The Religious Ethics of Cloning

by Hollye Dexter

After Dolly the sheep was first cloned in Scotland in 1997, an impassioned debate on ethics took hold worldwide and has since continued to rage. Though animal and reproductive cloning are a concern for some religious sects, today the debate is mostly centered on the cloning of human embryonic stem cells, which are used for treatment and research of diseases. The Catholic Church, in particular, has voiced strong opposition against cloning.

The History of Cloning

Cloning is not a new science. The cloning of plants has been going on for centuries, and scientists began cloning experiments with small animals as early as the 1960s. But the real religious controversy began when Dolly the sheep was born on July 5,1997. Created by Ian Wilmut and Keith Campbell at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Dolly was actually not the first animal to be cloned. What was different about Dolly is that she was the first to be cloned from adult sheep cells, or undifferentiated cells, as opposed to embryonic cells. This was a huge breakthrough for science. After Dolly’s birth, some religions expressed aversion to animal cloning, and some were concerned that this new discovery would lead to human cloning. The real protest didn’t begin, however, until scientists started to tamper with human embryonic cells.

The Scientific View

The cloning of human embryonic stem cells is what is largely at the forefront of current debate. Scientists are using a process termed "somatic cell nuclear transfer," similar to that which created Dolly the sheep, to get non-fertilized eggs to reproduce and thereby create a human stem cell. They call this practice therapeutic cloning, because the embryonic cells are only used for research and treatment of degenerative disease, not to implant into a woman’s uterus to reproduce life. Researchers are enthusiastic about the promise of therapeutic cloning. They believe it may hold the key to curing diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, diabetes and many others.

Catholics and the Sanctity of Life

Though many Christian denominations are opposed to the cloning of embryonic cells, Catholics, who believe in the sanctity of life even in the unfertilized human egg, have been the most vocal about the issue. Cardinal Seán O'Malley, chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said, "Creating new human lives in the laboratory solely to destroy them is an abuse denounced even by many who do not share the Catholic Church's convictions on human life." Even before Dolly was born, Pope John Paul II wrote in 1995: "Human embryos obtained in vitro are human beings and are subjects with rights; their dignity and right to life must be respected from the first moment of their existence. It is immoral to produce human embryos destined to be exploited as disposable 'biological material.'" On the other hand, some Christians cite the teachings of Jesus and say that cloning could be the way to heal the sick and make the blind see.

Other Religious Perspectives on Cloning

Most religions find it difficult to define a clear position on cloning, as religious texts make no mention of such a modern advancement; however, it does give faith leaders much fodder for discussion. The Jews have been debating the ethics of cloning for decades. There is no mention of it in the Torah; therefore, there is no Jewish law to prohibit it. Many prominent rabbis have published papers on the issue, and conflicting opinions have arisen. Islam has no definitive position on the matter, but many Muslim scholars are in support of therapeutic cloning, as it is their belief the soul enters at a later stage in fetal development. In their view, the embryo is certainly worthy of respect but not sacred until after implantation in the uterus. Asian religions appear to be much less bothered by the implications of human embryonic cell cloning, and because of this, much advanced research is taking place in Asian countries. Cynthia Fox, who wrote a book about the global race for stem cell research titled “Cell of Cells,” told the "New York Times," “Asian religions worry less than Western religions that biotechnology is about playing God. Therapeutic cloning in particular jibes well with the Buddhist and Hindu ideas of reincarnation.”

About the Author

Hollye Dexter’s articles about mental health, parenting, women’s issues and activism have been widely published. Her book “Dancing at the Shame Prom” was praised by Gloria Feldt (CEO of Planned Parenthood) as “…a brilliant book that just might change your life.”

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