Theological Reflections on Cloning:  Personhood and Reproduction

(Some may not agree with all of  Dr. Alexander Lozano’s conclusions, but his analysis of the issue of ensoulment and cloning is certainly an intriguing one, with the distinctions he raises making us think more deeply about the beautiful and mysterious creation of each, unique human being, as an interplay between God, man and woman, in what we call ‘procreation’. We should keep in mind that regardless of how and when the soul is infused, and the body becomes ‘human’, the entire creative process is sacred, including the conjugal act, which is why both contraception and abortion are always intrinsic evils.  And God may well provide a line in the sand, beyond which we will not be permitted to go. Respect and cherish life, now and forever!)


There exists an adage which states that growth in technology often outpaces growth in ethics.  Perhaps nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the Vatican statement released on February 20, 1997:  “The moment of fertilization marks the constitution of a new organism equipped with an intrinsic capacity to develop itself autonomously into an individual adult.”[1]   Four days later the world was stunned with the report that true cloning had been successfully carried out for the first time in a mammal.[2]   Suddenly the Vatican, together with theologians and ethicists throughout the world, was faced with the possibility of having to discuss the beginnings of human life where the rubric of “fertilization” is no longer applicable.

Researchers from Scotland reported that they had successfully cloned a sheep from an adult sheep somatic cell.  The resulting cloned sheep, named Dolly, was now fully grown and genetically identical to the adult sheep from which the donor cell had been harvested.[3]

The degree of initial public response, as reflected in the media, was astonishing.  This may have been due in part to the unexpected nature of the announcement.  In articles as recent as 1994[4] and 1996[5] it was reported that true “body-cell cloning” was not possible.

In spite of the fact that the world may have been caught so off-guard to its announcement, cloning has been the subject of scholarly writing and discussion for some time.

In a remarkable example of prescience, the Nobel Laureate Joshua Lederberg wrote an essay on cloning in 1966 that described exactly the same technique recently reported from Scotland.[6]   From the perspective of this paper the great value of Lederberg’s article was that it prompted commentary and debate from among the theological community.

Two Protestant theologians, Paul Ramsey and Joseph Fletcher, were particularly vocal in their response to the idea of “fabricated man.”[7]   Both Fletcher and Ramsey commented primarily on the issues of human agency and freedom, the relationship of man to nature, and the proper role of parenthood.  In the end, however, they disagreed on whether cloning was morally permissible based primarily on the issue of embodiment and personhood.  Fletcher argued that the person is something different from the body.  In his view, the body did not count for much—it was an object to be mastered and manipulated for the sake of personal choices.[8]   His approach was also utilitarian, arguing that cloning was moral if it represented the “greatest good for the greatest number” or “maximized happiness.”[9]   In fact, Fletcher was so supportive of cloning that he favored the “biodesigning of parahumans or modified men—as chimeras (part animal) or cyborg-androids (part prosthesis).”[10]   Needless to say, such views, particularly from a theologian, injected a degree of science-fiction hysteria into the cloning debate that persists until the present day.[11]

Ramsey, on the other hand, rejected the notion of a body-person dualism.  He held to the hylomorphic theory of Aquinas and insisted that the person is “an embodied soul or an ensouled body.”  In regarding the sexual person “as the body of his soul as well as the soul of his body,” he refused to reduce procreation to a technical accomplishment.  He further rejected technologies that both expressed a dualistic account of our relation with our bodies, and that diminished or distorted what it means to be a parent.  Ramsey worried that technological reproduction—and especially cloning—would tempt us to view a child as a human achievement rather than as a gift of God.[12]   Ultimately, for these reasons among others, he rejected cloning as morally impermissible.

In 1971, Leon R. Kass—again, well ahead of his time—describes the same cloning technique and goes on to present a detailed ethical analysis on cloning.[13]   In drawing from the writings of Ramsey, he expresses his concerns primarily in the areas of personal identity and individuality.  The cloned person may experience serious concerns about his identity (distinctiveness) because he is an identical duplicate of another human being.  Kass argues that each person has a right not to be deliberately denied a unique genotype.  He sees this as being central to the idea of the dignity and worth of each human being—an idea rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition of each person’s relationship to the Creator.[14]   He goes on further to discuss cloning from the perspective of artificial reproductive techniques and in vitro fertilization—a technology in its infancy at the time.  In this regard, his concerns range from the experimentation and discarding of embryos to the potential assault on the sanctity of marriage—an institution in which the pleasure of sex, the communication of love, and the desire for children find their ultimate fulfillment.[15]   Like Ramsey, he ultimately expresses grave concerns regarding the moral permissibility of cloning.

Richard A. McCormick is the contemporary theologian who has perhaps expressed the most thought on cloning.  His concerns revolve around three central issues:  life, wholeness, and individuality.  The issue of life concerns him primarily in terms of the personhood of the pre-embryo.  Is the pre-embryo a person?  And, how much respect or protection needs to be afforded these entities at the beginning of human life.  By wholeness McCormick refers to societal policies towards what is and is not acceptable or desirable now that genetic manipulation allows us to breed superior genotypes.  His concerns regarding individuality center on whether a clone might lack the uniqueness or individuality that we deem essential to human worth and dignity.  Further, how might this affect our wonder at human diversity and individuality?[16]

The thoughts expressed by these theologians, in one way or another, all reflect concerns about how cloning will affect our views of individuality and personhood.

In addition, cloning is essentially an artificial reproductive technique.  With the promulgation of Donum Vitae in 1987, the Magisterium explicitly set forth what was and what was not “licit” within the Church with regard to reproduction.  Any reflection within the Catholic tradition on a new reproductive technology must be carried out in light of that document.

