Reflections on Human Cloning

by Nancy J. Duff

Nancy J.Duff is Associate Professor of Theological Ethics at Princeton Theological Seminary.

This address was presented to the National Bioethics Advisory Commission in Washington, D.C. March 13, 1997. Used by permission of the author. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


The author proposes ethical guidelines for research into human cloning.

In the sixteenth century, the Reformed theologian John Calvin wrote this about childbirth:

Although it is by the operation of natural causes that infants come into the world ... yet therein the wonderful providence of God brightly shines forth. This miracle, it is true, because of its ordinary occurrence, is made less account of by us. But if ingratitude did not put upon our eyes the veil of stupidity, we would be ravished with admiration at every childbirth in the world.' (1)

Four centuries later, we find that infants do not always come into the world through "the operation of natural causes." The miracle of childbirth has already moved beyond "ordinary meaning" through such procedures as in vitro fertilization. Now that we face the possibility of human life springing not from a fertilized egg but from a clone, we are making great account (some would say too much account) of this possible new way for infants to come into the world. Many people wonder whether this is indeed a miracle for which we can thank God or an ominous new way to play God ourselves. At the very least, it represents the ongoing tension between faith and science.

On the one hand, the church has sometimes taken an overly antagonistic opposition to scientific advances, so that Galileo was charged with heresy for supporting the seemingly unbiblical Copernican notion that the earth revolves around the sun. Darwin's theory of evolution (which apparently even frightened him a bit) is still opposed by some Christians who want equal time given to "creationism." (2) Such examples remind us that the church must not assume that faith requires protection by being shrouded in ignorance. We should be able to celebrate human accomplishments, including accomplishments in genetic research, as the result of divinely bestowed gifts of knowledge and technical skill.

On the other hand, the church rightly understands that sin can lead us to use scientific advances for extremely evil purposes. We can never support the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake apart from asking serious moral questions about the implications of that which we seek to know. To date, we have not been able to keep up with the moral and legal implications of adoption, much less of the dilemmas presented by artificial means of reproduction.(3) We certainly are not yet morally, legally, or spiritually prepared to tend to the difficult issues that would arise if human cloning became a reality.(4)

My position, which I commend for your consideration, is as follows: While I do not rule out the morality of research into human cloning, I do support a moratorium on such research, which would be removed in light of strong evidence for the positive benefits of such research and after concrete proposals have been formulated for avoiding the potential risks. Whether such a moratorium is imposed or not, I think we should be morally, legally, and spiritually prepared for that time when human cloning (legal or illegal) may become a reality in this country or abroad.

I offer nine guidelines with supporting theological rationale for the Commission to consider regarding research into human cloning.

(a) We should proceed with research into human cloning only if compelling arguments can be made for its potential benefits. While I do not believe that Christian ethics can proceed on utilitarian grounds (seeking to do the greatest good for the greatest number and maintaining that the ends justifies the means), I do agree with Dietrich Bonhoeffer that Christians are called to find the "significant in the factual," which means that we can neither make moral judgments apart from knowing the scientific facts (including an assessment of the potential benefits and threats of human cloning) nor allow scientific facts to be the sole determination in making moral judgments.

While the medical benefits of animal cloning and other forms of genetic research on human beings are readily discussed in the material I have read, I have not yet found equally compelling accounts of the potential benefits of human cloning itself. (5) So far, the proposed benefits of human cloning are inadequate. For example:

An infertile couple's desire to have a child through cloning does not provide an adequate reason to do so. There are already existing means of artificial reproduction. Furthermore, we must guard against the notion that reproducing (or in this case replicating) children, no matter what the reason or cost, constitutes a civil right. We should be sympathetic with and even appreciative of the infertile couple's desire to have a biologically linked child, for, among other things, it demonstrates an appreciation for children not always evident in contemporary society. Nevertheless, we need to examine whether the biological and genetic link between parent and child is so important that addressing infertility should take priority over other pressing medical concerns. (Furthermore, our society and the international community as a whole need to make the obstacles to adoption less formidable.) (6)

