The dramatic announcement in February 1997 that a sheep ("Dolly") had been cloned using a non-embryonic cell set off a choir of condemnation echoing fears of scientists about to go to far. Virtually every politician, religious thinker and scientist who spoke out on the subject --including the scientist himself who had cloned Dolly-- condemned the possibility of cloning humans as unethical and repugnant.
People expressed a host of fears: there would be large groups of look-alike clones, all compromised in their individuality; parents would "replace" deceased children or other relatives; embryonic genetic duplicates of oneself would be created in order to be frozen away in case of need for homologous tissues or organs for transplantation; Frankensteinian hubris would be unleashed as people "played God," creating human life and controlling its destiny.
These are not false fears, but they demand a calm reaction and discussion. In general, there are three main areas that demand our attention. First, should we, as citizens in free democracies, allow or encourage the scientific research that would make the cloning of humans possible. Second, as moral individuals, might we take advantage of such technology if and when it becomes available. Third, post-factum, what is the halakhic status of any cloned individual that might eventually be created.
To address the first question, we must realize that the bulk of the technological advances required for cloning are important for areas far removed from cloning per se. The basics of cell development are now hidden mysteries. We know that all humans start from a single cell that begins to divide forming two, four, and eight identical cells. Then, somewhere along the line, the cells begin to differentiate, forming lung, stomach, and a host of other cells. Despite their common origin, these cells never lose their specificity --stomach cells never grow into eye cells, for example. Some cells --like skin or hair-- are constantly reproducing themselves, but others never regenerate. If we could figure out how to control these cell developments, we could, for example, take some cells from a person and "grow" a needed liver or heart, ending the need for transplants from humans. But the basic science investigations required for this area are those necessary for revealing the secrets of cloning. We cannot abandon the latter without losing the former.
Thus it should be obvious from these and other scientific needs and discussions that whether we like it or not, the basic science in this area will continue to be supported, and before long the technology to clone humans will be a reality. Of course, we can --or, perhaps, should-- express our discomfort as to where this all will lead by outlawing human cloning even when the technology becomes available. But this would be hard to enforce on a world-wide level. The [United States] National Bioethics Advisory Commission ruled that presently cloning a human being is "morally unacceptable," and suggested that cloning experiments aimed at making a person should be banned. But it also said such laws should allow laboratory research using cells of humans and animals. A significant motivation for the ban was that at the present time the safety of any cloned child could not be assumed with any degree of certainty. This, however, will change over time, and it seems inevitable that eventually the scientific possibility of cloning will become a reality in one country or another.
This, of course, does not mean that we must reconcile ourselves to the moral acceptability of human cloning. But any discussion on the ethics of cloning must factor out and identify the issues that are unique to cloning. As anyone who is familiar with the sophisticated new reproductive technologies knows, scientists and doctors are already "playing God" in bringing new lives into being --and most professionals involved are awed and humbled by it.
Fears regarding the dehumanization of the child are not unique to cloning. Healthy parents see their children as individuals who are ends in themselves, not entities created to fulfill another need. Long before the new reproductive technologies, parents had children to "replace," say, a deceased child. They dressed him or her in the dead sibling's clothes, sometimes used the same name or a close variation, planned out similar educational or career plans, and so on. The unhealthy and unethical aspect of this replacement lies not in the fact that the new child is not an exact genetic duplicate; healthy parents of identical twins have long realized that their children are identical in only their genetic codes. It is the application rather than the technology which is morally unacceptable.
Few halakhic authorities have serious moral difficulty with an infertile couple using in-vitro fertilization (IVF) with their own gametes to effect a pregnancy. As a transplanted embryo often does not implant, doctors regularly use drugs to effect superovulation, harvest two or three eggs from the wife, and fertilize all of them with the husband's semen. These artificially-created fraternal twins or triplets are welcome by-products of modern science. Moreover, if the harvesting produces, say, six embryos, there seems to be little objection to freezing them so that future pregnancies can be effected without the additional risks and halakhic problems associated with inducing superovulation and procuring semen. (Halakha allows for the eventual disposal of untransplanted embryos.)
But suppose only one egg can be harvested and the doctor suggests dividing the fertilized egg at the four-cell level so that more than one pre-embryo can be implanted. All of the motivations are identical; the additional technological intervention is introduced only to solve a practical medical problem ---the same way couples turn to IVF when artificial insemination will not overcome their inability to conceive. Is there reason to think that healthy parents would relate to their artificially-created identical twins any differently than would parents who have such children without any medical intervention? There seems to be nothing inherently objectionable to deliberately creating two distinct individuals with identical genetic make-ups.