The purpose of this paper will not be to examine the innate morality of cloning itself, but rather to reflect on these two issues—personhood and reproduction—and how, in relation to cloning, they might challenge widely held views in theology.



Mammalian reproduction occurs by a process known as fertilization.[17]   It is an intricate and complex biochemical process that consists essentially of the joining together of one-half of the genetic information from the male with one-half of the genetic information from the female, giving rise to a new individual with a unique and complete genetic complement known as its genotype.

The genotype of an individual is its genetic identity, composed of genes which in turn are grouped together to form chromosomes.  Chromosomes generally exist in pairs within the nucleus of a cell.  Mammals possess two types of cells: somatic cells and germ cells (also known as gametes).  The germ cells have a reproductive function and are unique in that their nucleus is haploid, meaning that it contains only one of each of the chromosome pairs, thus having only one-half of the total genome.  Other than the germ cells, all the other cells in the body are somatic cells.  These cells are diploid, meaning that they contain the full genome within their nucleus, stored in chromosome pairs.

During the act of sexual intercourse the male germ cell, known as the sperm, enters the female reproductive tract.  The sperm carries the male’s genetic information within its haploid nucleus.  Over the next several hours a biochemical process known as capacitation occurs.  As a result of capacitation, the sperm acquires the ability to penetrate and pass through the female egg coverings.  Subsequently, some 24 hours after intercourse, the sperm penetrates the egg’s haploid nucleus. There, the two haploid nuclei (one from the sperm and one from the egg), in a process known as syngamy, fuse into a diploid nucleus within the now fertilized egg, or zygote.  The result is a pre-embryo[18] that is a unique entity, the product of both the male and female parents.

Prior to fertilization neither the sperm nor the egg possesses the potential to develop further into an embryo.  That potential comes only after the process of fertilization is complete.  This involves not only the bringing together of each half of the genome, but also some less clearly understood processes which occur within the cytoplasm of the fertilized egg.  These processes seemingly involve messenger RNA molecules, which trigger the biochemical mechanisms that result in the subsequent growth and development of the embryo.

About 30 hours after the process of fertilization is complete, the zygote begins a series of cell divisions: a division first into two cells, followed by a division into four cells, and then eight, and so forth.  At the 12 to 16 cell stage the organism is known as the morula, and by the sixth or seventh day the blastocyst stage is attained and uterine implantation begins.  Soon thereafter, true cell differentiation occurs and development into the embryo proper ensues.

It is relevant to note that at any stage prior to the completion of implantation the pre-embryo is capable of dividing into multiple entities.  This ability of an individual cell or a group of cells to develop independently is known as totipotency.  Twinning would be the most common example of this phenomenon.  At or shortly after implantation has occurred, the pre-embryo loses this totipotency through a process known as restriction.

Artificial reproductive techniques, such as in vitro fertilization or artificial insemination, still adhere to these biologic mechanisms.  In artificial insemination the sperm is artificially introduced into the female; in in vitro fertilization the sperm penetrates the egg within the confines of a laboratory dish as opposed to a living body, but the biological process of fertilization and subsequent growth and development of the embryo remain essentially the same.  Most significantly, the resulting embryo is still the product of the joining together of the genetic information from both the male and female biological parents.

Cloning is qualitatively different from sexual reproduction as it occurs naturally, and, in the strictest sense, as well as when it occurs artificially, in that the offspring’s genome is identical with, and derived from, only one donor parent.

There are several types of biological cloning that have been described in recent articles.[19]   However, to some degree, it is a question of semantics as to what constitutes true cloning.[20]  Scientists and society have never regarded twins as “clones.”  Consequently, the use of the word to describe procedures that give rise to identical twins is controversial.[21]

The process of true cloning, which has now been successfully achieved in mammals, involves a technique known as nuclear transfer.

There are two different cell types involved in nuclear transfer: an egg and a donor cell.  In the experiments carried out at the Roslin Institute the donor cells were obtained from two sources: sheep embryos and adult sheep mammary tissue.  In both cases the individual cells were harvested and then cultured and grown in vitro.  Using micro-manipulation techniques, an unfertilized egg is prepared by removing its nucleus.  The nucleus is then removed from a donor cell and fused into the egg using an electrical current.  The egg now contains a nucleus with the intact genome of the donor animal.  The electrical current apparently also triggers the egg to begin development.  The resulting pre-embryo is then transferred to the uterus of a recipient sheep and from this point on grows and develops as any other normal pregnancy.  At birth, the newborn sheep is genetically identical to the donor animal.[22]   The key difference in this type of reproduction is, of course, that the entire genetic identity comes from one parent as opposed to sexual reproduction in which it comes from both parents.

In the case reported in February 1997 from the Roslin Institute, the cloned sheep was the result of using somatic cells, specifically mammary tissue cells, from an adult sheep.[23]   This represents the first time that any mammal has been derived from adult cells.  Although the nuclear transfer process is technically simple, it is as yet far from perfect in that it took 277 eggs with transplanted nuclei to produce one live lamb.  Prior to the one successful result, several lambs were produced with varying degrees of deformities.[24]

To date, there have been no known reports of attempts to clone a human being using this technique of somatic cell nuclear transfer.  Several western European countries, including the United Kingdom, have existing laws that ban attempts to clone human beings.  Further, in the United States, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission has recommended that attempts to produce human beings by cloning be banned for a period of five years.[25]   Under the commission’s proposal, scientists would be barred from implanting a cloned embryo into a woman’s uterus.  Such a ban, however, would not prevent privately funded scientists from cloning human embryos solely for research and not implanted.  Current federal rules prohibit federally funded scientists from conducting any experiments using embryos.[26]


It is necessary, in order to reflect in a meaningful fashion on the personhood of a human clone, to review some historical perspectives on what it means to be a person.

