Cloning: Church Defends Science
by Christopher Dodson,
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
May 2002

The author Walker Percy once described the debate on abortion as a Galileo trial in reverse. He meant, in part, that in the current debate it is the Church which is defending scientific fact against legal or political semantics. Politicians and activists try to use words to avoid the scientifically established fact that human life begins at conception. (Thus, it is incorrect to say that the Catholic Church believes that life begins at conception. Rather, she acknowledges the fact that life begins at conception.)

We are seeing similar word games in the debate over human cloning. While there are a few dissenters, the scientific community is mostly unanimous in its recognition that human cloning creates a human blastocyst or human embryo. The National Academy of Sciences, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, the National Institutes of Health, and standard embryology textbooks all acknowledge this fact. Indeed, if the process of cloning did not create an embryo -- that is, a distinct organism genetically identical to donor organism -- it is a failed process. It may be something, but it is not a clone.

Nevertheless, some politicians are claiming that human cloning does not create a human being. What then, is a human embryo, if not a nascent human being? Any standard text on embryology will demonstrate that embryos are early forms of that particular organism. Therefore, a human embryo is an early form of a human being.

Logic, however, does not always prevail in political discourse and some politicians seem to ignore scientific fact in favor of a rhetoric that fits their personal point of view or motives. Sometimes the motives are well intentioned. Certainly, no one can fault the families, researchers, and civic leaders who want to further research in an attempt to cure or alleviate some of our most tragic diseases and conditions. We all have that hope. Sometimes, however, that cause becomes detached from either scientific fact or firm moral grounding. Detachment from either can bring about unintended or even disastrous consequences.

Which brings us to Senator Dorgan’s bill on human cloning. The bill has not received much attention in North Dakota, but it could as the debate on human cloning moves on. The senator states that he wants to find a common ground between those that want no cloning at all and those that want to allow cloning for research. The common ground in his mind is prohibiting the “cloning of a human being.” By this, he means prohibiting cloning for reproduction. The main problem with this bill, however, is that it is misleading or, at worse, dishonest. Merely prohibiting the intentional birth of a clone -- which is about all the bill does -- does not prevent the creation of cloned human beings. Cloned human embryos
are cloned human beings. Moreover, the bill only prohibits the implantation of a cloned embryo in a human with the intention of giving a live birth. Therefore, it does not prohibit implantation of a cloned embryo into an artificial womb -- something that is already being developed -- or implantation of a cloned embryo into a woman for another purpose, such as harvesting organs or tissue following an abortion.

It takes some twisting of words to avoid the facts. Eventually, that twisting will manifest itself in unintended consequences, bad law, or blatant contradictions.