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An Orthodox Perspective on Human Cloning

We are witnessing the dawning of a Brave New World, a world in which the prospect of human cloning is no longer a nightmare of science fiction, but a nightmare of scientific reality. The world awoke to the reality of reproductive cloning in 1997 with the birth of Doll, a ewe cloned from an adult lamb by scientists at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh, Scotland. Since then, despite a bill passed by the United States House of Representatives to outlaw all forms of human cloning, the march continues. On November 24, 2001, Advanced Cell Technology, a biotech firm in Worcester, Massachusetts, announced the first successful cloning of a human embryo, which was later killed to "harvest" stem cells from the core of human blast cysts. Most recently, a dubious claim to have accomplished the first true "reproductive" cloning of a human being was made by Clonaid, a firm founded by a bizarre religious sect called the Raelians. While Clonaid's claims may well prove to be false, so-called "therapeutic" cloning is widely supported by scientific researchers, biotech corporations, and liberal politicians. No amount of legislation - as necessary and welcome as it may be - will likely stop those intent on producing a cloned human being. Once this Pandora's box of New Medicine has been opened, a new post-human era will be inaugurated.

What we are witnessing is modern science fulfilling its ugliest internal impulse: the Baconian project of conquering nature in an effort to establish a technologically-achieved utopia. But in so doing, modern science is going out from under man's control, permanently altering nature, and dethroning God as Creator. The result of this blasphemy can only be the establishment of the darkest tyranny ever known to human history. The man who will populate and propagate this tyranny will not be God-created, but created by fallen man in his own image and likeness; the basic stuff of his life will be artificial and altered.

An extraordinarily revealing moment in the debate over cloning took place in the House of Representatives, when the congressman from Ohio urged his colleagues: "We should not allow theology, philosophy or politics to interfere in the decision we make on this issue." But if the science of cloning is left to evolve to its logical conclusion, it will end in eugenics. Science here has exceeded its traditional goals of wondering at nature and treating human illness, and now looks to fundamentally change human bodies and minds, and thus human nature. It is precisely here, contrary to Congressman Strickland's claim, that we urgently have need of grasping the theological truth of the sanctity and uniqueness of life, of God as the only giver of life, and conception as the beginning of the individual human person.

What is Cloning?

Cloning is the technique of producing a genetically identical duplicate of an organism. In the case of human cloning, the nucleus of an adult cell is injected into an insulated egg, so that the donor DNA replaces the nucleus already present in the egg, and then cell division is electronically prompted. The result becomes a human embryo, genetically identical to the donor. In the case of so-called "reproductive cloning," the egg is implanted into the woman's uterus to grow. Done successfully, it would result in the birth of an infant. In the case of the benign-sounding "therapeutic cloning," the embryo is never implanted into the uterus. Instead, it is allowed to develop for a few days before a part is removed to provide stem cells which have the unique potential to become any human cell and thus have potential for disease treatment before the embryo is destroyed, or more accurately, killed. Reproductive cloning is currently opposed by nearly all responsible scientists Clonaid not included but therapeutic cloning has widespread support, based on the claim that it may provide a means to treatment and tissue replacement for a series of incurable ailments.

Both techniques are sinister. Both produce life artificially. As Father Dimitrios Demopulos, who holds a Ph.D. in genetics, writes: "As an Orthodox Christian I speak out in opposition to any attempt to clone a human being, because humans are supposed to be created in acts of love between two people, not through the manipulation of cells that are ultimately an expression of self-love. Our actions should bring us together in Christ, not separate us into new and different classifications." This manipulation of cells opens the door to "genetic enhancement" and increased control over traits deemed desirable, and the elimination of those which are not. In other words, eugenics. This genetic manipulation is ultimately an act of cruelty, subjecting the embryo to the whims of scientists and when resulting in birth, to unforeseen illness and danger. As Professor Leon Kass of the University of Chicago testified before Congress: "Cloning constitutes unethical experimentation of the child-to-be, subjecting him or her to enormous risks of bodily and developmental abnormalities. It threatens individuality. It confuses identity. It represents a giant step toward turning procreation into manufacture. And it is a radical form of parental despotism and child abuse." So-called "therapeutic cloning" is equally, if not even more, inhuman. In the name of dubious medical evidence for miracle cures, it produces life only to destroy it. Legalizing it would in fact result in the first category of life which legally had to be killed. As Charles Krauthammer put it, it represents "the most ghoulish and dangerous enterprise in modern scientific history: the creation of nascent cloned human life for the sole purpose of its exploitation and destruction."