Oceans of ink have been spent discussing the concept of personhood.  Anyone who proposes to study this subject faces the problem of its inherent complexity—especially when historical considerations are taken into account.  The subject has been extensively studied from various perspectives including biological, philosophical, and theological, among others.  As in most investigative endeavors, the best answers usually come from a holistic approach that integrates the available information from among the various disciplines of study.  It is precisely that type of approach that has blossomed into the now expansive field of theological anthropology.

There exists within the Catholic tradition a long history of thought relating to personhood as it applies to embryonic and fetal life.  Much of this work was developed in the past and continues to evolve in the present in response to the issues of abortion and reproduction.  Being biologic issues, the discussion has centered about the question of when truly human life begins in relation to conception.  The concept of personhood in relation to the biologic process of cloning, especially as it relates to Catholic social and sexual thought, is most appropriately considered from within that same perspective.

A tenet of traditional Catholic teaching has been that it is the presence of the soul that confers human status.[27]   The origins of this view can be traced to the theory of Creationism, which held that the soul was created at some moment ex nihilo and then infused by God into the developing embryo.[28]

Pythagorean philosophy, which strongly influenced Plato, held the view that the soul was infused at the time of conception.  The Stoics, on the other hand, held that the soul was infused at the time of birth.[29]   Thus, within the context of the soul being the animating force of the body, there existed from very early on the concept of immediate animation versus delayed animation.  This terminology can be misleading in that it could be implied that those who hold to a theory of delayed animation would doubt the early embryo to be alive.  This is not the case.  It is universally accepted that the early embryo is a living thing.  For this reason, some authors have suggested the term early hominization and delayed hominization be used to more accurately relate to the presence of a human person.[30]   Within the context of this paper, both animation and hominization shall be used interchangeably; they shall both be taken to refer to the presence of human personhood.

Plato (ca. 428-347 BC), as one trained in mathematics, dealt with abstract realities and timeless truths.  He regarded the human person as essentially a soul that happens to be temporarily conjoined to a human body.  This union serves to handicap the person in the pursuit of genuine knowledge in that bodily passions and impressions continually incline us to mistake temporary phenomena for eternal reality.  Nothing worth knowing, in Plato’s view, is knowable through the bodily senses, for these have access only to the temporal order; knowledge of that which endures can only be attained by that which is itself capable of enduring—the incorruptible soul.  Such knowledge is attained through immediate (non-mediated) recollection of, or direct acquaintance with, eternal reality.  It was St. Augustine, some 700 years later, who is credited with having Christianized this Platonic view, substituting divine inspiration for Plato’s notion of recollection.

Aristotle (384-322 BC), by contrast, with his background in biology and medicine, was led to very different conclusions on these matters.  He accepted that there were eternal realities, but also temporal realities.  He accepted that the eternal transcended the temporal; they were, in some sense, higher order realities; but he did not accept that only the eternal was genuinely real.  For Aristotle, the individual person is not essentially a soul, but a union of body and soul.  From this Platonist and Aristotelian philosophy there emerges a distinct duality that continues until today to shape the discussion of the body-soul relationship.

Traditional Jewish thought on the beginnings of personhood was also creationist.  Ancient Hebrews held that intra-uterine life did not become fully human until the “breath of life” was infused at birth.   As stated in Genesis, “The Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7).   The human person was seen as a product of the relationship between the “clay of the earth” and the “breath of life”.

Thus, “clay of the ground” referred to the material body, while “breath of life” corresponded to the spiritual soul.  The biblical image was interpreted to indicate a hierarchical relation between the two: it is the soul that animates the material body.  Only the fetus that had come out “into the air of the world” could be considered a person with a soul.   This view of the personhood of the embryo-fetus is further demonstrated in Exodus: “When men have a fight and hurt a pregnant woman, so that she suffers a miscarriage, but no further injury (to her), the guilty one shall be fined as much as the woman’s husband demands of him, and he shall pay in the presence of the judges.  But if injury ensues (to her), you shall give life for life” (Exod. 21:22-23).  This text later underwent some refinement at the hands of the Hellenistic Jewish translators of the Septuagint.  They introduced a distinction between the formed and the unformed fetus in the womb and condemned as a murderer the man responsible for even an accidental abortion of a formed fetus:  “If … her child comes forth while it is not yet formed, then the penalty shall be a money payment…; but if it was formed, then thou shalt give a life for a life.”

Drawing from this scriptural tradition, the earliest Christian communities held to the view of personhood being constituted by two separate realities.  Within the framework of the classically derived philosophy of the time, these were extrapolated to the notion of body and soul.   True to its roots in Greek thought, this concept furthered the notion of a body-soul dualism.  Origen (ca. 185-254 AD) fostered this dualism when he speculated that Adam was originally created as a disembodied soul who was subsequently, because of his disobedience, punished by a “fall” into a body.

It was Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 335-395 AD) who, up to his time, offered the fullest consideration of personhood in defining the relationship between body and soul.  He argued that man’s being is one, consisting of body and soul.  As such, the beginning of his existence must be one as well.  Thus, body and soul are created at the same moment on the occasion of generation.  In contrast to the position of some Platonists and Origenists that souls were pre-existent, Gregory held that the soul is created along with the body and grows together with the body from the moment of its conception.   It is curious that the Greek Fathers, in spite of their philosophical heritage, generally embraced the notion that the human soul was present from the moment of conception.   Of major significance is that this view of the body-soul relationship moves away from the distinct duality of the past and engenders a more holistic notion of personhood.

