"What does it mean to be Me?" Reflection on Cloning


Fr. Frank Pavone


The controversy over human cloning has furiously erupted this week as a result of statements by Richard Seed.

Whatever he can or cannot do, this provides an opportunity and an obligation for everyone to engage in clear thinking and decisive action.

First of all, the scientific considerations of cloning should not be oversimplified. It is fraught with far more complexity and nuance than can be conveyed in any news report.

Secondly, the issue raises again the question, "What does it mean to be me?" Value is intimately tied to uniqueness. If someone gives you a statue and tells you it is the only one of its kind in the world, you take a lot of extra care not to drop it. What would be the psychological consequences for a person to know he or she is a biological "copy" or has been "copied" by cloning? How does it feel to have to put on a form that asks for your parents’ names the response, "Me"?

As a society, we produce, buy, sell, and throw away so many things that we are easily tempted to do the same to human beings. We forget the difference between a person and a thing. Things are made; persons are begotten. Cloning disregards the dignity of the human person and the dignity of human procreation. It enters the arena of making people. Human cloning should be prohibited by law.

We are not opposed to research, including cloning, in the vegetable and animal kingdoms. But the human person is different. The human person has a higher dignity, which we ignore at our own peril.

Below is a reflection on cloning from the Pontifical Academy for Life, as well as pastoral tools for clergy to use in preaching and teaching on this subject.

Preaching and Teaching on Cloning

Priests for Life members have already had some significant success in preaching and teaching why human cloning is wrong. We provide here some resources and observations to assist the clergy to teach on this topic, and to assist the general public to better understand it.


Donum Vitae Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and the Dignity of Procreation: Replies to Certain Questions of the Day (February 22, 1987) issued by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

Reflections on human cloning (a reflection by the Pontifical Academy for Life, published in L’Osservatore Romano on July 9, 1997)

Gaudium et Spes Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Second Vatican Council

Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life)

Key themes and observations for teaching and preaching

1. Cloning, or making an exact biological/genetic replica of a living being, captures the imagination of people. In this process, the scientific complexities and uncertainties of such an activity, especially on humans, can be easily ignored.

Cloning, properly speaking, involves removing the nuclear material from a donor egg and replacing it with the nuclear material of a cell of the organism being cloned. Theoretically, then, you end up with a fertilized ovum with exactly the same genetic material as the organism from which you took the nucleus...except that there was no process of fertilization by the union of sperm and ovum.

In the highly publicized case of the sheep Dolly, cloned in Edinburgh last year, this process of inserting genetic material into an egg was done 277 times. Only eight (8) of the 277 began to grow as embryos, and only one of those eight reached birth.

2. What view do we take regarding scientific research as such?

We avoid two extremes. We do not say that research is bad or that we cannot intervene in nature in any way. At the same time, we do not say that we are permitted to do anything we want or are able to do. What we do say is that legitimate research should take place for its proper purposes, and within its proper limits. Part of what defines those limits is the nature and dignity of the human person.

Those who disagree with the Church's position will sometimes claim that the Church is opposed to human progress and tries to hinder research. This is not the case at all.

"The dignity of scientific research consists in the fact that it is one of the richest resources for humanity’s welfare. Moreover, there is a place for research, including cloning, in the vegetable and animal kingdoms, wherever it answers a need or provides a significant benefit for man or for other living beings, provided that the rules for protecting the animal itself and the obligation to respect the biodiversity of species are observed. When scientific research in man's interest aims to cure diseases, to relieve suffering, to solve problems due to malnutrition, to make better use of the earth's resources, it represents a hope for humanity, entrusted to the talent and efforts of scientists." --Reflections on human cloning, Section 4, Pontifical Academy for Life.

The Second Vatican Council, in Gaudium et Spes #36, discusses the autonomy of natural sciences, and explains that this autonomy means that science has its own proper characteristics and modes of activity, but does not mean that it can be independent of the Creator and the truth about creation. Just because we are able to do something does not mean we should do it. The moral dimension needs to be carefully considered. Some today do not believe there are any moral dimensions to our technological capabilities.

3. What's wrong with cloning? Cloning denies the dignity of the human person who is cloned, and the dignity of procreation.

How do we communicate this to the public in understandable terms?

This is a matter not just of reasoning, but of helping people capture an appreciation of human dignity. The Holy Father has said in The Gospel of Life that to do this, we need to help people have a "contemplative outlook" on human life and on the world. An illustration of this is to consider how we might look at a tree. One attitude sees the tree for how we can use it, how much lumber can be obtained from it, how valuable it is in commercial terms. This is an outlook stressing usefulness, and seeing the tree as an object to be manipulated and used. In this case, nothing is wrong with that, of course. On the other hand, the contemplative outlook on the tree would be to see it and be moved by its beauty...to stand there and enjoy it...to appreciate how its beauty can lift our minds and emotions to a sense of wonder, joy, gratitude. It's the same tree that the merchant measures. The difference in the two approaches is not in the tree, but in the person seeing the tree, and the difference is great.

