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Issues in Jewish Ethics: The Ethics of Cloning

by Daniel Eisenberg, M.D.

Several years ago, a “new” animal was discovered in Australia that appeared to be a “kosher” pig. While the animal was previously unknown, the rules governing its status as kosher or treif are as old as the Torah. After much debate, a decision was rendered that it was indeed non-kosher. Today, cloning presents us with our own “new creation,” a baby with no “parents”. While the world stretches its concepts of morality and ethics to encompass this new reality, the Jewish world also endeavors to decide if human cloning is permitted.

There is no clear consensus yet in Jewish law regarding cloning. Since the technology to clone people is not yet a reality, the issue is an academic one, not a practical one. For this reason Jewish law, which relies strongly upon precedent (much like secular law), has no actual cases that have been decided. Scholarly analyses are still being published by prominent rabbis. Already, the two chief rabbis of Israel are reported to disagree. At least one prominent American halachic authority has ruled that cloning is permitted in certain instances. Many technical issues of Jewish law will have to be resolved before a final consensus is reached. In addition, many deep philosophical concepts in Judaism will also have to be applied to cloning before the final decision is reached.

Nevertheless, many of the issues involved have been dealt with in detail regarding artificial insemination, surrogate motherhood, and ovary transplants. In Jewish law, family relationships are very important. For example, the Torah lists multiple illicit familial relationships such as a son marrying his mother and a nephew marrying his aunt. In traditional Judaism, religious status is passed down through the mother and tribal designation (Cohen, Levi, Israel) is passed down through the father.

The first serious challenges to the traditional view of family relationships came about with the advent of surrogate motherhood and ovary transplants. Who is the mother- the genetic mother (egg donor) or the birth mother (gestational mother)? In addition to the legal issues raised, such as inheritance and obligation to support the child, there are fascinating religious ramifications. For instance, when the Torah commands: “honor your father and mother”, who is the mother? The case of cloning adds the following fascinating twist- in the case of cloning a woman, is there a father?

There is an issue raised by cloning that is not present in most reproductive technology questions. All prior technological advances have only enhanced the ability to conceive and bring a fetus to term. Egg and sperm donations allow otherwise sterile men and women to conceive, in vitro fertilization treats ovulatory dysfunction (among other problems), and surrogate motherhood allows women who lack the ability to sustain gestation to have children. Nevertheless, the basic “mechanics” of conception, gestation, and childbirth are not affected. Cloning interferes with the basic process of procreation itself. The normal sequence of egg and sperm uniting and forming a new life is abolished and the egg becomes a vehicle for the “parasitic” parental DNA. Basically, sexual reproduction is replaced by a new version of parthenogenesis!

The Torah tells us that originally man and woman were one being, but that G-d separated them after creation. When a man and woman marry, they come together to form the original whole. Does cloning unduly interfere with the deeply held belief that G-d created the world such that a man and woman would unite to “be fruitful and multiply,” (Genesis 1:28) creating new life together. Or, alternatively, is cloning just another leap forward in the quest for better technology, as the Torah commands in the same verse: “fill the earth and master it”?

The issue of cloning touches many areas of Jewish law, but it also raises many exciting challenges to our Jewish world view. It should be very interesting to see how the consensus of Jewish law develops if human cloning ever becomes a reality.

Sources: Maimonides: Health in the Jewish World, Vol. 3, No. 3 ( Fall 1997 ), The Institute for Jewish Medical Ethics. I would be happy to hear from anyone with questions on this topic or who is interested in further information on other Jewish medical ethics topics. My e-mail address is [email protected],.web.