The Latin Fathers, in contrast, continued on a line of reasoning that viewed ensoulment as a creative intervention of God in response to the conception caused by the parents.  In effect, the product of conception became a person only after it was animated by God’s creation and subsequent infusion of the soul.  Animation did not coincide with conception; it occurred when the embryo was ready for it.   This theory of delayed animation was espoused by Augustine (354-430) and remained the norm through the time of Anselm (1033-1109), who wrote that it is inadmissible that the infant should receive a rational soul from the moment of conception.  This would imply that every time an embryo perishes soon after conception, a human soul would be damned forever, since it cannot be reconciled with Christ.

Gratian, in his canonical collection, the Decretum (ca. 1140), continued in the tradition of dualism and asserted that the soul is not infused until the fetus is formed.  This set the precedent in canon law that eventually persisted until 1869.

St. Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225-1274), with his Aristotelian leanings, embarked on a body-soul theory that was considerably more complex than those previously developed.  For both Aristotle and Aquinas, the essence of all substances in the natural world was that they existed in a form-matter composite.  This is what became known as the hylomorphic (literally: “matter-form”) theory of substances.  The union of matter and form is not a contingent union, and no material can exist without some form.  This means that the essence of a human person can no longer be thought of as an immaterial soul in temporary union with a material body.  The essence of a person has to be thought of as an embodied soul.  The embodiment of a soul is natural, that is, the soul is by nature embodied, and without this the human person would not have an individual soul.  This means that there would not exist an individual human person.  Therefore, the dualistic conception of the body-soul union was firmly rejected by Aquinas.

The major weakness encountered in Aquinas’ view of the personhood of the embryo-fetus is a result of the limitations of science during that time period.  Other than the knowledge of the existence of the male semen, there was little else known about the biology of reproduction; there was no knowledge of the existence of the female egg.  His theory held that in the female “matter” there exists a “nutritive soul,” while the male semen was the carrier of the “sensitive soul.”  At coition the female matter “is transmuted by the power which is in the semen of the male” and “is actually informed by the sensitive soul.”  Later, at “quickening,” the “rational soul” was created and infused.

While weak in science, the philosophy of Aquinas is sound and his theory has been instrumental in moving away from the dualism that had its origin in Platonic thought.

The hylomorphic theory, while not directly endorsed, did receive the support of the Church at the Council of Vienne (1311-1312).  The Council, while mediating a dispute within the Franciscan community, had occasion to address the question of the soul and its relation to human personhood.  The statement of the Council “did not intend to explain the way in which the body and soul are united; it wished only to reaffirm that they were united.”   Every theory that maintains the substantial unity of the human composite is compatible with the statement of the Council. While the Council may not have defined the hylomorphic theory of human nature, it certainly endorsed it.  In doing so, the theory has been for many centuries, until quite recently, the most widely accepted theory of human nature among Catholic philosophers and theologians.  In spite of its worth in supporting a unified view of human nature, one of its implications has been the persistence of an ongoing theory of delayed hominization.

Several editions of the Catechism of the Council of Trent, first published in 1566, clearly teach delayed hominization in connection with the mystery of the Incarnation:

But something that goes beyond the order of nature and beyond human intelligence is the fact that, as soon as the Blessed Virgin gave her consent to the Angel’s words … at once the most holy body of Christ was formed and a rational soul was joined to it ….  Nobody can doubt that this was something new and an admirable work of the Holy Spirit, since, in the natural order, no body can be informed by a human soul except after the prescribed space of time.

In 1588 Pope Sixtus V, in his Bull Effraenatam, threatened excommunication to any who brought about “an abortion, or the expulsion of an immature fetus, whether animated or not animated, whether formed or not formed.”   The crime of abortion was thus considered grave in spite of a continuing differentiation between an embryo that is formed (animated) as opposed to unformed (not animated).

Pope Gregory XIV felt that the eternal damnation of those unwilling to petition for absolution was too severe a penalty.  In his Bull Sedes apostolica (1591), he stated that “where no homicide or no animated fetus is involved, (one is) not to punish more strictly than the sacred canons or civil legislation does.”

Prominent theologians who have continued to favor the theory of delayed hominization have included St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787).  One of the Church’s leading moral theologians, he warned that “not every lump of flesh should be baptized which lacks every arrangement of organs, since it is universally accepted that the soul is not infused into the body before the latter is formed; in which case it can only be baptized if it shows some kind of vital movement, as prescribed by the Roman Ritual.”   He further stated, “On the other hand, some are mistaken who say that the fetus is ensouled from the first moment of its conception, since the fetus is certainly not animated before it is formed ….”

In spite of the apparently strong support for Aquinas’ hylomorphic theory and, by implication, the concept of delayed hominization, there were several factors that brought about increasing support for a theory of early animation (hominization).

One of the factors at play was faulty and imprecise science that led to erroneous conclusions.  During the seventeenth century, optics and microscopes were quite rudimentary.  The developing structures of an early embryo were often interpreted as being fully formed but very small.  As a consequence, there developed the commonly accepted theory of preformation.  According to this theory, the whole human being was contained as a homunculus within the egg or sperm.  An embryo did not develop so much as it grew.  If there existed a well developed body from so early on, it was only reasonable to assume that it was also animated by a soul from very early on.

A second factor involved in the move toward the theory of early animation was the influence of Cartesian philosophy.  For Descartes (1596-1650), the soul is a complete substance in itself, as is the body.  The soul is a thinking substance, the body an extended one.  Within such a philosophical framework, immediate animation is quite acceptable.  A human soul may be joined to a partially formed human body.  Matter does not have to be highly organized before it is united to a thinking substance.  While this theory has had its supporters, it seriously endangers the unity of the human person and leads to great philosophical difficulties.  In this system of thought the soul is seen as actively shaping and organizing the body.

