Human Cloning: Testimony of Cardinal William H. Keeler

Cardinal William Keeler
on behalf of the
Committee for Pro-Life Activities
National Conference of Catholic Bishops


I am Cardinal William Keeler, Archbishop of Baltimore and a member of the Committee for Pro–Life Activities of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. It is on behalf of this Conference that I speak to you today about the moral challenge presented by human cloning.

The sanctity and dignity of human life is a cornerstone of Catholic moral reflection and social teaching. We believe a society can be judged by the respect it shows for human life, especially in its most vulnerable stages and conditions.

On this basis, the Catholic Church strongly opposes the taking of human life through abortion, euthanasia or destructive experiments on human embryos.

At first glance, human cloning may not seem to belong on this list. It is presented as a means for creating life, not destroying it. Yet it shows disrespect toward human life in the very act of generating it. Cloning completely divorces human reproduction from the context of a loving union between man and woman, producing children with no “parents” in the ordinary sense. Here human life does not arise from an act of love, but is manufactured to predetermined specifications. A developing human being is treated as an object, not as an individual with his or her own identity and rights. As one group of scientific and other experts advising the Holy See has written:

In the cloning process the basic relationships of the human person are perverted: filiation, consanguinity, kinship, parenthood. A woman can be the twin sister of her mother, lack a biological father and be the daughter of her grandmother. In vitro fertilization has already led to the confusion of parentage, but cloning will mean the radical rupture of these bonds.1

Such moral concern transcends denominational bounds and has been eloquently expressed by some of our country’s most respected philosophers and ethicists. Writes Professor Leon Kass of the University of Chicago:

Human cloning would... represent a giant step toward turning begetting into making, procreation into manufacture (literally, something “handmade”)... [W]e here would be taking a major step into making man himself simply another one of the man-made things.2

From the dehumanizing nature of this technique flow many disturbing consequences. Because human clones are produced by a means more suited to more primitive forms of life — a means which involves no loving relationship, no personal investment or responsibility for a new life, but only laboratory technique — they would be uniquely at risk of being treated as “second-class” human beings.

The very scenarios often cited as justifications for human cloning are actually symptoms of the moral problem it creates. It has been said that cloning could be used to create “copies” of illustrious people, or to replace a deceased loved one, or even to provide a source of spare tissues or organs for the person whose genetic material was used for the procedure. In each proposal we see a utilitarian view of human life, in which a human being is treated as a means to someone else's ends instead of as a person with his or her own inherent dignity. This same attitude lies at the root of human slavery.

Let me be perfectly clear. In reality a cloned human being would not be, in any sense, an “object” or a substandard human being. Whatever the circumstances of his or her origin, he or she deserves to be treated as a human person with an individual identity. But the depersonalized technique of manufacture known as cloning disregards this dignity and sets the stage for further exploitation. Cloning is not wrong because cloned human beings lack human dignity — it is wrong because they have human dignity, and deserve to come into the world in ways that respect this dignity. Each child has a right to be conceived and born as the fruit of a loving union between husband and wife, to be loved and accepted as a new and distinct individual.

Ironically, the most startling evidence of the dehumanizing aspects of cloning is found in some proposals ostensibly aimed at preventing human cloning. The National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC), and now some members of Congress, favor legislation that would not ban human cloning at all — but would simply ban any effort to allow cloned human beings to survive. In these proposals, researchers are allowed to use cloning for the unlimited mass production of human embryos for experimentation — after which they are required to destroy them, instead of allowing them to implant in a woman's womb.3

Enactment of such a proposal would mark the first time in history that the U.S. government defined a class of human beings that it is a crime not to destroy. These human embryos — produced without true parents, and hence without protectors — would be created at the outset for the sole purpose of experimentation and destruction.

Human embryo research has been debated in this body before. Three years ago the National Institutes of Health proposed that federally funded researchers be allowed to perform nontherapeutic experiments on human embryos produced by in vitro fertilization — including embryos produced solely for research purposes. The moral outcry against this proposal was almost universal. Opinion polls showed massive opposition, and the NIH panel making the recommendation was inundated with over 50,000 letters of protest. The Washington Post, while reaffirming its stand in favor of legalized abortion, editorialized against the Panel’s recommendation:

The creation of human embryos specifically for research that will destroy them is unconscionable... [I]t is not necessary to be against abortion rights, or to believe human life literally begins at conception, to be deeply alarmed by the notion of scientists’ purposely causing conceptions in a context entirely divorced from even the potential of reproduction.4

President Clinton ultimately set aside the recommendation allowing creation of “research embryos,” and Congress for the past three years has voted to prohibit funding of all harmful embryo research — most especially the creation of “research embryos.”

Why, then, are these moral judgments suddenly reversed if the human embryo has been produced by cloning? Why is Congress now being urged to endorse the proposition: “The creation of human embryos by cloning specifically for research that will destroy them is a national priority”? It seems the cloning procedure is so demeaning that people somehow assume that a brief life as an object of research, followed by destruction, is “good enough” for any human produced by this technique. The fact that the procedure invites such morally irresponsible policies is reason enough to oppose it.

