Three years ago, Dolly the cloned sheep was born. Now, according to a recent issue of Nature magazine, it seems that Dolly's cells are 9 years old. Which is yet another example of the difference between being able to technologically effect an outcome, and knowing what that outcome will be. Apparently, a cloned mammal begins life with the same degree of cellular deterioration that is present in the donor cell; and Dolly's original cell came from a 6-year-old sheep.


So much for sheep, but surely nobody is seriously advocating human cloning, are they?

Yes indeed they are, says Edward J. Furton at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Boston. “The scientific community is moving forward on cloning humans, as long as they are not placed in the womb,” he says.

Cloning is a popular name given for somatic cell nuclear transfer, a process in which the nucleus containing the genetic blueprint of an animal is removed from a non-reproductive or “somatic” cell — an udder cell in Dolly's case — and put in place of the nucleus of an egg cell or ovum.

The teaching of the Catholic Church on cloning is both clear and consistent. The 1987 document Donum Vitae says: “Attempts to produce a human being without any connection with sexuality through twin fission, cloning, or parthenogenesis are to be considered contrary to the moral law, since they are in opposition to the dignity both of human procreation and of the conjugal union” (Nos. 1 and 6).

There are very few public voices in favor of the more bizarre scenarios surrounding the cloning of humans. Yet, the cloning of human embryos for research is currently being promoted. The rationale is that such embryos could be a source of healthy tissue for therapeutic use in diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, and brain and spinal cord disorders, as well as being a means to overcome sterility.

According to Furton, “The National Institutes of Health, the principal distributor of tax dollars in the U.S. for scientific and medical research, is pushing for stem cell research [cells obtained from human embryos] through somatic cell nuclear transfer in order to produce stem cells that will not be rejected by a patient's body.”

A fact sheet issued Jan. 28 by the health agency maintains that the federal ban on funding research using human embryos does not apply to research using human clones. It states: “The use of somatic cell nuclear transfer would be another way to get around the problem of tissue incompatibility for some patients.”

It said cloning has “the potential to revolutionize the practice of medicine and improve the quality and length of life.”

Lee M. Silver, a professor of molecular biology at Princeton University and author of the book Remaking Eden: How Genetic Engineering and Cloning Will Transform the American Family, is a vocal advocate for human cloning.

Asked about the threat to human dignity that cloning poses, Silver answered that “Somatic cell nuclear transfer — what people refer to as cloning — in vitro fertilization, and sexual intercourse, are all methods of creating a baby. When done intentionally, the purpose is always to have a baby to love. If cloning is considered to be treating human beings as a means rather than an end, then so is sexual intercourse with the intention of getting pregnant and having a baby. I don't see the difference because cloning will never create a particular human being. All it will do is allow the birth of an unpredictable boy or girl, who will happen to look like a parent looked a long time ago.”

But, as the Pontifical Academy for Life has maintained, cloning human beings is a very serious threat to human dignity, one danger being that a person's worth will be equated with his or her biological qualities rather than his or her personal identity.

Cloning for the possible therapeutic benefits that some individuals might receive is equally reprehensible, as it “would involve experimentation on embryos and fetuses and would require their suppression before birth — a cruel, exploitative way of treating human beings” (“Reflections on Human Cloning,” L'Osservatore Romano, July 9, 1997).

In general, any technological or medical advances must not usurp the primacy of human life. As put in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “It is an illusion to claim moral neutrality in scientific research and its applications. On the other hand, guiding principles cannot be inferred from simple technical efficiency, or from the usefulness accruing to some at the expense of others or, even worse, from prevailing ideologies. Science and technology by their very nature require unconditional respect for fundamental moral criteria. They must be at the service of the human person, of his inalienable rights, of his true and integral good, in conformity with the plan and the will of God” (No. 2294).

David Beresford of Lakefield, Ontario, is pursuing a doctorate in biology.