The Beginning of Individual Human Life

Michael West, the president of Advanced Cell Technology, which produced the first successful cloning of a human embryo claims: "Scientifically, biologically, the entities we are creating are not individuals. They are only cellular life. They are not human life." But this claim runs contrary not only to the traditional teachings of the Orthodox Church, but to science and biology. For where else could one find, scientifically and biologically, the beginning of individual human life? If not at conception, i.e. fertilization, then where? The pursuit becomes arbitrary, subject to the bias of the individual scientists. We must insist that all human cellular life, at whatever stage in its development, even at its earliest stages of growth, is by definition human life. As such, it is specific and unique, endowed with the fullness of physical and spiritual human nature, and bearing the image and likeness of God.

The Biblical, patristic, canonical, and liturgical traditions of the Church all point to the beginning of individual human life at the moment of conception. St. Gregory of Nyssa in On the Soul and Resurrection writes: "The beginning of existence is one and the same for body and soul." The canons condemn abortion at any stage of pregnancy, "whether the fetus be formed or unformed," in the words of St. Basil the Great. The Church's liturgical tradition likewise recognizes conception as the beginning of existence, celebrating the conception of the Mother of God (Dec. 9), St. John the Baptist (Sep. 23), and Christ Himself in the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25). These examples demonstrate that the Church has always regarded conception as the beginning of the human individual life and underscore the fact that embryonic life is fully human and personal.

Life, then, from both scientific and theological perspectives, begins at conception, i.e. fertilization. This is a life which gradually develops throughout our entire earthly life, beginning with its initial stage immediately after conception, and continuing its development even unto the eternal life of the age to come. As bioethicist and Orthodox priest Fr. John Breck writes: "An embryo may be in the process of 'becoming.' But the same is true with a newborn infant or an octogenarian. We are all in the process of 'becoming,' of growing toward physical maturity and, theoretically, toward the state of perfection and communion with God known as deification. That process begins with the fusion of a sperm and an ovum to produce a genetically unique and individually differentiated human being. It ends, if at all, only in the Kingdom of God." Therefore, Fr. John continues, an embryo created in a laboratory is still a genetically unique, individually differentiated, human being and, therefore, a bearer of God's image and object of God's love." To "harvest" such a life for stem cells and then destroy it is nothing short of killing human life, ending its ability to grow into God's likeness and return God's love. As Fr. Johannes Jacobse put it succinctly: "God created Adam not to exploit him, but to know him."

Human Cloning and its Consequences

Many of the moral consequences of cloning have already been suggested: the threat to the uniqueness of each life; the compromise of human identity; the violation of human dignity; even the potential for eugenic manipulation, resulting in a tyrannical social structure with a genetically enhanced super class ruling a lower class of genetically "inferior" men. Reproductive cloning opens a way for eugenics and designer babies, making children manufactured objects. The practical consequences lead to unheard of absurdities: the whole structure of the family is confused and overturned with the potential of genetically identical parents and children. In fact, male cells are not needed in reproductive cloning, paving the way for a world in which women can reproduce without men, and children will be fatherless. The act of consummating love, which produces children, could be made obsolete, making child-bearing completely asexual.

But most horrifying of all is the audacity of the science of cloning, the reaching beyond the bounds of science to the prerogatives of God, Who alone bestows life. It is ultimately an act of blasphemy. Life is a free gift of God, an invitation to return God's love and grow in the participation of His Divine life. As Saint Irenaeus of Lyons writes: "The glory of God is a living person, and the life of a person is the vision of God." Life is a sacred gift which God alone should give. It is no wonder that, however much supporters of cloning ask us to eschew theology in reining in science, they themselves speak of the cloning project in religious language, of "playing God." The dangerous lunatics in Clonaid and the Raelians may be far from the mainstream of contemporary science, but their belief that cloning is a "way to reach eternal life" rings true with the tacit practice of many modern scientists.

We, as Orthodox Christians, are bound to oppose human cloning of any sort, "reproductive" or "therapeutic." We must bring this witness to the world, support legislation that seeks a total ban on all forms of cloning, and refrain from using any medical technology which uses human embryos as so much raw material, produced only to be harvested. If the cloning project continues, the world imagined so vividly by Aldous Huxley so many years ago will begin to appear. As J. Bottum writes: "With its desire to clone, the bioethic revolution has set itself against the human world of bodily birth and death, unique individuals living and dying in connected families. It promises instead a place of endless mirrors reflecting nothing but themselves, a sterile realm of childless parents and parentless children, a world turned strange, inhospitable and inhuman." In opposing human cloning of any sort, we will protect the God-given gift of life from the abuse of modern science.

Monk Serge (Nedelsky)
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