The NBAC approach does not even make sense as a barrier to cloning for reproductive purposes. For a great deal of destructive experimentation using cloned human embryos would be a necessary step toward the production of a live–born infant by cloning. We have all learned that as many as 276 sheep embryos, fetuses and newborn lambs had to die so that one sheep, “Dolly,” could be produced. Scientists can expect similar results from initial attempts at human cloning — indicating that it would be morally irresponsible to make the attempt. Yet legislation based on the NBAC approach would give the federal government’s blessing to such experiments. Researchers who discard hundreds or thousands of human embryos in failed cloning attempts could resort to the defense that such cavalier disposal of human life is exactly what the federal law requires.

Some will ask: Are we really speaking here of a human embryo, let alone a human life? By using these terms do we inject religious belief into this debate? The answer is emphatically no. Even the NIH Human Embryo Research Panel, which recommended federal funding for destructive human embryo experiments, called the early human embryo “a developing form of human life” which “warrants serious moral consideration.”5 If some wish to deny membership in the human family to human beings in the earliest stage of their development, it is they who impose an ideological filter on the facts.6 To claim that one is banning “human cloning” by simply banning the nurture or live birth of human embryos already produced by cloning is to distort language and common sense.

The Church is also sensitive to claims that cloning is necessary for the pursuit of valuable medical research. We hold that “medicine is an eminent, essential form of service to mankind.”7 Research involving the cloning of animals, plants, and even human genes, cells and tissues can be beneficial to human beings and presents no intrinsic moral problem. However, when research turns its attention to human subjects, we must be sure that we do not undermine human dignity in the very process of seeking to serve it. Human experimentation divorced from moral considerations may well progress more quickly on a technical level — but at the loss of our sense of humanity. The Tuskegee syphilis study, Nazi Germany’s hypothermia experiments, and our own government’s Cold War radiation experiments will always be remembered in the history of modern medicine — but not in a positive light. Any “progress” they may have brought on a technical level is far overshadowed by their mistreatment of human beings.

There has been much speculation in recent months about the ways human cloning might revolutionize medical research on various diseases. In all these areas of research, however, alternatives seem to be possible which do not involve the use of cloning technology to create and destroy human embryos. For example, some researchers may want to use somatic cell nuclear transfer to create “customized stem cell lines” genetically matched for individual patients — a procedure that in each case would require creating, developing and then killing a human embryo that is the patient’s identical twin. Yet even the National Bioethics Advisory Commission described this avenue of research as “a rather expensive and far–fetched scenario,” and reminded us that a moral assessment is necessary as well:

Because of ethical and moral concerns raised by the use of embryos for research purposes it would be far more desirable to explore the direct use of human cells of adult origin to produce specialized cells or tissues for transplantation into patients.8

Surely, anyone who understands the need for ethically responsible science can agree with this judgment. One great benefit of a ban on human cloning is that it will direct the scientific enterprise toward research that benefits human beings without forcing them to produce, exploit and destroy fellow human beings to gain those benefits. Creating human life solely to cannibalize and destroy it is the most unconscionable use of human cloning — not its highest justification.


1  Reflections from the Pontifical Academy for Life, “Human Cloning Is Immoral” (July 9, 1997), in The Pope Speaks, vol. 43, no. 1 (January⁄February 1998), p. 29. Also see: Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum Vitae (Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation) (March 10, 1987), I.6 and II.B.[Back]

2  Leon R. Kass, “The Wisdom of Repugnance,” in The New Republic, June 2, 1997, p. 23. [Back]

3  Examples include S. 1602 and S. 1611 now pending in the Senate. [Back]

4  Editorial, “Embryos: Drawing the Line,” The Washington Post, October 2, 1994, C6.[Back]

5  Final Report of the Human Embryo Research Panel (National Institutes of Health: September 27, 1994), p. 2. Tragically, the Panel gave no real weight to this insight in its final policy recommendations. [Back]

6  While some fertility specialists have used the term “pre–embryo”to describe the first 14 days of human development, a scientific expert who strongly supports embryo research recently wrote that this term was embraced “for reasons that are political, not scientific.” The term “pre–embryo,” he writes, “is useful in the political arena — where decisions are made about whether to allow early embryo (now called pre–embryo) experimentation...” Biologically, in the human species and others, an embryo exists from the one–celled stage onwards. See Lee Silver, Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World (Avon Books 1997), p. 39.[Back]

7  Pope John Paul II, Address to the World Medical Association (Oct. 29, 1983); printed as “The Ethics of Genetic Manipulation,” Origins, Vol. 13, no. 23 (Nov. 17, 1983), p. 385. [Back]

8  Cloning Human Beings: Report and Recommendations of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (Rockville, MD: June 1997), pp. 30–31. The Commission here outlined three alternative avenues of stem cell research, two of which seem not to involve creating human embryos at all. [Back]


nov 31/Jul/00