Cloning: III. Religious Perspectives

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In its 1997 report on human cloning, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) paid significant attention to the views and concerns of the world's religious communities and their traditions. The NBAC recognized that various religions have supported critical and sustained reflection on issues relevant to assessing human cloning, including the relation of humanity to the natural world, the significance of marriage and procreation in human life, the status of the embryo, and others. For that reason, the NBAC commissioned a report, "Cloning Human Beings: Religious Perspectives on Human Cloning, " and took testimony from distinguished scholars of various religious traditions. Drawing on the NBAC report, the testimony given before the commission, and other sources, this entry offers a thumbnail sketch of how four world religions understand the issues raised by reproductive human cloning, for the most part ignoring matters of "therapeutic cloning." Of particular interest are the issues of how cloned children are likely to be valued in contrast to children born of "natural" means; the relevance of parental motives; the possibility of cloning for the purposes of securing biological material for therapeutic use, for example, bone marrow for ill siblings; the issue of destroying embryos; and the notions of "playing God" and "cheating death."


Many of Judaism's basic beliefs about humans and God are rooted in the Genesis account of creation. Jewish scholars generally agree that the Biblical account accommodates two views of creation, namely, creation as a completed act, and creation as a transformative process. These disparate views can dramatically influence the way one understands human cloning and the roles of God, humans, and technology in procreation.

Viewing creation as a completed event has led some Jewish ethicists to argue against human cloning on grounds that it violates the structure of nature and impinges on God's sovereignty. According to this line of thought, given that God created the structure of the world, who are humans to tamper with it? Further, the Genesis description of humans created in the image of God begs the question of how that likeness could be improved. From this perspective, human cloning is wrong in that it attempts to improve upon the divine creation that God has called both "good" and "very good." Further, cloning alters and transgresses God's ordained method of human sexual reproduction.

A related argument is that cloning is worrisome in that it fuels a kind of narcissistic fascination with the idea of escaping or cheating death. As such, cloning holds out the promise of rebirth, a second chance for the self to live a better, fuller life. Yet this promise is illusory, and so the quest to clone is a self-deceptive journey and one that distracts humans from pressing moral commitments here and now—for example, the pursuit of justice in healthcare.

The more generally accepted Jewish view suggests that human beings are partners with God in the ongoing act of creation. As such, humans are commissioned with a divine mandate both to steward and to improve the earth through their own creativity and knowledge. Humans thus become responsible, creative agents, cocreators with God, endowed with God-given duties to promote health and healing. Given that cloning may promote human well-being, it is, provisionally, an acceptable method of stewardship and improvement. In this view, humans do not usurp God's sovereignty in pursuing cloning because, if cloning changes the world for the better, this pursuit exercises their God-given freedom properly. Of course, the assumption that human cloning would actually improve the world is key to this view. Recognizing what a large assumption this is, Jewish scholars who endorse this view of creation also urge caution and recognize that cloning seems to possess inherent dangers for individuals, families, and cultures.

Jewish Biblical commentary traditionally recognizes two values with respect to human beings that are especially helpful in thinking about cloning: uniqueness and equality. Attending to these values may lead to important questions about cloning: Will human clones be more or less valuable than humans conceived through sexual reproduction? Are human clones more likely to be treated as commodities than humans conceived naturally?

Such concerns grow organically out of an understanding that humans are created in the image of God rather than as replications or images of an existing human. It is conceivable that human clones may be regarded as mere objects of production or genetically replaceable resources for our own uses and ends. That clones might be considered "made, " may in some way devalue their existence. That clones may be replaceable may undermine their uniqueness. That clones may be used to breed genetic wonders may impinge upon the long-held value of human equality under God. That human cloning could jeopardize all of these values simultaneously and, in so doing, lead to a form of human slavery is a concern not taken lightly by Jewish thinkers.

