‘s finally happened. The first cloned human embryos have been implanted in a womb. Well, that is, according to a self-described “maverick” doctor working from a secret lab somewhere in the Middle East.
It sounds like a cheesy sci-fi scenario, but Dr. Panayiotis Zavos announced last week that he had successfully cloned human embryos and implanted them into the wombs of four women. None of the cloned embryos resulted in a viable pregnancy, but Zavos is undeterred. He says he will continue trying, and believes the birth of the first human clone is just a few years away.
While human embryos have been cloned before (to harvest stem cells), this is the first time a scientist has implanted them. Most countries have strict laws against the implantation of cloned embryos. Zavos has been roundly condemned for the practice by religious leaders, President Obama and fellow scientists. Obama called the practice “dangerous” and “profoundly wrong,” while Bishop Patrick O’Donoghue of Lancaster said Zavos’ actions were “deeply repugnant for the future of humanity.”
So, it appears human cloning may be verging on a possibility. Yet, there seems to be a disconnect between what can be done and what should be done. Human cloning, of course, raises a lot of ethical questions. Any kind of cloning presents grave risks for the cloned animal. Dolly, the famed cloned sheep, was euthanized six years after her birth due to lung disease and premature arthritis. Moreover, upwards of 90 percent of the sheep cloned after Dolly have died soon after birth. Cloned animals have been found to suffer a high rate of deformities and metabolic disorders. Considering the tremendous risks involved in the process and the trial-and-error involved (it took 276 failed attempts to clone a sheep before Dolly was produced), it seems reckless to subject a human life to those perils
The ethical implications, though, go far deeper than biology. What about identity and family relations? What relationship would a human have to a genetic copy of themselves? Would they be a parent? A peer? A twin? Also, where would a cloned human derive his or her identity? Of course, just because two people have an identical genetic makeup does not guarantee they will be in any way similar emotionally or psychologically (take, for example, identical twins), but imagine the psychological impact of having a twin who is decades older. Or, perhaps, is even deceased. One of Zavos’ cloned embryos uses genetic material from a 10-year-old who died in a car accident. It raises concerns about the expectations of parents who want a genetic duplicate of a deceased child. The cloned outcome might be physically identical, but would develop as an entirely unique individual. In other words, cloning doesn’t provide a second chance or a ticket back from the grave. It provides an entirely separate individual who happens to look like the deceased.
For Christians, cloning has theological implications as well. The idea of “meddling in God’s domain” is not a new one in science or medicine, but it seems most appropriate in the case of cloning. The act of cloning removes the fundamental design of joining genetic material from two individuals to make a third, unique individual. And, on a more philosophical level, it raises questions about the nature of the soul. What is the makeup of a soul? Is it merely the sum of our experiences, or is there something more ethereal about it?
Zavos claims his work is both ethical and responsible. His only intention, he says, is to provide options for infertile couples. “We’re not interested in cloning the Michael Jordans and Michael Jacksons of the world, but rather assisting infertile couples that deserve the right to have a biological child to have one,” he says.
So, is cloning merely a new step in treating infertility? Will science one day judge human cloning as benignly as in-vitro fertilization? After all, there were ethical outcries against so-called “test-tube babies” at the outset, and now it’s a common practice. Even those within the Church tend to see it as morally neutral. Will cloning be looked upon the same way?
Regardless of the clamor raised by politicians, scientists and religious leaders, it is likely that Zavos (or doctors like him) will one day succeed. We may face the reality of cloned humans living normal lives amongst us. How, then, is the Church to respond? As ludicrous and outlandish as it seems, odds are the Church will have to deal with the particular psychological, biological and theological implications of cloned humans. As much as our theology may rail against the idea, we have to prepare ourselves for the reality and respond—as best we can determine—how we feel Christ would have.