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Cloning raises ethical questions about life, human limits and love

Special Reports Writer

The cloning of a Finn Dorset sheep in a Scottish laboratory last week was met with alarm in many European quarters.

Some pundits compared reaction to the "immaculate conception" of "Dolly" to that of 16th century hierarchs when they first read Galileo's Dialogue on Astronomy or to demure 19th century Londoners hearing the news of Darwin's Origin of Species.

But the Vatican daily L'Osservatore Romano headlined its editorial "An urgent appeal to reason and to humanity," noting that humans have "the right to be born in a human way and not in a laboratory." To oppose cloning is not to impede progress or restrict science, the paper said, but rather to "safeguard those values that constitute the human being and its existence."

London's weekly Catholic Herald hoped the Vatican would "provide the worldwide forum" for an urgent study of the ethics of genetic engineering and called for the church to "go further" in speaking out against aspects of human procreation involving unnatural processes.

The paper noted the "disastrous consequences" that have resulted from interference with the natural order. It pointed to Britain's own "mad cow disease," which it said was made possible by a decision "to override nature by feeding herbivores with meat." It was an act, said the Herald, specifically prohibited by the Old Testament books Deuteronomy and Leviticus.

Britain's 1995 Nobel Peace laureate and campaigner against nuclear weapons, physicist Joseph Rotblat, said that genetic engineering could result "in other means of mass destruction, maybe more readily available even than nuclear weapons."

In Paris, Axel Kamm, who directs the Cochin Institute genetics laboratory, speculated that lesbians would one day demand the right to clone. Francois Mattei, the father of France's laws on bioethics, asked the United Nations to intervene to regulate cloning to avoid abuses.

German newspapers took greatest exception to Dolly. Die Welt reasoned that Hitler "would have used this technology intensively if it were available at the time" while the business daily Handelsblatt compared the impact of Dolly's birth to that of a nuclear blast.

More than anything else, it raises questions of ethics, the paper said.

In Rome those questions filled the media and could be heard in the corridors and classrooms of some of the pontifical universities and institutes visited by NCR. At the Bioethics Institute of the Catholic University of Rome, its director, Msgr. Elio Sgreccia, pointed to the need to respect animals. He said, "It was wrong to alter an animal species," although experiments on an individual animal for "grave reasons of scientific research" could be allowed.

At the Alphonsianum Institute, Franciscan Fr. Mauricio Faggioni called Dolly's cloning "an intervention at the roots of life," and warned that "man has insufficient wisdom and knowledge to control this power."

It is permissible to make copies of animals and plants, he said, as no personal identity is involved, but cloning a person "goes against the uniqueness and dignity of a person."

Faggioni, who teaches a seminar on biomedical ethics and one on AIDS at the Alphonsianum, regards cloning humans as "undemocratic." To create a superman, wonderwoman or even a slave would involve the introduction of a new gene or the improvement of an existing gene.

Such a person would have "a deep difference" and as such would be "separate" from the rest of humankind, he said. While our bodies are biologically and chemically little different from that of an animal, "our body is not an object, but the body of a person," the Franciscan said. And what makes us persons is our spirit, our psychology, he added.

Thus, concerns about our bodies are ethical and theological concerns, Faggioni said. The priest said that cloning involves "a complete disconnection" from any relationship. Yet humans live by their relationships to "mommy," "daddy," "the couple."

He said, "I have the right to be born in the nest of love, to be accepted by a family," he said.

Cloning violates the integrity of marriage by bringing a new being to life outside of marriage, said Redemptorist Fr. Brian Johnstone, professor of moral theology at the Alphonsianum. Johnstone, an Australian, taught moral theology at Catholic University of America from 1981-87.

While Christians attach a "special sacredness to the process of reproduction," -- believing it to be collaboration with God to create new life -- even nonbelievers hold that the process of evolution involves certain procedures, he said.

Just that we're endowed by God with intelligence does not free us to do whatever we want with our knowledge, Johnstone said. Cloning raises the central ethical question of whether it is morally acceptable to do everything that we are capable of doing, Johnstone said.

In trying to arrive at moral limits in the cloning debate, the priest recommended both the late philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and Pope John Paul II.

Levinas emphasized the fundamental ethical quality of "responsibility for the other" and "the wrongness of trying to dominate the other," Johnstone said.

The philosopher's influence is apparent in the pope's encyclical "The Gospel of Life" (Evangelium Vitae), which warns against using power to dominate others, against instrumental reason and against neglect of others, Johnstone said.

Johnstone, who has participated in the Anglican/Roman Catholic International Commission's dialogue on ethics and has been on a committee studying in-vitro fertilization, said that religion has to take science much more seriously and "express our convictions in language that will be meaningful in the dialogue."

National Catholic Reporter, March 14, 1997