Be Fruitful and … Multiply?: A Moral Assessment of Human Cloning

For many years the prospect of cloning has remained largely in the realm of science fiction. But after the birth of the cloned sheep “Dolly” in 1996, human cloning has become the subject of serious scientific and bioethical inquiry. The President’s Council on Bioethics reports that numerous institutions in America and abroad have attempted to create a cloned human embryo.[1] These rumors were confirmed in May 2013, when a group of scientists at the Oregon Health and Science University announced that they had successfully cloned human embryos and harvested stem cells from them.[2] So it appears that in the days ahead, the issue of human cloning is going to become more relevant, not less. Therefore this is an issue which requires serious Christian reflection, as it raises a host of important questions relating to personhood, marriage, sex, and the family. I will argue in this article that human cloning is wrong because it goes against God’s original design in creation for human reproduction, and because it puts humanity on a dangerous trajectory toward the objectification of human beings, societal confusion, and the evils of eugenics.

Definitions

The President’s Council on Bioethics defines cloning in this way:

Cloning is a form of reproduction in which offspring result not from the chance union of egg and sperm (sexual reproduction) but from the deliberate replication of the genetic makeup of another single individual (asexual reproduction). Human cloning, therefore, is the asexual production of a new human organism that is, at all stages of development, genetically virtually identical to a currently existing or previously existing human being.[3]

There are currently two methods of human cloning: embryo splitting and somatic cell nuclear transfer. Embryo splitting seeks to mimic the natural development of identical twins, which are formed when the embryo divides in half in the early stages of growth, and each half develops into two numerically different embryos sharing the same genetic DNA. Embryo splitting operates in a similar way, except that the “split” is artificially produced in a Petri dish.[4] The danger with this route is that the original embryo is at risk of being destroyed. Though this is a “relatively low-tech way to make clones,”[5] most cloning[6] takes place through somatic cell nuclear transfer.

In somatic cell nuclear transfer, the nucleus of a female’s egg cell is inactivated or removed, and the nucleus from a male or female donor’s skin cell is removed and placed in the egg cell. At this point the egg cell contains the correct amount of genetic material in order for it to form into a fertilized ovum, and all that is left to be done is a “chemical tweak” (usually an electric shock) to get the process going.[7]

Whether the cloning is done through embryo splitting or somatic cell nuclear transfer, bioethicists distinguish between two kinds of cloning: therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning. Reproductive cloning is when cloning is undertaken with the intended result of that cloned embryo being placed in a woman’s uterus to be given birth. Therapeutic cloning is cloning that does not have such an intention, but rather intends to experiment on the cloned embryo or extract embryonic stem cells. This is usually done for the purpose of healing someone—hence the name, “therapeutic.” However, this process actually involves the destruction of the cloned embryo, so “therapeutic” is somewhat of an unfit title; it is therapeutic for the adult patient, but destructive for the embryo. Furthermore, it could justly be said that both “reproductive” cloning and “therapeutic” cloning are reproductive, since “all cloning produces a human embryo and is therefore reproductive in nature.”[8] Joe Carter from the Gospel Coalition suggests a more neutral phrasing: “cloning-to-produce-children” and “cloning-for-biomedical-research.[9] The latter will be discussed first, and the former second.

Against Therapeutic Cloning

Without even considering whether or not cloning is itself wrong, therapeutic cloning can be dismissed right away because it involves the destruction of human embryos, and as such it is a direct violation of the commandment, “You shall not murder” (Ex 20:13). Scripture teaches that all men are created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27), which means that human beings in a distinct way bear a resemblance and likeness to God and are called to act in ways that reflect his character and will. The Bible grounds the prohibition of murder (Gen 9:6) and cursing (James 3:9) in the fact that man is made in God’s likeness and image. This implies that every human being bears the image of their Creator and thus ought to be treated with love and respect. There is no such thing as a human being who is not worthy of love and respect. Every human being is created in the image of God. To be man is to be in God’s image. Human embryos, therefore, as human embryos, ought to be regarded as man, as bearing God’s image, as deserving of our love and respect. They must not be experimented on and killed.[10]

Thomas Douglas and Julian Savulescu of the European Molecular Biology Organization set forth an interesting objection to the full personality of the human embryo. They write, “Perhaps the most common argument given is that embryos are persons. . . . To say that a being is a person is to ascribe it roughly the same rights, claims and interests as would be possessed by ordinary adult humans under the same circumstances.”[11] They argue that this does not seem to be the case, and appeal to an “embryo-rescue” scenario.