Within the halakhic community, availability of a technique will not by itself make it permissible. On a practical level, we can apply to the new reproductive technologies the comments on abortion made by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Rosh Yeshivat Har Etzion and one of the Torah giants of our community:
A sensitive posek [halakhic authority] recognizes both the gravity of the personal circumstances and the seriousness of the halakhic factors . . . He might stretch the halakhic limits of leniency where serious domestic tragedy looms, or hold firm to the strict interpretation of the law when, as he reads the situation, the pressure for leniency stems from frivolous attitudes and reflects a debased moral compass (Tradition, 25:4, Summer 1991).Thus, for example, recognizing the pain and strain that childlessness can impose on an infertile couple, many poskim are willing to reluctantly allow donor insemination with gentile sperm if the husband is sterile. Similar approval would hardly necessarilly be forthcoming in the case of, say, a lesbian whose desire to be artificially inseminated stems from a rejection of fundamental halakhic family values. Much more complicated, though, would be the situation of a religiously-committed woman whose "biological clock" is running out but who has not been able to marry despite her desire to do so. It is not the technology itself that is troublesome; it is rather its potential application.
Even those poskim who would allow donor insemination still maintain a most negative attitude toward introducing a third party's gametes into the marriage unit. Here, cloning provides a way of bypassing the necessity of foreign gametes. It is certainly not clear that it is more consistent with halakhic family values to have a child born with the gametes of the mother and a stranger rather than one born with the gametes of the husband exclusively.
Psychologically, cloning a child from the cell of an infertile husband would seem to resemble the situation in which an infertile wife uses a donor egg inseminated with her husband's semen. Her contribution is in carrying the baby; his is in providing his genetic material. The genetic material contributed by the third-party ovum donor is undesirable but technologically indispensable --that is, until now. (Actually, here the wife still contributes the mitochondrial DNA -- that is, the DNA that remains outside the nucleus of her egg into which the husband's DNA has been infused. In natural fertilization, the child derives its mitochondrial DNA exclusively from his or her mother, as the egg inactivates the mitochondrial DNA of the sperm. The exact function of mitochondrial DNA is not yet fully understood.) From a halakhic perspective, this is certainly ethically far removed from the case of, say, a lesbian who wants to clone herself to overcome the necessity of using any male's gametes.
When the technology that allowed for determining the sex of a pre-embryo at the earliest stage of its development, there was fear that it would be exploited for simple sex selection. As the genome project continues, it is obvious that the same technology that allows for screening out embryos with a specific genetic disease could just as easily be used to eliminate those with a specific eye color. However, ethical standards have developed limiting the circumstances under which embyology labs would be willing to carry out such testing. There is every reason to expect a similar serious discussion regarding cloning.
Of course, whether or not one has acted halakhicly in deciding when to use this technology, most probably a child eventually will be born requiring us to decide issues of personal status, some of which we outline here. Definitive halakhic judgments will emerge only after the issues have been debated by the most senior of halakhists, and that will take some time.
The first problem is the human status of the born child. One might argue that if the technology eventually allows for a cloned embryo reaching viability in a completely artificial womb, the resulting child would be some sort of golem (the mythical android of the Maharal of Prague). As a golem lacking human standing, it arguably might be killed at will. (Indeed, one could probably argue that current secular definitions of personhood might yield the same conclusion.) The technical arguments here might be theoretically convincing, but the bottom line is so repugnant that it is hard to imagine any posek (or secular jurist) accepting it on a practical level. Certainly any cloned child born to a human mother would have full human status. No one would maintain that natural identical twins --nature's clones, so to speak-- lack distinct personal identities, and there is little reason to argue that artificially-created cloned identical twins are not distinct persons.
There seems to be little fear of the child having the halakhic status of a mamzer (an illegitimate child which is the result of a prohibited relationship such as adultry or incest), as most poskim hold that mamzerut can result only from actual physical forbidden intercourse. Thus, artificial insemination or IVF can never produce a mamzer, and cloning all the more so.
The most problematic issue is that of who is the parent --a problem halakha shares with the secular courts and legislators. We are served well here by the dominant position that in cases of donated ova the birth mother is the halakhic mother. But the issue of who is the father is much more complicated, especially if no male is involved (as when the child is cloned from the cell of a female).
One might hold that the halakhic conceptualization of the father is he who deposits his seed into the environment for growth provided by the mother. In this scenario, the father is the person from whom the DNA has been taken, whether the person be male or female. While the notion of a "female father" sounds strange, it can be understood as nothing more than a legal expression of our visceral aversion to, say, allowing marriage between the natural siblings or children of the DNA donor and the cloned child.
Of course, there is another entirely opposing possibility: the child has no halakhic father (as, for example, when the genetic father is not Jewish). A minority of poskim hold this to be the case whenever fertilization is effected outside the woman's body (i.e., in vitro fertilization); they certainly would apply it here. In such cases, the kohen or levi status of the child might follow that of his maternal grandfather, a position maintained by the late Rav Shelomo Zalman Auerbach, one of the major halakhic authorities of our generation, in the case of IVF with gentile sperm.
Cloning continues a process that we have already learned to appreciate and not fear: the new reproductive technologies force us to reexamine our intuitive and traditional assumptions regarding humanhood and filial realtionships. The halakhic strength and wisdom of our community should give us the confidence to face any additional challenges that cloning might present.