Cloning, A Catholic Moral Evaluation

Author: Sr. Terese Auer, OSF


In order to understand what is at issue in the debate and how the Catholic Church views the matter, we must first understand the procedure used in cloning.

The first step was to gather the eggs (by laparoscopy) and sperm (by masturbation) and to put them in contact with each other in a glass dish ("in vitro") for fertilization. Once fertilization occurred and the new embryos began development by dividing into two cells, the scientists intervened to separate the two cells, creating two different embryos with the same genetic information (cloning). The process of dividing the embryos required that researchers strip away the embryos' outer coating, which is essential to development, and replace it with an artificial coating.

The experiment was considered successful when the cloned embryos began to grow and develop within the artificial coating. None of the 48 cloned embryos grew for more than six days, probably due in part to the fact that the scientists had used abnormal embryos; that is, embryos which came from eggs that had been fertilized by more than one sperm.

Because "in vitro" fertilization has been with us for almost 50 years and the cloning of animals for over 40 years, the Church has already offered clear teaching directing us morally with regard to reproductive technology. In February of 1987, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued "Donum Vitae," the Latin title for the "Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation." In this document, the Church gives us the fundamental reasons why cloning itself and the process of "in vitro" fertilization which it uses are immoral.

To understand these reasons, let us look again at the first steps of the cloning process: fertilization in a dish. The guiding principle to remember is that once fertilization occurs, the life of a new human being has begun, and that life is sacred. It does not matter whether the embryos are viable or not; each must be given the respect due to any other human person (I, 4). In light of this, we know that it is wrong to produce human beings in order to use them in scientific experimentation where they are treated as nothing more than disposable "biological material" (I, 5). It is also wrong to destroy voluntarily the "spare" embryos normally produced through "in vitro" fertilization or in any way to impose disproportionate risks upon the life of an embryo. In doing so, the researcher sets himself up as Master of the destiny of the human embryo, deciding who will live and who will die (II).

The actual cloning process of dividing the embryo so as to produce a new human being is immoral because it opposes the dignity both of human procreation and of the conjugal union (I, 6). When a human being is brought into existence, that person has certain rights because of the fact that he is a human being. One of these rights concerns the environment in which he begins to exist: it must be a personal one. A laboratory dish where technology dominates is not an environment worthy of a human being. The only proper environment is the mother's womb (II, 1).

Another right that a human being has is that he be brought into existence through a truly human or personal act. A human act is one which is both physical and spiritual, since man himself is both. The conjugal act is just such an act when the physical procreative process expresses the spiritual love between the spouses. To separate the physical from the spiritual is to act in an impersonal or inhuman way, thus degrading those involved in the act: the couple as well as the newly conceived child. In other words, to separate the biological process of procreation from the spiritual act of spousal love is to degrade not only the couple involved who are treated impersonally but also the new human being who is brought forth in an impersonal way. This violates the child's right to be conceived through a personal act of love between his parents. Instead of objectively being the living image or fruit of his parents' love, the child is reduced to "an object of scientific technology" (II, 4).

In light of how cloning degrades the human person, Pope John Paul's challenge to us before he left America in 1987 bears all the more weight: "If you want equal justice for all and true freedom and lasting peace, then, America, defend life!... Every human person--no matter how vulnerable or helpless, no matter how young or old, no matter how healthy, handicapped or sick, no matter how useful or productive for society--is a being of inestimable worth created in the image and likeness of God. This is the dignity of America, the reason she exists, the condition for her survival--yes, the ultimate test of her greatness: to respect every human person, especially the weakest and most defenseless ones, those as yet unborn."

Let us heed the Pope's challenge and come to the defense of our littlest brothers and sisters. For whatever we do for them, we do for Jesus Himself (Mt. 25:40).

Sr. Terese Auer has a master and a doctorate degree in Thomistic philosophy and has taught on elementary, high school, and college levels.

Article appeared in the January - February issue of "Spes Nostra", 531 East Merced Avenue, West Covina, CA 91790, a publication of the Father Kobe Missionaries of the Immaculata.