Under these influences there occurred a steady move toward the acceptance of the theory of immediate animation.  This acceptance reached its zenith within official Catholic teaching in 1869 when the distinction between the unensouled and the ensouled embryo-fetus was removed from canon law.  The Catholic Church seemed to state definitively that the soul is infused at the earliest possible time—at fertilization.  Since that time the Magisterium has been consistent in its view that a human person exists from the moment of conception.

An embryo or fetus that is the product of cloning has a radically different origin than one who is the product of normal sexual reproduction.  How will this affect our views regarding the personhood of such an entity?  This is the question to be considered in the next section.


The concept of personhood as has generally been applied to human life in its beginnings traditionally revolves around arguments related to the dualism of the body and soul as being constitutive; the belief being that an embryo becomes a person when it is ensouled.  There are significant difficulties with this approach.  One problem is that this approach tries to relate an empirically non-verifiable event (ensoulment) with a biologically verifiable event (fertilization or implantation).  As such, there can never be an ultimately knowable answer to the question of when ensoulment occurs and, by extension, when a person exists.  Another problem is philosophical and deals with the acceptability of such dualistic theories of personhood as opposed to more hylomorphic views.

As previously noted, in 1869 the distinction between the unensouled and the ensouled embryo was removed from canon law; the implication from the Magisterium being the strongly hylomorphic view that the body and soul do not exist apart from each other.  Since that time the Church has been consistent in its teaching on this subject.

The contemporary Church, primarily as a response to the issues of abortion and artificial reproductive techniques, has, in recent times, promulgated numerous official teachings regarding the personhood of the pre-embryo.  Vatican II stated: “From the moment of its conception life must be guarded with the greatest care.”

The American bishops reiterated this position in the regulations for Catholic healthcare facilities and added: “An abortion, … in its moral context, includes the interval between conception and implantation of the embryo.”   Again, dealing with abortion, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in its Declaration on Procured Abortion (1974) states:

“It has been demonstrated that, from the first instant, there is established the program of what this living being will be: a man, this individual man with his characteristic aspects already well determined.  Right from fertilization is begun the adventure of a human life” (italics added).

In taking up the issue of artificial reproductive techniques, that view was further promulgated, again by the CDF in 1987, in its Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation (Donum Vitae):

“The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore, from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized…”  (italics in original).

Pope John Paul II in his encyclical The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae), promulgated in 1995, quotes extensively from the previous statements of the CDF and remains consistent in support of immediate animation:

“… the Church has always taught and continues to teach that the result of human procreation, from the first moment of its existence, must be guaranteed that unconditional respect which is morally due to the human being in his or her totality and unity as body and spirit”.

In one of the most recent statements on this subject, the Vatican has identified fertilization as the “scientifically and morally logical place to draw the line between what is and is not human life.”   In its report, released on February 20, 1997 after its plenary assembly, the Pontifical Academy for Life states:

“From a biological standpoint, the formation and the development of the human embryo appears as a continuous, coordinated and gradual process from the time of fertilization, at which time a new human organism is constituted, endowed with the intrinsic capacity to develop by himself into a human adult”.

In spite of the consistency of the Magisterium on this matter, many theologians today have shied away from theories of immediate animation.  Several factors arising from advances in science and a better understanding of embryology have led them and other researchers to again re-visit theories of a more delayed hominization.   Among these factors are the fact that fertilization is a process rather than a single event; the question of embryo wastage during the earliest stages of development; the fact that the “singleness” of the pre-embryo is not established until well after fertilization and how this relates to individuation; and finally, there is the ongoing question of when ensoulment occurs.

As a consequence of these, as well as other reasons, Richard McCormick describes the embryo during the first two weeks as “nascent human life” but does not consider it an “individual human life” until later.   Charles Curran is in general agreement with this view, stating that “truly human life” comes into being two or three weeks after fertilization.   Karl Rahner states that the existence of a human subject during the first few weeks is “seriously doubtful.”   James Diamond summarizes the biological facts cited by these theologians in a comprehensive review.  Diamond claims that in light of the biological evidence, “hominization” cannot possibly be said to occur before 14 to 22 days after conception.  According to Diamond, the change in life form that takes place between 14 and 22 days is a radical and categorical one.

Before examining how cloning will affect these views, a review of current theological opinion on the beginnings of personhood as influenced by the science of modern embryology is in order.

Advances in the science of embryology have now revealed that fertilization is not a moment, but rather a twenty-four to thirty-six hour process.   In biological terms this timeframe begins with the penetration of the outer layer of the egg by the sperm and concludes with the formation of the diploid set of chromosomes.  It has been well documented that during this time and up until implantation occurs there can be a natural loss rate, known as embryo wastage, upwards of 60%.

Rahner cites the high percentage of embryo loss as a basis for raising questions:

“Will today’s moral theologian be able to accept that half of all ‘human beings’—real human beings with ‘immortal’ souls and an eternal destiny—will never get beyond this first stage of human existence?”  

Egbert Schroten states that, “God certainly has a caring relationship with his creation, and especially with human-kind.  And, it is logically possible that God has a special relationship with each human pre-embryo in particular.  But then we would be facing the absurd situation that in reality God allows more than 50% of these beloved pre-embryos to perish.”   He goes on, however, to offer a caveat.  His position is that providence does not exclude contingency, and that God does not normally act immediately, but rather mediately via nature.