While these cautions and concerns are taken seriously, Jewish thought also recognizes the transcendent character of the human person. Therefore, humans can never be fully controlled by human technology, will, or intervention. Furthermore, some Jewish scholars have argued that because cloning is a biologically natural process, whereby the clone would be born through a natural process of a human mother, cloning is an acceptable form of reproduction. It also follows that any cloned human being should be treated morally and legally as fully human. Indeed, there is rabbinic consensus that human clones would be fully human and have full moral status.

Finally, Jewish commentators have been concerned about public policy restrictions on cloning. Given the commitment of Jewish tradition to pursue scientific research for the betterment of humanity, many Jewish scholars have cautioned against restricting or prohibiting cloning as a matter of public policy. Also, because Jewish law does not grant full moral status to the embryo, Jewish scholars have not been among those advocating restriction on cloning because it will lead to the destruction of embryos.


As with other religious traditions, Christian responses to cloning have been mixed. As early as the mid-1960s, Christian ethicists split sharply over whether cloning was "playing God." Supporting new biotechnologies, Joseph Fletcher famously claimed: "let's play God" (p. 126). Paul Ramsey's equally famous and oft-quoted response cautioned against advancing reproductive technologies: "Men ought not to play God before they learn to be men, and after they have learned to be men they will not play God" (p. 138). The contrast between such different Christian responses to interventions in reproduction continues into the twenty-first century. Some of the diversity in Christian responses to cloning is noted below.

PROTESTANTISM. Protestant Christianity shares a number of Judaism's intellectual and textual traditions. For example, some of the principal elements of the Protestant view of humanity are rooted in the biblical accounts of creation, taking seriously the imago Dei theme found in Genesis. Within the Protestant tradition, imago Dei is often discussed either in terms of "stewardship" or of "created cocreatorship, " but unlike the Jewish thinking, the stewardship model understands creation as a completed process in which humans serve as God's appointed stewards overseeing a finished work, while the cocreatorship model sees creation itself as incomplete creation continua, a process in which humans are responsible to participate and improve. These two perspectives relate to human cloning when one asks whether cloning exceeds the limits of human createdness, and whether humans attempt to play God through the genetic manipulation of another human. Understood as stewards, humanity is restricted to conserving the created order. In this view, human cloning is problematic because it usurps God's role as creator; humans are not called to be creators but rather stewards of creation. By contrast, emphasizing the theme that humans are created cocreators tends to support the permissibility of cloning by highlighting the idea of creative freedom implied by this view of imago Dei.

In their analysis of human reproductive cloning, Protestant scholars also seriously consider the impact that asexual reproduction may have on the societal norms of marriage, childbearing, and how humans are likely to view and value human clones. Protestants often maintain a normative Biblical view of the child as a being conceived within marriage, a gift from God, and the result of a loving relationship between a man and a woman. Human cloning raises Protestant concerns regarding the disjunction of marriage and childbearing, and the fear that such a separation will have a lasting and adverse affect on children and society. As representatives in some Protestant denominations have argued, human cloning allows humans to sever the connection between human reproduction and the marital relationship, a separation considered harmful both to child and culture.

Protestants also fear cloning's potential to change how humans view children, namely from a "gift from God" to a "project." Some scholars distinguish between what is "be-gotten" and what is "made, " arguing that begetting is consistent with human dignity in a way that manufacturing is not. Similarly, some Protestant traditions caution against cloning on grounds that it reduces humanity to raw material to be fashioned in human image rather than the image of God.

It is in this light that some Protestants consider both the parental motives for cloning and some of the possible benefits of reproductive cloning. Sympathetic to suffering and the human condition in a fallen world, Protestants remain skeptical of cloning humans for utilitarian purposes such as cloning to replace a young child killed in an accident or cloning to gain access to biological material. Each of these instances of cloning may violate Protestantism's commitment to the inherent and non-instrumental value of human beings.

