National Catholic Register


The Ethics of Cloning

BY Bishop James McHugh

August 30-September 5, 1998 Issue | Posted 8/30/98 at 2:00 PM


The American Enterprise Institute has just published an informative little book called The Ethics of Human Cloning. The book is an exchange between Leon Kass, a physician and bioethicist, and James Wilson, a retired UCLAprofessor who has written on restoring a moral sense to our nation. When it was announced in early 1997 that Dolly the sheep had been cloned by Scottish scientist Dr. Ian Wilmut, a public debate began about the implications of cloning. Scientists tended to favor tolerance for further controlled experiments. Ethicists tried to evaluate the implications of such experiments. Government leaders in the United States looked to the National Bioethics Advisory Committee for a thorough review of the legal and ethical issues raised by the possibility of human cloning.

Dr. Wilmut emphasized the complexities of his success — he had 276 failures before the procedure worked. He also expressed opposition to human cloning. Gradually the public debate seemed to reach some type of consensus that cloning techniques on plants, animals, and human tissues should not be prohibited, but attempts at cloning a human being should not be pursued. The consensus was and is fragile, and most people do not expect people's ethical discomfort to ultimately prevent human cloning.

Professors Kass and Wilson each had published essays that stood out for their moral clarity and seriousness. These are presented in The Ethics of Human Cloning, along with a response from each scholar.

Kass' original essay, “The Wisdom of Repugnance,” published in The New Republic, argues that “by removing human conception from the human body and by introducing new parties in reproduction [scientists and physicians],” the origin of life has been put literally in human hands and a process has been initiated that leads “in practice, to the increasing technical mastery of human generation and, in thought, to the continuing erosion of respect for the mystery of sexuality and human renewal.”

Kass' underlying argument is based on respect for the “anthropology — natural and social — of sexual reproduction.” In effect, Kass argues for a total prohibition of human cloning. At the same time he recognizes that such a prohibition will be hard to achieve unless founded on social repugnance.

“In crucial cases,” says Kass, “repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason's power fully to articulate it.” He further states that in a world where virtually everything is permissible so long as it is freely done, “repugnance revolts against the excesses of human willfulness, warning us not to transgress what is unspeakably profound.”

Professor Wilson, in his essay, “The Paradox of Cloning,” originally published in The Weekly Standard, argues that “cloning presents no special ethical risks if society does all in its power to establish that the child is born to a married woman and is the joint responsibility of the married couple.” While far more tolerant and trusting than Kass, Wilson's position is grounded in the value of marriage and the family. He approves other techniques of assisted reproduction as long as they assist a married couple who accept the responsibilities of parenthood.

In reading the essays, I was impressed with the similarity of the reasoning with Catholic moral teaching, more so with Kass than Wilson. Wilson's strong point is parenting within the family, but with some limits on unfettered freedom. For instance, Wilson would not allow cloning so parents could have geniuses, dancers, or football stars. Failing a stipulation to prevent such abuses, he would oppose human cloning.

Kass, on the other hand, is resonant of John Paul II in his emphasis on the generative meaning of sexuality and his conviction “that one will be increasingly incapable of defending the institution of marriage and the two-parent family if one is indifferent to its natural grounding in what I call the ontology of sex.” And Kass raises the further question as to whether and how we can ensure “that all children will have two parents if we ignore, in our social arrangements, the natural (hetero) sexual ground of parenthood?”

Kass makes a powerful argument that limits on cloning will not be effective.

“Given our current beliefs about reproductive freedom, the fracture of the once-respected and solid bonds among sex, love, procreation, and stable marriage, and the relentless march of technology,” Kass believes it will be impossible to safeguard the family and parenting “in the absence of some miraculous recovery of good sense about sexuality and the meaning of procreation and an attitude that once again sees children as a gift to be treasured rather than as a product for our manipulation.”

Kass argues that the battle about reproductive rights was lost when the couple's right to marital privacy in the use of contraception (Griswold) was almost immediately converted into an individual's right of sexual privacy, married or not (Eisenstadt). Of course, privacy was extended even further in Roe v. Wade.

Kass recognizes that in our present culture it is difficult to take a strong moral stance on almost anything, and that due to cultural change, it is “now vastly more difficult to express a common and respectful understanding of sexuality, procreation, nascent life, family, and the meaning of motherhood, fatherhood, and the links between the generations.”

All of this reinforces Kass' wisdom of repugnance. He is convinced that “human cloning is unethical in itself and dangerous in its likely consequences.” Thus he argues for legislation to permanently prohibit human cloning and the taking of all necessary steps to make such a prohibition effective.

The debate is ongoing, and The Ethics of Human Cloning is an important and informative contribution to the ethical discussion.

Bishop James McHugh is ordinary of Camden, N.J., and a member of the NCCB Committee for Pro-Life Activities.