Another finding of modern embryology that has inclined some theologians towards theories of delayed hominization has to do with the singleness of the pre-embryo and individuation.

The fertilized egg, as well as the cells of the pre-embryo until the time that implantation has occurred, possess the property of totipotency.  As a result of this totipotency, a single entity can split into two individuals giving rise to identical twins.

Furthermore, recombination is also possible whereby two entities can fuse and ultimately give rise to a single person.   Norman M. Ford, in subjecting Church teaching to scientific and philosophical scrutiny, advances his thesis of “the concept of a living ontological individual” in discussing personhood.   If one accepts the metaphysical notion of the soul as an indestructible, indivisible entity,  and if a single pre-embryo possesses a soul, then what happens if that pre-embryo splits into two entities—or if two pre-embryos recombine into one?  Since souls cannot be split or fuse, then as long as the cells remain in their totipotent state and twinning or recombination is possible, ensoulment cannot take place.

It is particularly these arguments in reference to individuation that have been the most compelling in the argument against immediate animation.  Bernard Häring has proposed a special sort of status for the pre-embryo:

“Between the fertilization … and implantation and final individualization of the embryo there is a gray area.  To disturb or to interrupt the life process during this phase is, in my eyes, not an indifferent matter.  But it seems to me that it does not have the same gravity or malice as the abortion of an individualized embryo, that is, of the embryo after successful implantation or specifically at a time when twinning is no longer possible”.

Thomas Shannon and Allan Wolter also stress the importance of irreversible individuation as a precondition of personal human life:

“An individual is not an individual, and therefore not a person until the process of restriction is complete, and determination of particular cells has occurred.  Then, and only then, is it clear that another individual cannot come from the cells of this embryo”.

In a clear and orderly article, McCormick states,

“… the moral status—and specifically the controversial issue of personhood—is related to the attainment of developmental individuality (being the source of one individual).  This contrasts with the view that holds that personhood occurs earlier, at the point of genetic uniqueness”.

Although it lies beyond the scope and purpose of this paper, it must be mentioned for completeness’ sake that some authors believe that even more is required for personhood than the individuality established at implantation.  These arguments generally involve the concept that true individuality requires the psychological integration and potential for rationality which comes only with later neurological development.

How will cloning fit within these frameworks of thought?  Will cloning change Catholic teaching and thought regarding personhood?  And if so, how?

In deference to Church teaching that “a person exists” from “the moment of conception” one could understand “moment” metaphorically as referring to the process as a whole.  However, these statements of the Church are ambiguous at best if not meaningless when applied to cloning.  The Magisterium posits that once fertilization has taken place there is a new and unique genotype present which is constitutive of a new human person. It is precisely this formation of a new and unique genotype that the Church has traditionally identified as the marker indicating the creation of a new human person.   In cloning, unlike fertilization, there is no new and unique genotype to announce the presence of a new human person.  After the process of nuclear transfer has taken place the genotype of the new individual is identical in every way to that of the parent donor cell.  It is, in fact, the very same nucleus (with its chromosomal contents) of the parent donor that has been transferred to an enucleated egg.  In spite of this genetic sameness, no one can doubt that as the clone grows and develops it will be a new and unique individual person.   This uniqueness will be the result of the different social forces affecting the individual as it grows, develops, and matures.  Everyone accepts that even genetically identical twins are each a separate and unique person.  In the same way, a clone will be a genetically identical “twin” of the donor parent, but it will be a different person.  The only apparent relationship of the clone to the donor parent will be an identical physical appearance.  In short then, it would seem reasonable to assume that, when viewed in relation to the potential cloning of a human, the presence of a new and unique genotype does not necessarily imply either personhood nor individuation.

It becomes apparent that if and when a human being is cloned, current Church teaching regarding the beginnings of personhood would not be applicable.  How then will we relate the personhood of a clone to current Church teaching regarding fertilization and personhood?  The most obvious approach would be to discard the thesis that a truly human person exists at fertilization.  The corollary would be that it is not necessarily the creation of a new genotype at fertilization that designates a new individual person.  A later stage of development such as implantation, which is the time favored by many researchers and theologians, would serve as a more scientifically acceptable marker to designate the beginning of a new individual.  Several events occur at implantation which make this so.  Foremost among these is that the property of totipotency is lost and the individual embryo will no longer be able to split into twins.  As such, for the first time the embryo truly exists as an individual entity.  Also, it is at implantation that cell differentiation has advanced to the stage where the cells that will continue to develop into the embryo proper are distinct from those that will develop into the placenta and fetal membranes.  Modern embryological findings such as these are a major impetus towards the view that an individual human person can only exist at or after implantation has occurred.

The subsequent development of a clone, after the process of nuclear transfer has taken place, is the same as in a sexually created pre-embryo.  Specifically, the cleavage of the egg, the ensuing cell divisions and subsequent implantation of the embryonic clone would occur as they do in a “normal” pre-embryo.  For this reason, the use of implantation as the point in time where an individual human person first exists would be applicable to both cloned and sexually created embryos.

Should the Magisterium and other supporters of immediate animation continue to hold the position that a person exists from the moment of conception, there would then exist the untenable position that there are two types of persons: one that would exist from the moment of conception, and another (the clone) that would exist from a time yet to be defined, at least in terms of a magisterial directive.  In such a situation the uncertainty regarding the personhood of a clone would have significant moral implications related to such actions as the abortion of a clone, clone embryo research, and other such clone manipulations.  In view of the rapid advances in technology, this scenario could conceivably occur if and when a human is cloned.  If for no other reason, this alone may serve as an impetus to refocus our concepts of personhood at the beginnings of human life.