Indeed, all of these themes are nicely illustrated in a resolution condemning cloning passed by the Southern Baptist Convention in June 2001. According to the resolution, because cloning involves the "wanton destruction" of human embryos; because it is contrary to the "biblical witness" that children are a gift from God and "not the result of asexual replication"; because cloning "does not meet the biblical standards for procreation in which children are begotten, not made"; and because cloning represents "a decisive step toward substituting human procreation with biological manufacturing of humans, " cloning is morally abhorrent.

CATHOLICISM. Perhaps the most consistent and vocal opposition to human cloning has come from the Catholic Church. Magisterial (authoritative teaching) documents of the church have regularly and vigorously rejected cloning. For example, in Donum Vitae, an "Instruction" issued in 1987, the Vatican examined cloning in the context of other reproductive interventions made possible by the advent of in vitro fertilization and concluded that cloning was categorically wrong. Donum Vitae is typical of Catholic teaching on topics of bioethics in that it appeals both to beliefs that are shared primarily by the community of the faithful and also to basic human values and experiences that it takes to be common to all humanity. Thus, according to Catholic tradition, it makes sense to note reasons why cloning is morally wrong both in explicitly religious terms and in more secular terms.

An example of the former is Catholic teaching that life is a gift from God and that humans therefore have a responsibility to appreciate and safeguard the inestimable value of human life. According to the Catholic Church, the embryo should be treated as a person from the moment of conception. It follows that cloning is deeply troubling, for embryos will inevitably be destroyed when human beings are cloned. Cloning thus fails to respect the fact that life is a gift from God that should be treasured. Moreover, Catholic tradition emphasizes the fact that humans are created by God as a union of body and soul, and, for that reason, the human person cannot be treated merely as a complex biological system. Thus, to the degree that cloning defines the human person genetically (that is, largely in bodily terms), it is not consistent with a Catholic vision of the spiritual and bodily union of the person and is problematic. Indeed, according to the Vatican, cloning fails to respect the fact that there are limits on human dominance over nature. According to Catholic teaching, it is one thing for reproductive medicine to study human reproduction to assist society in the good that is procreation, it is another thing to dominate the process of procreation. Cloning crosses that line.

In addition to this religiously-grounded argument, Catholic teaching also appeals to the notion of common human experiences. Thus, for example, in her testimony before the NBAC, Lisa Sowle Cahill noted that although autonomy has become a, if not the, central value in contemporary debates in bioethics, Catholic teaching has always emphasized the importance of the common good in addition to individual liberty. With regard to cloning, therefore, Catholic tradition asks not merely whether this technology might benefit individuals, but whether it will benefit society in the long run. In answering this question, Catholic tradition focuses on the importance of family to social good. According to Catholic teaching, the biological connection between parents and children is a manifestation of the natural connection between sex, marriage, and procreation. In traditional language, natural law requires that sex and procreation go together. Thus cloning is wrong in that it violates natural law by separating sex and procreation. This conclusion, says the Church, should be clear even to those who do not share a commitment to natural law. Careful reflection on the importance of families, historically and cross-culturally, along with an examination of how cloning might fundamentally change the notion of family is enough to show that cloning is deeply worrisome.


Just as Jewish and Christian scholars have drawn on accounts of creation in thinking about cloning, so, too, have Muslim scholars. For example, Chapter 23, verses 12–14 in the Qur'an, the Muslim scripture, are frequently cited as relevant to a discussion of cloning. The passage reads: "We created man of an extraction of clay, then We set him, a drop in a safe lodging, then We created of the drop a clot, then We created of the clot a tissue, then We created of the tissue bones, then We covered the bones in flesh; thereafter We produced it as another creature. So blessed be God, the Best of creators!" Supporters of cloning have understood this passage to mean that because humans participate in the act of creation with God, humans may intervene creatively in nature to promote human welfare. Thus, to undertake cloning in an effort to promote human flourishing may be acceptable.

