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The world woke up on February 23, 1997, to the fact that the era of cloning had dawned. At the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh, Scotland, embryologist Ian Wilmut produced a live adult lamb from cells originating in a sheep mammary gland. The method was simple, technologically speaking; Wilmut took a mammary cell from an adult sheep and placed its DNA into the egg of another sheep. He removed the egg’s DNA and fused the adult DNA to the egg. The fused cell began to grow and divide, just like a normal fertilized egg. It became an embryo, was planted in the womb of a ewe and, at the time of publication, was already a seven-month-old lamb named Dolly. DNA tests show that Dolly contains only the genes of the adult ewe who provided her DNA.

What are the implications? Although concerns for animal cloning are important, the overriding ethical issue is this: Should we clone human beings? President Bill Clinton’s National Bioethics Advisory Commission has said “no,” by placing a ban on cloning for the purposes of creating human beings. In a press conference, the U.S. president said that replicating ourselves by this method would violate our individual identity and that we should not “play God.” The Church of Scotland agree. Donald Bruce, who directs the church’s Society, Religion and Technology Project—a committee on which Ian Wilmut serves—described human cloning as a “perversity.” To use technology to replicate a human being is against the basic dignity of our uniqueness in God’s sight, Bruce told the press. Cloning would be ethically unacceptable as a matter of principle, because it violates the uniqueness of our lives, which God has given to each of us and to no one else.

The argument raised by the U.S. President and the Church of Scotland fits with the fears of many people, namely, that cloning would compromise human identity and violate human dignity. Widespread is the assumption that who we are is determined by our genetic code, that our DNA is our destiny. With this assumption we can see why some might feel their identity would be compromised when another person shares the same genome. Who we are is influenced by our DNA, to be sure, but how the genes behave is influenced also by environmental factors. These environmental factors include the cytoplasm in the host egg, as well as our nutrition and socialization while growing up. In addition, common sense gained from everyday observation reveals that no matter how much two people share in common they still differ. Who we are as individual persons is determined by three things: our genome, our environmental influences, and the appearance of a subjective self with free will and the ability to engage in self-definition.

The experience of identical twins is informative. For siblings to be identical means they have the same genome. Yet, each twin grows up with his or her own subjectivity and own sense of identity; and he or she can claim his or her own individual rights. The experience of a cloned person would be similar. The clone would be aware that another person shares the same genetic code, and might even find this fascinating, yet he or she would be just as much an individual as any of the rest of us. It would be society’s moral obligation to treat cloned persons as respected individuals. It would be most unfortunate to see the fear that cloned persons have less identity become translated by society into a stigma in which such persons are denied dignity.

Email link | Printer-friendly | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Ted Peters

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