The scenario went like this: there is a fire in a warehouse that holds thousands of human embryos. You are a firefighter. You step into the building and realize that there is a single warehouse worker who needs help getting out, but you are forced to choose between saving the life of this one worker and saving the life of a few hundred embryos by grabbing a box instead of helping him. Douglas and Savulescu argue that if embryos are persons, then we are morally obligated to allow the warehouse worker to die so that we can save a few hundred embryos. But they say that it intuitively seems like we should save the warehouse worker, not a box of frozen embryos. “Therefore, our intuitions seem to be incompatible with the view that embryos are persons.”[12]

While it must be admitted on all sides that our intuitions about right and wrong can be mistaken, the force of these arguments must be recognized. It does seem intuitive that we should save the adult human being rather than grab a box of embryos. But this in itself does not imply that embryos are not persons or that it is permissible to destroy them for the sake of “biological research.” That is not the only way of interpreting this scenario.

In fact, rather than proving that embryos are not persons, this scenario could just as easily be taken to show the bankruptcy of utilitarianism as an absolute, sole arbiter of morality. Utilitarianism insists that we must only ever do those actions which will contribute to the greatest possible “utility” or happiness for the greatest number of people. Christine Stephenson notes that utilitarianism is “the prevailing ethical perspective of the medical and scientific world.”[13] This utilitarian approach bleeds through this piece by Douglas and Savulescu. They argue, for instance, that even if the embryo is a human person, yet because of the fact that the biological information gained from destroying that embryo could result “in thousands, perhaps millions, of avoidable deaths,”[14] it is morally impermissible to not support the killing of the embryo. This assumes that we are to balance lives in a scale in such situations, and the side with the greatest potential life and happiness for the greatest number always wins.

Though many think this utilitarian view sounds good in principle, yet when it is applied to the real world it quickly becomes enslaving, unrealistic, and counter-intuitive. It doesn’t seem reasonable to say, for instance, that a man has an equal responsibility to financially provide for his family as he does to financially provide for any particular person that may be in need. Scripture actually speaks against this when it says that the one who fails to provide for his family “denies the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim 5:8). This means that we have a special responsibility to provide and care for those closest to us, rather than equally providing and caring for all men regardless of if they are your family or not. So experientially and biblically, it seems that there are more factors at play in our moral decision making than disinterested utilitarian calculation.

So to hearken back to the warehouse scenario, could it not be the case that the impulse to save the worker over the embryos (if their lives are somehow known indisputably to be in absolute conflict) is indicative of the fact that there is more at play in making moral decisions than simply counting up lives or “amounts” of  happiness? In fact, the scenario could be turned around on them: Is it not the case that if we are to seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, then we should save the embryos over the life of the worker? Embryonic stem cell research, as Douglas and Savulescu argue earlier in their article, may hold the key for preventing “millions” of deaths. Does not the potentiality of saving the lives of millions outweigh the actuality of saving the life of one?

In conclusion, Scripture’s teaching regarding the image of God has massive implications for therapeutic cloning which destroys human embryos. Scripture leads us to say that every human life is precious because every human life, at all stages of development, was made in God’s image. To be man is to be in God’s image.

Against All Cloning

Having evaluated the morality of therapeutic cloning, we are now led to address cloning in itself. Cloning first of all must be opposed because it inherently violates God’s creative order and design for human sexual relationships as revealed in Scripture. Many may object to such a claim right away on the simple grounds that cloning is nowhere mentioned in Scripture. The ancient authors and the audience had no idea what cloning was, and therefore they have nothing relevant to say on this matter. It is a mistake to make such a claim because it fails to see that Scriptural principles have far-reaching applications. For instance, although Scripture nowhere explicitly addresses the sin of looking at pornography, yet implicitly it speaks to the issue since Jesus gave us the command not to lust. True, the first-century hearers of the sermon on the mount had no category for looking up nudity on the computer, but this does not mean that Jesus’ words cannot speak to that very issue. The same is the case with cloning. Scripture nowhere writes, “Thou shall not clone,” nor does it ever command cloning.[15] Is it then necessarily the case that Scripture has nothing to say on this issue? By no means. Rather, it seems that Scripture does have something to say here.

