The Cloning Debate in Judaism

Most Jewish ethicists approve of therapeutic cloning, but question the morality of reproductive cloning.

Reprinted with permission from JTA—The Global News Service of the Jewish People. It was originally published on August 14, 2001.

In the Brave New World of cloning, most Jewish ethicists and organizations are staking out the middle ground. 

A general consensus appears to be emerging in the Jewish community that therapeutic cloning—using cloning technology for medical research—is acceptable, but reproductive cloning—using the technology to copy someone—is not.


Reproductive cloning is unproven, risky and represents a “tragic misunderstanding” of human identity, according to Laurie Zoloth, director of the Jewish Studies Program at San Francisco State University and an associate professor of social ethics and Jewish philosophy. Advances in therapeutic cloning, which could lead to transfers of compatible tissue in transplants, would not necessarily lead to the dangerous practice of reproductive cloning, Zoloth said.

“Not all slopes are slippery,” she said.

Zoloth is serving as the principal investigator of a new grant to facilitate meetings over the next three years among Jewish scholars, ethicists and scientists to discuss the implications of advances in genetics. Reproductive cloning raises ethical, theological and moral concerns, as well fundamental questions such as “Who is considered the clone’s father and mother?” and “What happens to cloning experiments that fail?” Some take the view that cloning can be a commandment, for example, if it is used to help infertile couples. Others consider it immoral to make a genetic copy of someone.

Clones would be born from eggs stimulated to divide after their DNA was removed and replaced with DNA from other cells. Cells from an infertile father, for example, could be injected into an egg, which then would be implanted in the mother’s uterus to create a pregnancy. The resulting child would have the same physical characteristics as the father [but not the mother], and infertile parents would not have to rely on sperm donors. Yet many people have visceral, negative reactions to cloning, fearing that the practice lacks a basic humanity. Some believe that cloning would fly in the face of lessons derived from the Holocaust, when Nazi doctors experimented on humans in an effort to create a “master race.” Some rabbis are particularly troubled by the notion of a human made in one’s own image, rather than the image of God.

Britain’s chief rabbi called planned experiments to clone humans “a new low in playing roulette with human life.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said human cloning is dangerous and irresponsible because of the threat it poses “to the integrity of children so born.”

Britain adopted guidelines years ago that allow for therapeutic cloning.

On July 31, 2001, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to ban all human cloning, both reproductive and therapeutic. Some Jewish groups, however, worry that a complete ban could end up being more harmful than a carefully structured one. Important advances in medical research might be lost because of a legislative ban, said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

“We don’t want to paint with too broad a brush,” he said.

In a journal published in 2000 by Yeshiva University, a number of ethicists and thinkers weighed in on cloning.

Reactions in the journal, part of the university’s “Torah U’Madda Project,” which explores the interaction of Torah and secular studies and the challenges posed to the community, ran the gamut.

“Cloning does not involve the union of two individuals; it is therefore not an act of creation but rather one of duplication, and as such is completely at odds with any Jewish understanding of conception,” wrote Dr. Eitan Fiorino, a pharmaceutical industry analyst.

But Rabbi Michael Broyde, a law professor at Emory University in Atlanta, believes that cloning can be proper—if done with appropriate supervision. Broyde bolsters his argument with the scenario of a sick person who could be cloned to insure a match in a bone marrow transplant.

“Jewish tradition might regard this procedure as involving two good deeds: having a child and saving a life,” he wrote.

Many recommended more discussion and a cautious approach.

The administration is continuing its conservative approach to genetic research, and President Bush reiterated his strong opposition to cloning.

“We recoil at the idea of growing human beings for spare body parts or creating life for our convenience,” Bush has said.

The president named Dr. Leon Kass, a biomedical ethicist from the University of Chicago, to chair a presidential council on bioethics and biomedical innovation. An outspoken critic of human cloning, Kass believes that cloning constitutes unethical experimentation and threatens identity and individuality. Babies will be manufactured, and allowing such technology to go forward would bring about a perversion of parenthood, Kass believes.

“We sense that cloning represents a profound defilement of our given nature as procreative beings, and of the social relations built on this natural ground,” he wrote in The New Republic.

Kass also said a ban only on reproductive cloning would be unenforceable.

Zoloth says the talmudic tract of Sanhedrin may offer potential guidance for cloning technology. The rabbis determine that forbidden knowledge might be permissible—if it is used only for teaching, Zoloth said. Perhaps, she said, that means medical research of cloning is acceptable, but actual cloning of humans is not.

“We’re at the beginning of understanding,” she said.

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