We need the same contemplative outlook on human persons. People can be "useful" but should never be used. The key concept here is that a person is not a thing. Things are created, measured, bought, sold, and thrown away. The ultimate value of a person, however, is never his or her usefulness. The person has a dignity and destiny that goes beyond this world, and a value that goes beyond his or her characteristics, qualities, and productivity.

A person, therefore, has a right to be conceived and born as a person, not as a product of some laboratory intervention or technique. Human procreation, by the union of husband and wife in a love open to life, has a meaning inscribed by God. It is not just a mechanism to arrive at a desired end, the "production" of a child. Were this the only meaning of procreation, one could ask why we can’t take other means to get to the same end.

But human procreation does have its own meaning. The child is conceived by the union of two persons, for the child is a person, too, equal in dignity to the parents. The parents do not own the child, nor, strictly speaking, do they have a "right" to a child. The child is a gift, and from the first instant of conception, is equal in dignity to every other human being. Cloning violates this equality of all human beings by the way in which it subjects the new person’s origins to a manipulative scientific process. Were a person to come about in this way, that person would still have human dignity...but that is precisely the point. It is because of the human dignity which the person always has that he/she has the right to be conceived and born in a natural, human fashion.

4. Who am I?

Cloning raises serious questions about the unique individuality of human beings. We speak here, of course, of the cloning of the body. The soul can never be cloned. It is always created directly by God. In his/her totality, therefore, there is always a uniqueness about every human person.

But biologically and psychologically, cloning brings challenges to that uniqueness unlike anything has before.

First of all, it is helpful to point out to people that value is very closely tied to uniqueness. Take the example of someone giving you a statue and telling you that this is the only statue of its kind in the whole world. You will treat that statue with far greater value that if it were bought at the local gift shop where there are a hundred others just like it. You would take extra care to see that this unique statue did not get lost or damaged. People, too, value and are valued for their unique individuality.

What would happen to our sense of the value of the human individual if cloning were to occur? How would the cloned persons feel? How would a group of cloned persons be regarded by the rest of society?

What, furthermore, becomes of human family relationships? Cloning would make it possible to be your mother’s twin sister, or your grandmother’s daughter. One, in fact, could be one’s own parent! There is little difficulty at the present time convincing people that these are undesirable scenarios. Yet unless the reasons that they are undesirable are clearly discussed and taught, we may find ourselves facing the day when these bizarre things are a reality.

5. A larger picture

Bioethics in the 21st century will be marked by questions like the one we are considering here. It is necessary to help people see this as part of a larger picture. That picture includes things like

A) the effort to halt the aging process and achieve bodily immortality in this world. Scientists have made a number of discoveries regarding enzymes responsible for aging, and are feverishly working toward the goal of controlling the aging process. What would that mean for the structure of society? Who would decide what people could have access to a life of, say, 500 years on earth?

B) the manipulation of the human genome in order to enhance and suppress certain qualities and abilities. What dangers can result from such manipulation? What undesirable mutations can be passed on to future generations? Nobody knows.

C) the production and sale of artificial organs, and the production of artificial intelligence. This can eventually lead to the production of some kind of imitation-human beings who would be robots, designed to do work for the rest of us. What would be the status of such creatures?

D) the total control of fertility, in such a way that the current normal status of being fertile unless one is rendered infertile would be reversed, and infertility would be the norm.

These and other incredible-sounding scenarios are being seriously discussed.

Dr. Bernard Nathanson, has commented extensively on such topics, giving a reliable bioethical approach to them.

The Church cannot afford to be behind the rest of the world in understanding these trends. Indeed, the Church needs to be the force in the world steering us clear of such abuses of human knowledge and dignity. It is necessary, therefore, to undertake an immediate, universal, and vigorous effort, to understand these phenomena and to preach and teach what the Gospel requires of us as a response.

When the culture of abortion was being fashioned in the United States, Dr. Nathanson points out that the Church was not ready for a proper response. Such a scenario must not happen again with the bioethical challenges of the 21st century. In a real sense, we can see how things like cloning and other bioethical horrors on the horizon stem from an abortion mentality. If, after all, the human embryo, fetus, and infant can be treated as garbage, which is exactly what abortion does, then why can’t they be manipulated in other ways? The root question in all these issues is, Who is the human person? What does it mean to be human? Abortion has answered that question, and the answer is being applied across the board.

Faced with the bizarre possibilities of the manipulation of our species, we are back in the Garden of Eden, faced with the temptation to be like gods, to do whatever we please. Backers of cloning sometimes speak of using it to gain some kind of physical immortality for themselves.

But Christians know a better way to be like God. They know a surer road to immortality. It is the Gospel message. The time has come to proclaim it with greater vigor than ever. The very survival of the species depends on it.