One possible response from the Magisterium, in the event that human cloning occurs, would be for it to propose that the process of nuclear transfer in creating a clone would be comparable to the process of fertilization in sexual reproduction.  Both, it would seem, designate the time at which the egg begins its further development.  The most obvious weakness in this argument is that, as noted earlier, the Magisterium has traditionally used the formation of a new and unique genotype as the basis for identifying fertilization as the beginning of personhood.  This formation of a new and unique genotype is not applicable to a clone.

Another approach, which would appear more promising in supporting such a position from the Church, would be the philosophical concept of potentiality.  Implicit with the argument of the formation of a new genotype, the contemporary Magisterium has identified fertilization as the beginning of personhood because that is the time where the potential human person begins its existence.   Indeed, prior to the advance of genetics as a science, this teleological argument was the dominant rationale for the hylomorphic view of personhood.  The “Potentiality Principle” asserts that any entity which is potentially a person, meaning any entity which is potentially rational and potentially self-conscious, has, in virtue of its potential, a strong right to life.  Since life as a person is something of great value, potential persons have a strong interest in realizing their potential and, in consequence, a strong right to realize it.   Formulated succinctly, it means that potential personhood confers a strong right to life.  Potentiality has taken on prominence in philosophical circles not only in the controversy over abortion, but also in debates concerning in vitro fertilization, embryo experimentation, and in the medical uses of embryo extracts.

The Church finds itself with strong allies among supporters of potentiality.  Most advocates of potentiality insist that human zygotes are potential persons.   Those advocates will no doubt take the same view of pre-embryos produced by nuclear transfer in the cloning process.   An obvious weakness in using this argument to support early animation is that it is primarily philosophical in nature.  Little consideration is taken of the scientific facts which, most would argue, support delayed hominization.  However, Michael Wreen and David Annis have proposed the concept of active potentiality which, in a subtle fashion, accommodates the biological processes involved.  Specifically, in response to fertilization or nuclear transfer, the egg acquires the propensity to develop into a person.  Prior to the special biological processes of fertilization or nuclear transfer the egg possesses merely a passive potential to develop further.   In a recent paper, Mark Johnson also emphasizes the biological aspects of potentiality within the zygote:  “Immediately upon conception, since the zygote begins the cell division necessary to produce differentiated parts that will, in turn, form the structures necessary for its further development, the zygote is operating in a most measured, economical way.   Ford is also willing to recognize “a special moral significance” in “whatever has human life.”   He also distinguishes degrees of potentiality, since, while gametes as well as embryos have a certain “potential” to become “persons,” that potency is clearly more remote in the former.

However, philosophy is not always on the side of the Magisterium on this issue.  Some theories of personhood are philosophical correlates to the biological phenomenon of totipotency.  An example would be John Duns Scotus’ (ca. 1266-1308) theory of individuality, or haecceitas as he calls it.

According to this theory, while human nature may be divided up into individuals each of whom shares equally in human nature, an individual human cannot be so divided.  A part of an individual human being is not another human being; it is only a part of an individual human being.  Thus, for Scotus, the key philosophical issue of individuality is indivisibility.  Shannon, a strong proponent of the restriction of biological totipotency as a marker of individuation, asserts that Scotus’ theory of haecceitas likewise supports, from a philosophical perspective, a later stage than fertilization as more legitimately representing individuation.

The uncertainty regarding the philosophical nature of early human development is acknowledged by Church teaching.  The CDF had no intention of definitively settling this question when it stated, “This declaration expressly leaves aside the question of the moment when the spiritual soul is infused.  There is not a unanimous tradition on this point and authors are as yet in disagreement.”   The Church seemingly welcomes continuing philosophical discussion as to the moment of ensoulment, and hence the beginning of human life.  But at the same time it takes a moral position that does not appear to permit debate on the personhood of the pre-embryo:  “From a moral point of view this is certain: even if a doubt existed concerning whether the fruit of conception is already a human person, it is objectively a grave sin to dare to risk murder” (in the case of abortion).  Thus, the CDF, while welcoming metaphysical inquiry, warns theologians that the moral issue regarding early human life is essentially closed.

How then can the notion of ensoulment be summarized with regard to modern embryology and the philosophical concept of potentiality?

Dualistic concepts of personhood that view a person as a composite of body and soul have fallen into disfavor.  Most theologians, philosophers, and the Magisterium favor the hylomorphic theory that views a person as a body-soul entity—an embodied soul.  Conceptually, this means that a soul cannot exist without a body, and by extension, a pre-embryo cannot be ensouled until it is a body.  This presents a problem for Church teaching since certainly a fertilized zygote, or an egg with a transferred nucleus, is not a body either in scientific or philosophical terms.  The question must then be asked, “how can a soul be embodied if there is no body?”

However, shortcomings are also be found among the advocates of delayed hominization.  The view that the soul is infused at a later stage of development is to some degree dualistic—implying the existence of separate entities that are joined together.  If one believes that the body and soul must exist together, then both dualistic and hylomorphic theories of personhood are deficient in adequately describing the beginnings of a person.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to advance new theological or philosophical theories of personhood.  However, it becomes clear that the cloning of a human person will serve as an impetus to examine current thought in this area.

Theories of immediate animation based on the creation of a new genotype during sexual reproduction are wholly inapplicable to cloning.   Those who advocate such a position risk allowing a situation in which manipulations of the clone embryo might be seen as permissible because of the “non-person” status of the clone.  The moral implications are significant.