In summarizing the response of Islam to reproductive cloning, it is also important to stress three themes from the Shari'a (Islamic law) that regulate individual and social morality for Muslims. First, Islamic law places a high value on the importance of scientific knowledge. Scientific research reveals the complexity of God's creation and for that reason can be understood as a kind of worship of God. Second, Islamic tradition has emphasized the importance of heterosexual marriage and the family to social and communal good. Third, although the tradition has no definitive position on the moral status of the early embryo, there is a well-known hadith (saying of the Prophet) that an angel comes to breathe spirit into a fetus at six weeks.

With these fundamental commitments supporting Islamic reflections on cloning, a number of positions can and have been developed. Consistent with the Qur'anic emphasis on the pursuit of knowledge, scientific research into reproduction that has led to the possibility of cloning is entirely legitimate. Indeed, some verses of the Qur'an have been interpreted to support the claim that God's will is manifest in so-called artificial reproduction because unless God wills the creation of life, there would be no life. Thus, assuming that the knowledge gained by pursuing cloning would be used to benefit humanity and not instead misused, cloning may be supported.

Nevertheless, there are aspects of cloning that give scholars of Islam pause. For example, the fact that cloning allows for reproduction without heterosexual pairing is problematic, for the Qu'ran is understood to be quite explicit about this: "And of everything We have created pairs that you may be mindful" (51:49). Thus, just as Catholicism is concerned about the threat cloning may pose to the traditional family, so, too, is Islam. Given the importance Islam places on the notion of a family that is founded upon heterosexual union, cloning has seemed very problematic to some Muslim jurists.

Finally, Islam also shares the concern raised by other religious traditions that cloning will lead to the reduction of children to commodities. Given the emphasis in Islam on the notion of spiritual equality, cloning may be problematic if it leads us to value some humans more highly than others because they have, or are free of, certain genetic traits. If cloning will lead us to place a market value on human beings, it will be opposed by Islam. Moreover, given the tradition that the moral status of the fetus changes approximately six weeks after conception, cloning will be problematic to the degree that it results in a substantial loss of fetal life after this point in gestation.


In order to understand Buddhist responses to cloning, it is important to note that Buddhist teaching generally emphasizes the centrality of individual judgment and discretion informed by reflection on Buddhist texts and the opinion of respected teachers. Thus, on cloning as on other issues, it is difficult to speak of a Buddhist position.

Nevertheless, the tradition clearly emphasizes a number of values that are helpful in framing a Buddhist response to cloning. First, in Buddhism, human existence is particularly valuable because only human beings can achieve enlightenment and thereby escape perpetual rebirth. The birth of a human being is therefore important because it affords a sentient being the possibility of release from suffering. Reproductive cloning may be viewed positively from a Buddhist perspective because it appears to facilitate the process of rebirth and liberation. The fact that such cloning would involve asexual reproduction does not appear to be significant in Buddhist tradition, which clearly contains stories of other kinds of asexual generation.

In contrast to several Protestant, Catholic, and Islamic objections to human cloning, Buddhists do not argue that asexual reproduction and cloning are human attempts to play God, or that they in any way infringe upon God's sovereignty as creator. Nor do Buddhists fear that human cloning, through genetic manipulation, might deprive cloned individuals of their right to an open future. Buddhism rejects the kind of physical reductionism that such genetic determinism implies, and scholars have been careful to note that human cloning does not determine or control the life of another being. The Buddhist conception of human life maintains that while cloning does determine the genotype of an individual, one's genetic construction does not and cannot determine the complete life of the human being, usually thought to comprise the body, sensation, thought, dispositions, and consciousness.

