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Ban Human Cloning: Dignity – A Fuzzy Concept?

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Human Dignity: A Fuzzy Concept?

by John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe

One of the key issues in the debate over human cloning involves the meaning of human dignity. For example, the Catholic Church addressed human cloning in 1987, stating that cloning is “contrary to the moral law, since [it is] in opposition to the dignity both of human procreation and of the conjugal union [emphasis added].” This moral judgment was made in a document entitled “Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation [emphasis added].” And yet in her testimony before the National Bioethics Advisory Commission on March 14, 1997, Ruth Macklin, a world-renowned bioethicist, said: “Dignity is a fuzzy concept and appeals to dignity are often used to substitute for empirical evidence that is lacking or sound arguments that cannot be mustered. . . . If objectors to cloning can identify no greater harm than a supposed affront to the dignity of the human species, that is a flimsy basis on which to erect barriers to scientific research and its applications.”

It is worthwhile exploring two things about dignity. First, in our multi-cultural nation, this word is not used or understood uniformly everywhere. It is used extensively in some cultures and rarely if ever in other cultures. Understanding its use or disuse in a conversation can perhaps provide some important clues about the culture of the speaker. Second, Professor Macklin said that the opponents of cloning who want to describe it as a violation of human dignity should give a more precise account of what they mean. That is a fair request.

Two cultures

A personal experience may help to explain the cultural divide. I attended the III World Congress on Bioethics in San Francisco, November 20-24, 1996. It was a joint meeting of national and international associations of bioethics, with about 600 participants. One striking aspect of the conference was the distance from Christianity that was evident in speakers and books.

One speaker, Jonathan Glover from Oxford University, gave a talk in which he said that he was annoyed by a remark from an Australian bishop to the effect that euthanasia was practiced by the Nazis and was therefore reprehensible. He thought that the bishop’s remark was cheap; the things that the Nazis did well should not be criticized simply because they did them. Glover made a good point, except that he revealed no awareness that the Catholic Church and other religious bodies have indeed spoken out thoughtfully as well as forcefully on the issues that concerned him. If it were in fact the case, as Glover implied, that the bishops had only made cheap remarks, he would have a real complaint. But that isn’t the case: analysis as well as sound bites are easily available. Glover did not give any indication of having read anything other than sound bites from the Church. If he had been serious about finding a complete argument, he could have done so easily.  But he was intent on whacking a straw man: the idea that Catholics and others invoke the Nazi comparison because we don’t have any other better arguments against euthanasia.

Another speaker, Stuart Youngner, spoke of various approaches to the question of assisted suicide, and seemed embarrassed when he admitted that there is a religious angle to the question. I asked him about his hesitancy, and he said he was not personally familiar with the religious approach. Why not?

In the spring of 1996, there was a conference at Harvard University on health and human rights. I asked the organizer, Jonathan Mann, why there were no speakers representing a religious perspective, since religious people run many of the world’s hospitals and health institutions, and also provide much leadership in fighting for human rights. Dr. Mann offered me some ideas about how to present the idea. But his presentation in San Francisco months later was unchanged; he still spoke about health and human rights without any allusion to religious hospitals or human rights activism.  What is the problem?

I skimmed through the the books on display at the mega-meeting of bioethicists, looking at notes, indices and bibliographies. One absence was glaringly obvious. There was next to nothing from Catholic Church sources, although the current Pope has written about these issues extensively and repeatedly.

Three people approached me furtively, admitting that they were Christians and wanted a Christian approach to bioethics. Why were they furtive?

The cultural divide that was on display in San Francisco was not limited to that meeting. When the National Bioehtics Advisory Commission began deliberating about human cloning, they invited a number of experts to help them. Opponents of cloning, including a Catholic priest, a Lutheran theologian, and a secular bioethicist, spoke about dignity. Supporters of cloning (John Robertson and Ruth Macklin) mentioned dignity only in rebuttal. At subsequent meetings, members of the NBAC barely used the word.

At the May 2 meeting of the NBAC, Dr. James Childress (NBAC member) spoke about dignity, situating it not in the individual but in society. He addressed the argument that cloning undermines human dignity, and said the idea “suggests to me that we are talking about a value in the society that would be seriously subverted. But I don’t think [dignity] would be subverted by five, ten, perhaps even 100 acts of human cloning. But it might well be subverted by a social practice of cloning.”

At the same meeting, Dr. Eric Cassell (NBAC member) made a remark similar to Professor Macklin’s complaint about fuzziness, referring to “words like dignity, which are just unsolvable words like beauty and justice and health and stuff like that.”

There was a sharp contrast provided by five private citizens who took advantage of the public comment part of that NBAC meeting to speak against cloning. Three spoke about dignity. The first was Mary Lyman Jackson, who said:

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and members of the Commission. My name is Mary   Lyman Jackson. I am the co-founder and president of Exodus Youth Services, Inc.,  an ecumenical Catholic ministry to thousands of at-risk children and families on the streets of our nation’s capital.

“Exodus reaches out to homeless, run-away, latchkey, and refugee children who have slipped through he cracks of the social service network of Washington, D.C. Exodus’s mission is based on developing the principles of human dignity, personal responsibility, morality, and love of neighbor with the poorest of the poor.