Advocates of delayed hominization seemingly have science on their side.  Embryologically, at or shortly after implantation, both a normal and a cloned embryo can be defended as an individual person.  However, it remains troubling to envision a soul being created ex nihilo and then infused into the body.  This idea becomes more attractive if a less dualistic theory of ensoulment can be developed.

[1] Pontifical Academy for Life/The Embryo, “When Human Life Begins,” Origins 26, no. 40 (1997):  662.

[2] The Roslin Institute and PPL Therapeutics, News Release, Roslin, Midlothian, U.K.  24 Feb. 1997.

[3] Colin Stewart, “An Udder Way of Making Lambs,” Nature 385 (1997):  769.

[4] Jacques Cohen and Giles Tomkin, “The Science, Fiction, and Reality of Embryo Cloning,” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 4, no. 3 (1994):  195.

[5] [5] Michael B. Burke, “Sortal Essentialism and the Potentiality Principle,” Review of Metaphysics 49 (1996):  500.

[6] Joshua Lederberg, “Experimental Genetics and Human Evolution,” The American Naturalist 100 (1966):  519-31.

[7] The term “fabricated man” was coined by Ramsey.  His commentary on the theology and ethics of cloning can be found in his book: Paul Ramsey, Fabricated Man:  The Ethics of Genetic Control (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 1970).

[8] Allen D. Verhey, “Cloning:  Revisiting an Old Debate,” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 4, no. 3 (1994):  230.  Fletcher’s thesis appears in his book:  Joseph Fletcher, Morals and Medicine (Boston:  Beacon Press, 1954).

[9] Verhey 229-30.

[10] George J. Annas, “Regulatory Models for Human Embryo Cloning:  The Free Market, Professional Guidelines, and Government Restrictions,” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 4, no. 3  (1994):  236.

[11] A recent review of reaction to the concept of human cloning can be found in M. J. Iozzio, “Science, Ethics, and Cloning Technologies,” Linacre Quarterly 64, no. 4 (1997):  46-52.

[12] Verhey 230-2.

[13] Leon R. Kass, “New Beginnings in Life,” The New Genetics and the Future of Man, ed.  Michael P. Hamilton (Grand Rapids, MI.:  Eerdmans, 1971) 42-63.

[14] Kass 46-7.

[15] Kass 53.

[16] Richard A. McCormick, “Blastomere Separation:  Some Concerns,” Hastings Center Report 24, no. 2 (1994):  14-6.

[17]Throughout this paper “fertilization” and “conception” are used interchangeably.  A comprehensive review of the process of fertilization, especially as it relates to current theological thought regarding the beginning of human life, is found in Thomas A. Shannon and Allan B. Wolter, “Reflections on the Moral Status of the Pre-embryo,” Theological Studies 51 (1990):  606-10.

[18] The term pre-embryo has been used by various authors to describe the very earliest stages of fetal development.  The term is generally accepted to be applicable from the time of the fertilization of the ovum until uterine implantation has occurred at about the fourteenth day post-fertilization.  See Keith L. Moore, Essentials of Human Embryology (Philadelphia:  Decker, 1988) 16.  However, the use of the term is not without controversy.  For a heated rejection of its use see C. Ward Kischer, “The Big Lie in Human Embryology:  The Case of the Preembryo,” Linacre Quarterly 64, no. 4 (1997):  53-61.  Developmental stages subsequent to implantation are not an issue within the context of this paper.  For those developmental stages the term embryo is used.

[19] Howard W. Jones, Jr., Robert G. Edwards, and George E. Seidel, Jr., “On Attempts at Cloning in the Human,” Fertility and Sterility 61, no. 3 (1994):  423.

[20] Researchers have successfully “cloned” human embryos by using a technique to artificially separate the cells of a pre-embryo while they are still totipotent, thus obtaining two identical entities.  This process is known as blastomere separation.  Another type of cloning widely used in the cattle industry is the bisection technique, in which embryos are bisected at the blastocyst stage, giving rise, again, to two identical entities.  Both these processes are, in essence, an artificial method of twinning; the offspring, regardless of number, are ultimately the product of sexual reproduction in which the genotype is derived from both male and female parents.

[21] Cohen 196.

[22] I. Wilmut, et al., “Viable Offspring Derived from Fetal and Adult Mammalian Cells,” Nature 385 (27 February 1997):  810.

[23] Wilmut 810.

[24] Dorothy C. Wertz, “Cloning Humans: Is It Ethical?” The Gene Letter 1, no. 5 (March 1997):  n. pag.  Online., 22 July 1997.

[25] The final conclusions and recommendations of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission are summarized in “Cloning Human Beings: Responding to the National Bioethics Advisory Commission,” The Hastings Center Report 27, no. 5 (1997):  8-9.

[26] Laurie McGinley, “U.S. Bioethics Panel to Recommend Ban on Cloning to Produce a Human Being,” Wall Street Journal 9 June 1997.

[27] Carol A. Tauer, “The Tradition of Probabilism and the Moral Status of the Early Embryo,” Theological Studies 45 (1984):  8.

[28] This theory of Creationism is to be distinguished from that system of beliefs based on fundamentalist interpretations of Genesis which are in opposition to some theories of evolution.

[29] George Huntston Williams,  “Religious Residues and Presuppositions in the American Debate on Abortion,”  Theological Studies 31 (1970):  15.

[30] Joseph F. Donceel, “Immediate Animation and Delayed Hominization,”  Theological Studies 31 (1970):  76.

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Alexander J. Lozano is a physician who also holds a Master’s Degree in Theology with coursework at Notre Dame and Boston Colloge. His main area of interest is in Bioethics. He has chaired and served on various Hospital Ethics Committees over the past nearly 30 years and has several published articles dealing with Medical Bioethics.