Cloning runs against the creative order. God’s will in creation, as revealed in Genesis 1-2, is that human reproduction should happen in the context of sexual union in marriage, and not otherwise. Since cloning is an instance of seeking to procreate apart from the context of sexual union in marriage, it is against God’s creative will and ought not to be done.

Now, perhaps someone might object that Scripture nowhere explicitly states that sexual reproduction should only happen within the context of sexual union in marriage. Genesis 1–2 nowhere directly and straightforwardly say this, so aren’t we being legalistic in making moral judgments in this area?

In response, we should first note that Scripture need not exhaust all morality; it rather is the authoritative standard that ratifies and reaffirms more directly what God through nature already teaches us, but which our sinfulness and finitude obscures. In this way Scripture shapes us so that we are the kind of people who are able to discern God’s will and purpose in nature so that we can ascertain what is good, right, fitting, and pleasing out there in the world (Phil 4:8). 

We may also meet this objection on its own terms: it must be said that the above arguments concerning God’s original design for human sexuality and marriage is ascertainable from the first two chapters of Genesis. Jesus hearkened back to these chapters to show that divorce is not in accord with God’s original design (Matt 19:4–6), and Paul hearkens back to these chapters to affirm male headship in marriage and in the church (1 Corinthians 11:7–9; 1 Tim 2:12–14). It could similarly be objected to both Jesus and Paul that their “proofs” are being “more strict than Scripture,” since when one reads the first two chapters of Genesis one never comes across the statement, “Divorce is wrong,” or “Only men can be elders in the church.” Rather Jesus and Paul are reading Genesis 1–2 as paradigmatic for human relationships, inasmuch as it is revelatory of the will and design of God for human relationships. Reading the creation account of Genesis 1–2 the way Jesus and Paul do, we may conclude that although cloning is not directly addressed in Scripture, yet Scripture does implicitly denounce cloning since it is out of accord with God’s revealed design for human relationships—in which one man and one woman covenanted together in the one-flesh relationship of marriage have offspring through sexual intimacy.[18]

Another question that may arise in some people’s minds at this point is, “What about contraceptives?” These too separate conception from the act of sexual union. Doesn’t this mean we should oppose contraceptives on the same grounds?

I answer “no” to this question, because the manner in which contraceptives “separate conception from the act of sexual union in marriage” is different from the manner in which cloning separates procreation from sexual union. The latter separates conception from the act of sexual union in an absolute manner by going so far as to say that conception can be obtained outside of sexual union. This is an absolute disjunction. The former separates conception from the act of sexual union in a different sense: it does not “separate” them in the sense of saying that conception can happen elsewhere. It only “separates” it in the sense of saying that not all acts of sexual union must be equally open to procreation. These are not morally equivalent separations. With contraceptives, though Scripture indeed does indicate that procreation is one of the purposes for which God created sex—along with pleasure and martial oneness—yet it does not indicate that a married couple who recognizes this in principle must never in anyway seek to lessen the likelihood of procreation in any act of sex. To say, “One of the reasons God made sex is for procreation,” is not to logically imply, “God purposes that a husband and wife be equally open to procreation in every individual act of sex.” It does, however, mean that a husband and wife should be generally open to and desirous of having children and should not seek to prevent pregnancy without good and sufficient reasons.

Dangerous Trajectory

In closing we may note that cloning sets us on a dangerous trajectory. In his book, Begotten or Made, Oliver O’Donovan has pointed out the fact that new assistive reproductive technologies tend us toward viewing children as a product of human craft rather than a divine, mysterious gift of God.[19]

It also seems that complex relational dynamics of clones would cause societal, familial, and personal confusion. Cloning in a unique way divorces genetic parenthood from relational parenthood, “since the biological parent of the clone would be the parents of the donor and not the nucleus-donor.”[20] D. Gareth Jones argues that this foundational change may lead to a “new social order,” a “distorting effect on image of God,” and “may be at odds with God’s creation ordinances.” That latter point has been argued previously; the former two are worth heeding.