Buddhism does look upon cloning with skepticism and caution for other reasons. The universal value shared by all Buddhist traditions remains ego-transcending thought and behavior. Egocentric conduct and its motives are considered great moral wrongs. Buddhism is likely to analyze the morality of human cloning in terms of the motives, intentions, and desires of those engaged in genetic engineering and cloning. Should the motives behind cloning in general, or cloning in a specific instance, be found to be purely self-centered or self-gratifying, then the practice would be immoral and contrary to Buddhist values. This point is nicely illustrated by the classic Buddhist narrative, the "Parable of the Mustard Seed." According to the parable, a mother who is grieving over the death of her child approaches the Buddha to ask that he bring her dead child back to life. The Buddha instructs the woman that she will be able to accomplish her goal if she prepares tea from mustard seeds that have come from a house not touched by death. Of course, the woman is unable to find such seeds, and that is indeed the point; all life is impermanent. In the face of this fact, the woman needs to reflect on her desires and attachments to things that are necessarily impermanent.

Given this parable, Buddhist tradition raises serious questions about the wisdom of one form of reproductive cloning, namely, cloning to replace a lost loved one. Such cloning might be acceptable if one can find a physician whose family has not been touched by death, but seeking to replace a loved one appears to interfere with a Buddhist commitment to seek enlightenment through freedom from bondage to the self and its attachments. The parable thus points to the significance of attending to the motives or desires for cloning in rendering a Buddhist assessment of the practice. Many of the reasons that have been advanced for reproductive cloning, for example, to resolve infertility, to replace a lost child, to replicate oneself, appear to be profoundly egocentric. As such, they would be morally problematic according to Buddhist teaching.

Nevertheless, scholars remain divided on this line of thinking. Some have argued that should cloning benefit the couple wishing for a child, and provided it does not cause pain or suffering, then such cloning should be supported. Others have noted, however, that even the least objectionable motivations for cloning, such as the desire to avoid passing down hereditary disease, remain egocentric and self-serving. In this view, the decision to clone instead of using donor cells or adopting a child in need of a family, for example, seems rooted in a desire to have a genetically related child and does not truly look to ease the suffering of another, but has a self-gratifying aim. Accordingly, the argument goes, virtually all rationales for reproductive cloning stem from this desire.

While the motivation behind cloning is of primary significance in assessing its moral value, there is some concern among Buddhists that the inevitable destruction of early human embryos in cloning's experimental phases and in the successful process itself runs contrary to Buddhism's objection to the taking of human life. Although as a non-sentient being the early embryo would not suffer, Buddhism does view the early embryo as a human being and, as previously noted, the human is highly valued for its role in one's attainment of nirvana and the release from suffering. Thus, destroying human life, however early or insentient, may violate one of Buddhism's highest values.


This survey of religious responses to cloning suggests that there is significant misunderstanding of how major religious traditions have reacted to the possibility of reproductive cloning, at least in the popular media. For example, when the story broke that the British House of Lords had legalized therapeutic cloning for the purpose of deriving stem cells in 2001, the Reuters news service described Parliament as "turning a deaf ear to religious leaders from across the spectrum who had urged them to oppose the measures." Reuters's characterization of religious leaders as uniformly opposed to cloning is fairly typical. The reality is quite different. As this survey attests, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism take subtly different positions on the status of the embryo, on the appropriate motives for even considering cloning, on the notion of "playing God" and manipulating nature, and other matters.

Add to this the fact that, within each tradition, there are disagreements about these matters and the picture becomes very complex. What can safely be said is that none of these traditions appears to embrace cloning as an unqualified good, and, with the exception of official Catholic teaching and that of some evangelical Protestant groups, none appears to condemn cloning as intrinsically and unqualifiedly wrong.

paul lauritzen

nathaniel stewart

SEE ALSO: African Religions; Buddhism, Bioethics in; Christianity, Bioethics in; Daoism, Bioethics in; Islam, Bioethics in; Jainism, Bioethics in; Judaism, Bioethics in; Mormonism, Bioethics in; Native American Religions, Bioethics in; Reproductive Technologies; Transhumanism and Posthumanism; and other Cloning subentries


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