A grieving parent's wish to replicate a dying child does not justify research into human cloning. In fact, it misunderstands the distinctiveness of each human being called into being by God. We need to question any motivation to replicate a human being in order to replace another. It has taken a long time for us to recognize the inappropriateness of suggesting to a couple who has lost a child through miscarriage or infant death that they "can always have another." Even though a cloned child would indeed be a distinctive individual, his or her physical resemblance to the previous child, now dead, could cause emotional confusion on the part of the parents and the child.

Of course, any suggestion that children should be cloned for directly instrumental purposes, such as organ harvesting or providing the military with more soldiers or a basketball team with more talented players, should be rejected out of hand. (7)

I do not dismiss the possibility that significant benefits from research into human cloning exist, but I have not yet heard what they are. If it could be shown that research into human cloning would contribute to the well-being of the children and adults who already (or may someday) suffer from tragic genetic disorders (such as Down's syndrome or Huntington's disease) and that human cloning itself would benefit the children who are brought into the world through cloning. I could more readily support research (and government funding for research) into human cloning. The genetic disorders addressed by this research, however, would have to represent graver conditions than infertility.

(2) Make a clear distinction between human cloning and genetic research in general. There is a legitimate fear among some scientists and ethicists that any ban or moratorium on research into human cloning would also prohibit other promising (and perhaps less morally complicated) forms of human genetic research.

Some people who oppose human cloning invoke the "slippery-slope" argument to oppose all genetic research that could lead us closer to making human cloning possible. I believe that this argument should be invoked to force us to look honestly and courageously at the possible negative consequences of our position or action, but that it does not necessarily dictate abandoning the original position or action. Employing it may simply instruct us on how to identify the moral boundary that we do not want to cross. I would, therefore, support morally responsible research that promises to advance our understanding of human biology and disease, even if such research made the path to human cloning easier. This is part of what is entailed in discerning "the significant in the factual."

(3) Guard against self-deception (and, of course, public deception) when presenting the pros and cons of human cloning. If we are genuinely searching to uncover the truth (Christians would say "to discern God's will") about a controversial issue, we must recognize that truth itself destroys avenues for self-deception ( 8) Debate over abortion provides an excellent and tragic example of our inability to avoid self-deception in search of the truth. The debate over abortion (most recently focused on what are called either "late-term" or "partial-birth"abortions, depending on your position) reveals a reluctance to look at the facts surrounding both sides of a serious issue out of fear that one might discover or publicize a fact that does not support one's stance. Representatives from pro-life and pro-choice groups are equally guilty in this regard, rarely able to state each other's positions fairly, and hiding facts (sometimes from themselves as well as others) that do not support their position, while exaggerating facts that do (9) We must avoid repeating this error in the debate over human cloning. The public needs to hear, in language that nonscientists can understand, the potential scientific, moral, legal, and social benefits, as well as the potential threats, posed by human cloning.

(4) Research all related topics. We need to continue to gather as much information as possible to anticipate policy decisions for that day when human cloning may occur whether banned or not. For instance, would the study of twins (the closest example to the genetic relationship between a subject and its clone) enable us to understand better the positive and negative emotional and social aspects of being a clone? (10) Similarly, we could study the impact of artificial insemination with an anonymous donor on the child conceived in this way. Does the child have a longing to know something about the anonymous sperm donor (as biological father?) that poses a serious threat to that child's well-being, or does the child adjust well to the social parent or parents apart from that knowledge? A child conceived from artificial insemination by donor does not face the same situation as would a child having no biological and genetic father at all, but perhaps there are important similarities that could be uncovered through research. Numerous questions and dilemmas raised by adoption, artificial insemination, and in vitro fertilization require more research that could potentially prevent even more serious dilemmas resulting from human cloning.