And not only that, but cloning would eliminate the need for a male in order to reproduce altogether—a woman may simply swap nucleuses with her own egg cell and her own skin cell. This makes possible what Al Mohler calls the “de-sexualization of the human race”[21] much like we see in dystopian novels like 1984 and Brave New World. Cloning makes possible the dark, dismal, de-sexualized world of eugenics. Karl Barth described such a world with these words, which are worth quoting at length:

There exists a terrible book by Aldous Huxley called Brave New World. It tells of a future epoch of humanity in which the artificial procreation and rearing of the human embryo will become a general law to be carried through mechanically, and this in such a way that individuals will be produced in fixed numbers in each deliberately graded class, so that they are all either alpha, beta, or gamma men with specially balanced physical and psychical characteristics and possibilities, and will finally have to live side by side according to the resultant equation. What a splendid new world! For in it everyone will be absolutely happy from the very outset, or rather from the test-tube in which he is prepared. All serious competitions or social conflict is excluded from the beginning, or rather from the test-tube again. In fact, of course, this would be a dreadful, godless world, since it would be composed only of men without either orientation or future.[22]

Cloning not only makes such a world possible, but some have already called out for us to progress in human reproductive cloning to the extent that we should employ “good eugenics.”[23] Such a suggestion should send shivers down our spines. The mere fact that cloning makes all of these atrocities possible is a strong argument against the practice. The more basic thing to say about human cloning, though, is that it is an overreaching of the creature beyond the bounds of his God-given dominion. We ought to return back to the fullness of God’s good design for man, woman, marriage, children, sex, and procreation, manifested in Scripture and nature.


[1] The President’s Council on Bioethics, accessed February 13, 2015, http://web.archive.org/web/20090812235852/http://bioethics.gov/topics/cloning_faq.html.

[2] David Brown, “Oregon Scientists Get Stem Cells from Cloned Human Embryos,” The Washington Post, accessed February 13, 2015,  http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/oregon-scientists-get-stem-cells-from-cloned-human-embryos/2013/05/15/dc011cbc-bdac-11e2-9b09-1638acc3942e_story.html.

[3] President’s Council.

[4] “What Is Cloning?”, University of Utah Health Sciences, accessed February 13, 2015, http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/cloning/whatiscloning/.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Adam C. Pelser, “Made in the Image of Man: the Value of Christian Theology for Public Moral Discourse on Human Cloning,” accessed February 13, 2015, https://wakespace.lib.wfu.edu/bitstream/handle/10339/14709/pelserad_05_2007.pdf.

[7] “What Is Cloning?”, University of Utah.

[8] Joe Carter, “9 Things You Should Know About Human Cloning,” The Gospel Coalition, accessed February 13, 2015, http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/9-things-you-should-know-about-human-cloning.

[9] Ibid.

[10] A possible exception to this is a case in which the human embryo is an encroaching threat on someone’s life. But to explore this possibility here exceeds the limits of this essay.

[11] Thomas Douglas and Julian Savulescu, “Destroying Unwanted Embryos in Research,” EMBO Reports (2009), accessed February 13, 2015, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2672894/.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Stephenson, Cloning and Christian Ethics.

[14] Douglas and Savulescu, Destroying Embryos.

[15] When God told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply, he didn’t mean that.

[16] The reader probably recognizes by now that the same arguments seem to apply toward IVF. I think they do, and I would argue against IVF on the same grounds.

[17] Oliver O’Donovan, Begotten or Made? (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984).

[18] D. Garreth Jones, “Human Cloning: A Watershed for Science and Ethics?”, accessed February 14, 2015, http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=293d5afe-5bfe-4486-9f39-22de0318094d%40sessionmgr114&vid=1&hid=118.

[19]Al Mohler, “The Brave New World of Cloning: A Christian Worldview Perspective,” accessed February 14, 2015, http://www.albertmohler.com/2009/07/14/the-brave-new-world-of-cloning-a-christian-worldview-perspective/.

[20] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, accessed February 14, 2015, http://bit.ly/1Epxqu9.

[21] Among whom are: bioethicist Joseph Fletcher (1905-1991), Florida Representative Vern Buchanan (1951-present), and holder of the Vinson and Elkins Chair at the University of Texas School of Law John Robertson (????-present).

Image source: wwwuppertal via Flickr

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