactivated. The resulting cell is stimulated by an electric pulse to begin human development. There is no fertilization of egg by sperm, no uniting of male and female – this is asexual reproduction, generally found in lower forms of life.
If a woman cloned herself, there would be no contribution from her husband at all. And genetically, the resulting child would not be her daughter but her twin sister, born decades later then she was. This child's genetic parents would be her social grandparents; her uncle would be her brother, and... well, you get the picture. We have to ask: Is this is a way to build families, or to dissolve the meaning of family?
Actually this question may not arise very often, because live births from cloning will be rare at first. Animal trials show that 95 to 99% of cloned embryos die. Of those which survive, most are stillborn or die shortly after birth. The rest will have unpredictable but potentially devastating health problems. Those problems are not detectable before birth, because they do not come from genetic defects as such – they arise from the disorganized expression of genes, because cloning plays havoc with the usual process of genetic reorganization in the embryo.
It is frightening to think that these seriously damaged children would be born to parents who are most intensely finicky about their children's traits – "I want a son just like me." How will they greet this person they may see as a faded copy? For that matter, how will they greet a perfect copy when he or she tries to live a life of his or her own rather than the one planned in advance? Some desperate couples have even offered large sums of money to have a deceased child "brought back" from the dead by cloning. How would you like to be that new child?
Cloning is, in fact, the perfect reproductive technology for dead people. So divorced is it from any human relationship that it doesn't matter whether the "parent" (the template? the original?) is living or dead, consenting or unconsenting. All one may need is a nail clipping or the hair left behind in a comb. (Remember Jurassic Park?)
But perhaps a deeper problem with human cloning is what it would do to our attitude toward the child. Cloning is the ultimate depersonalizing of human reproduction. Begetting a child should occur in a loving union between man and woman -- one that is open to, and willing to accept, the new and unique human life that may arise. That openness, and the unpredictability of how the traits of husband and wife will combine in a new individual, expresses the fact that this child is our equal in human dignity, a new person with his or her own open future. Even if identical twins occur, each of them has this unpredictable combination and this newness.
Cloning is just the opposite. Children are manufactured in the lab to preset specifications. They do not arise, but are constructed. So dehumanizing is this that some scientists want to use cloning chiefly as way to make large numbers of human embryos for destructive experiments. An abuse otherwise widely condemned – creating human life solely to be destroyed – is seen as "good enough" for clones.
Our ancient creeds express the equal dignity of God the Father and God the Son by saying that the Son was "begotten, not made." The radical distinction between divine and human is dramatized in the Book of Genesis when God makes Adam and Eve by His own hands. Should we now act as "gods" to our children – making rather than begetting them? Will we then still see them as our equals, or as our inferior "creations"?
One last question: What if the widely accepted story was that Adam himself had the idea of making woman, that he manufactured her from a piece of his own rib? Would we be talking about the equality of the sexes?
(Mr. Doerflinger is Associate Director for Policy Development at the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, National Conference of Catholic Bishops.)