(5) We must consider the status of the human embryo in research. Given the divisiveness of this question in relation to the abortion debate, this is the hardest issue that must be considered, and one that cannot be fully resolved. Nevertheless, the doctrine of vocation claims that God calls each of us into the world for a purpose. Each life has divinely bestowed value and purpose, so like Mordecai addressing Esther, we can say to each other, "Who knows whether it was for such a time as this that you were brought into the kingdom?" (Esth. 4:14) Although we may never agree on the point at which a developing life becomes a human person, we are compelled to take nascent life seriously and to ask when it is no longer morally acceptable to experiment on or discard human embryos."(l 1)

(6) If we proceed with research into human cloning, we must be mindful of those who are most likely to be exploited, and we must ensure the civil rights of those people who come into the world through cloning. Given the history of medical experimentation and the lack of access to medical resources for certain groups of people, we must be especially concerned that women, racial and ethnic minorities, prisoners, and the poor are not exploited as a result of this research or of human cloning itself. Do we desire to clone human beings in order to enhance or eliminate certain racial features, or to replicate one sex in greater numbers than the other? Will one group, such as prisoners or the poor, be exploited in the process of experimentation?

Furthermore, theological affirmations regarding the divinely appointed vocation of each individual coincide with concern for the civil and human rights of each person born into the world, no matter how conceived. Hence, no person could ever be cloned to serve a predetermined purpose in the world. We cannot, for instance, clone human beings to provide soldiers for the military or with the expectation that they will be great athletes or in an attempt to create a great musician or scientist. God alone calls a person into being, no matter how that person was conceived, reproduced, or replicated. No matter how well we learn to manipulate genetic matter or replicate human life, we do not create life the way God does. In the story of creation recorded in the Hebrew Bible, the word for "create" is used only with God as subject. The theological claim that only God can create human life is no less true if we learn to clone human beings than it is now. We do not create the human soul. We do not, as God does, call human beings into existence. Nor do we, as God does, call human beings into different identities and tasks.

Again, if we are someday able through human cloning to eliminate genetic disorders from future individuals, we must ensure that those who remain with disabilities will not be discriminated against. For instance, a woman carrying a fetus that will develop abnormalities should not be forced to abort that fetus directly or indirectly (e.g., by refusal to grant insurance coverage if the fetus is brought to term). While the ability to correct devastating disabilities and diseases is an admirable goal, we can never as a society find excuses for neglecting or otherwise discriminating against persons with disabilities.

(7) We can proceed with research into human cloning only after considering larger issues of allocation. From a Christian perspective, we are concerned about the welfare of the least of the brothers and sisters around us. "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these, so you did it to me" (Matt. 25:40). While many of us can thank God that our children are not likely to die from flu, diphtheria, or polio, or even suffer the mumps, measles, or rubella because of advances in medicine, we must be mindful of the enormous number of children and adults in this country and abroad who are forced to live as if these advances were never made. Simple diarrhea kills thousands of children a year.

When considering research into human cloning, we must look to the responsible use of limited resources. Though I am not a utilitarian, I believe that it is mandatory to ask whether other projects would serve the well-being of a greater number of people than research into human cloning. Government spending should be targeted for research that will best further the common good by addressing the most serious questions of health and disability. If we are going to spend millions of dollars, let it be to promote the well-being of the least of the brothers and sisters among us (and, hence, the well-being of us all, for our destiny is tied to theirs).

(8) Consider first the best interest of children. Although this guideline comes eighth in my list, I give it top priority. From a Christian perspective, we can affirm that all children truly belong only to God. They are not ours to manipulate, control, or abuse. But even apart from religious convictions, there are good reasons (both compassionate and practical) for society to put the best interest of children first. Unfortunately, no matter how a child comes into the world, through the operation of natural causes, through in vitro fertilization, or eventually through cloning, we have not been and, no doubt, will not be "ravished with admiration at every childbirth in the world."

Recent court cases indicate that we are already confused about the best interest of children. We find it difficult to sever ties between abusive parents and their children in order to give custody to loving, nonabusive foster parents who want to adopt. We can undervalue the biological and genetic ties between a so-called surrogate mother and the child to whom she gives birth, while granting custody of a toddler to a biological father he never knew. We have often protected contractual agreements or the rights of biological parents with far more zeal than we have pursued the best interest of children. Here, we have yet another opportunity to put the best interest of children forward when considering allocation and research into human cloning. At the very least, we must ensure the civil rights of children who may someday come into the world through cloning, by insisting that no child can be owned, bought, sold, or manipulated, that no government agency or group can sponsor the cloning of a child over which it will have guardianship (i.e., children will be cloned only in circumstances where they will be reared by a family), and that no child can be cloned solely for the purpose of procuring organs or for monetary gain.

I do not agree with those theologians who fear that human cloning would diminish the value of intimate relationships between husbands and wives or add one more obstacle to the formation of "traditional" two-parent families. Sexual intercourse will always have both procreative and unitive value for most couples. It is not, however, unreasonable to place value in the unitive function alone when procreation is not possible or desirable. Furthermore, while an intact family composed of two parents of the opposite sex and their biological child or children may provide the best standard family unit in society (and should, therefore, be given support), we would be naive and cruel to dismiss the possibility that differently configured families (e.g., families with single parents or homosexual parents or adopted children) may produce family situations that are as good as, or, in some cases, better than, those of families that fit the standard. While we need to avoid the cruelty to children that arises when society assumes that their resilience allows them to flourish in any family unit however configured, we also need to avoid the cruelty of rejecting outright or devaluing all families that do not fit the norm. While there are serious reasons to have reservations about research into human cloning, the idea that it would undermine the relationship between men and women or the basic family unit is not morally or theologically convincing.

(9) Regulate the treatment of animals involved in cloning research. Since the cloning of Dolly the sheep, the primary focus on moral issues regarding cloning has been on research into human cloning. Although one can clearly mark the distinction between research into the cloning of animals and research into the cloning of human beings, there are inseparable ties between them. Research into animal cloning adds to our knowledge of human cloning. There is a continuum from one kind of research to the next (which is why people became even more nervous when they heard that monkeys had been cloned, since monkeys are presumably closer to humans than are sheep). Furthermore, the benefits of animal cloning are for the most part meant to serve human beings. The biblical understanding of having dominion over the earth is not rightly interpreted to mean that human beings are free to abuse animals. Rather, we are called into responsibility for them. If it is not the responsibility of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission to look into the welfare of animals in cloning research, I urge you to direct that responsibility to the appropriate commission or committee.

These nine guidelines represent the reflections of one theological ethicist. Obviously, the panel presentations demonstrated that there are very able and thoughtful theological and philosophical ethicists who disagree with me. The Commission, of course, must make a recommendation to the President on behalf of a pluralistic society whose members do not always share common beliefs and values.

How would I wish for you to proceed in light of this diversity of opinion? I propose that a common denominator for making your recommendation center around the question of whether research into human cloning will serve the common good. This suggestion is 'complicated not only by the lack of agreement in this country and abroad on what the common good is but also by our lack of commitment to serving the common good (however it may be defined).

My theological convictions make me want to put the best interest of "the least of the brothers and sisters" at the center of our concern for the common good. We need to discern the indissoluble link that connects the most privileged with the most vulnerable persons and groups in our human community. In making a decision regarding research into human cloning, we must pay close attention to the benefits it would provide for those who suffer the worst genetic disorders; we must look closely at the possibility of some groups or individuals being exploited or neglected through human cloning; and we must keep before us the welfare of the children who would enter the world through cloning. To counter our tendency to put the autonomy of the individual in conflict with the well-being of the community, I affirm the claim that "in each is the good of all, and in all is the good of each." (12) We cannot serve the common good apart from looking after the welfare of the individual, and the individual's well-being is tied inseparably to that of the community.

There are good secular reasons for being guided by a concern for the common good and for those who have the most to lose if we make the wrong decision. On the more practical and self-serving side, we need to recognize that we will pay for our neglect of the those who are the most vulnerable. Our well-being is indeed tied to their wellbeing. But there are also altruistic reasons (which some people from differing theological and secular traditions share) for promoting concern for the common good and focusing on the welfare of the most vulnerable. If research into human cloning does move forward, we must ensure that it does not seek knowledge for its own sake, or only to promote monetary gain or individual fame, but to serve and protect the common good.


(1) Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. James Anderson (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981), 1:369 (on Ps. 22:9) (2)For theological essays critical of the creationist position, see Roland Mushat Frye, ed., Is God a Creationist? The Religious Case Against Creation-Science (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1983) (3) For instance, the status of frozen embryos has led to controversy between divorcing couples. Should these disputes be considered custody battles or disputes over property or matters of contractual rights? Should one invoke the same arguments used in the debate over abortion, or is this a separate issue? For information regarding some of the legal battles and arguments, see "Case Studies," in The Ethics of Reproductive Technology. ed. Kenneth D. Alpern (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 3 15-45.

(4) One panelist, otherwise in favor of research into human cloning, was nevertheless opposed to an individual's cloning himself or herself and then claiming to be the parent of the resulting child. Genetically, he pointed out, the child would not be the individual's son or daughter but his or her identical twin. This observation reveals just how complicated the social and legal issues of guardianship and familial relationships would become in the wake of human cloning.

(5) There is, of course, no consensus regarding the benefits of animal cloning. While some religious groups and some advocates for animal welfare oppose animal cloning, I believe that the potential benefit merits continued research. I do, however, believe that we must ensure responsible treatment of the animals involved in such research. (See guideline 9 below.)

(6) My husband and I were among those who initiated international adoption proceedings only to find that while we could afford to raise a third child, we could not afford to

Make our way through the adoption proceedings ($15,000 to $20,000). Since there are so many couples (infertile or not) who would like to adopt, and since there are so many thousands of children needing adoptive parents, surely it serves the better part of wisdom to give our attention to making adoption a more viable option. This issue must be taken into consideration when exploring any topic (such as human cloning)that touches on infertility and artificial means of reproduction.

(7)1 do, however, agree with the panelist who claimed that the couple who reversed a vasectomy in order to conceive a child potentially able to provide their other child with a bone marrow transplant acted responsibly and lovingly. Every indication was that they would be loving parents to this new child whether a compatible bone marrow was provided or not. We could not, however, sanction the cloning of children for organ harvesting who would be subsequently abandoned or destroyed.

(8)See Stanley Hauerwas, "Self-Deception and Autobiography:

Reflections on Speer's Inside the Third Reich," in Truthfulness and

Tragedy: Further Investigations in Christian Ethics, by Stanley Hauerwas with Richard Bondi and David B. Burrell (Notre Dame:

University of Notre Dame Press, 1977), 82-100.

(9) 1 am interested in promoting the idea of common ground between pro-life and pro-choice groups. Before we reach irreconcilable differences regarding what should be legal, our energies would be more productively spent on the common goal of reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies rather than fighting each other.

(10) Of course, if human cloning were used only to replicate embryos to assist existing means of artificial reproduction, the concern stated here would not necessarily apply.

(1 l)It took 277 attempts to produce Dolly, the first genetically cloned mammal. If this had been an attempt to clone a human being, would there have been 276 losses of cells and DNA material or 276 lost human lives? Although for some this may be too extreme a way a to pose the question, we cannot avoid honestly asking about the value or moral status of the human embryo.

(12) I heard this aphorism from Paul Lehmann. I do not know if he coined it or was quoting it.