“I have come before your Commission today, Mr. Chairman, as a concerned citizen.   I am not a biochemist or a research scientist, but I do have some ideas about cloning   that I would like to share with you.

“I live in Gaithersburg, Maryland, in a nice suburban community, but spend a lot of time on the streets in Washington. I am very conscious of the way the differences between these two communities are developing, and it worries me.

“I hear people talking about life in the suburbs in ways that are very different than from life in the streets. And it is the differences that concern me.

“I do not know of anyone in the suburbs who has birth control pushed on them, but   my girls in the inner-city do. They tell me a different story. And I do not know of anyone in the city who expects to get any benefit from genetic engineering.

“For 11 years, I have walked the streets of the nation’s capital, risking my life for the   lives of many suffering children. I have been at shoot-outs, and I have had every weapon from kitchen knives to Uzis pulled on me. I have held dying children and cried with young mothers who lost their little boys in drive-by shootings.

“But I have also witnessed many children giving up drugs and turning to God. I have rejoiced with teen-agers who have left their gangs and gone to college. I have cheered with disabled kids who receive their high school diplomas despite all odds. I have buried the dead and encouraged the living.

“These wonderful people deserve to know that God loves them, and that we will all stand with them during their many trials. The gap between the rich and the poor is growing. The poor feel that they are not wanted. This is the message that we are giving them.

“Human cloning makes this worse. Cloning removes human dignity and the mystery of life by allowing us to play God. Human life cannot be disposable.

“It is not just that the best reproductive technology means better babies in the suburbs and dead babies in the city. Cloning also makes everyone think about people as products that you can buy with new and improved models coming out every year. Being treated like a thing does not help anyone.

“You and I watch America become more and more commercialized. It is just heartbreaking to see the same thing happen with birth. Cloning is just one more way to treat people like property, to focus on the material things in our lives, and miss the deeper spiritual realties.

“I tell you one thing my street kids know. They know they have dignity. They know when you treat them with respect, and they appreciate it. But they see a lot of disrespect. I think they can see some things that great scientists might miss. Cloning is not a very respective way to treat human life.

“A researcher can get lost in charts and graphs and test tubes and petri dishes and might forget that human life is very precious. These kids get treated as specimens and research objects enough that they have a different attitude towards all this science.

“These children know that scientists can treat people like things. They know it, because they have seen how much work goes into persuading them to get on birth control or have an abortion.

“Mr. Chairman, and distinguished members of the Commission, please consider the sacredness of life. Please do not recommend human cloning as an acceptable path for science. If we persist in this genetic engineering, we will be limiting human identity, human sexuality, life, and parenting to a test tube.

“We cannot lose sight of the fact that God is our creator, and that He made us in His image. We dare not alter that reality. We need to learn to respect all human life, to take personal responsibility for our actions, to teach morality to our children, and to protect the dignity of human life.”

After Mrs. Jackson, Audria Williams spoke, presenting what was almost an essay on the meaning of human dignity:

“Good afternoon. My name is Audria Williams, and I am the house mom for the Northwest Pregnancy Center for Young Teens and Young Women. I would like to address you today on the cloning. And I am also a mother. I raised a family, and I am proud of it.

“I don’t speak for anybody but myself. Sometimes, when people speak for themselves, they turn out that there are a lot of other people who think the same way they do. Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you about the cloning.

“I urge you to recommend to the President, we, as a nation, should ban cloning completely. Cloning is a way to treat human beings as things, as property. This nation already has a shameful history of treating people as property, and I do not believe we should go back to that way in any way, shape, or form.

“I am not property, and I am not for sale. I do not have to let anyone size me up and set a price on me or set a price on my person or set a price on my body. And I don’t want to see anybody treat any human being as property.

“I have children and grandchildren, and I even have a great-grandchild. So I know some things about where babies come from. But nobody in my family ever commissioned a baby. You can commission works of art or buildings or expert   research papers on cloning, but if you can sit still while someone talks about commissioning a baby, something terrible has happened in this country. Maybe slave traders had commissions to deliver people but we don’t want to revisit that sad and immoral chapter of history. Because we know that that was wrong.

“If the President’s advisers sit around talking about commissioning babies, I have to wonder if we have forgotten what the Civil War was all about. People are not property. When the war was over, slavery was over, and we all agreed that people are not property. People are different from animals, and we have dignity.

“I am a Christian. I believe that God, who made the whole universe, knows me as Audria and loves me. I believe God loves me so much, he sent his only begotten Son to set me free. I believe God loves human beings with a very special and eternal love.

“If God loves us that much, it is wrong to treat a human being like a guinea pig. It is wrong to discriminate against people because of color or religion or no religion at all,   young or tiny. I don’t think we become human beings when we get big enough to have arms and legs or smart enough to argue about cloning.

“As soon as we are alive, as soon as we are growing, we are human beings with all the dignity of God’s children. We aren’t slaves. We aren’t guinea pigs. We are somebody special. God loves us.

“I want to say one more thing. When God told us that he loves us and he sent his Son to die for us, he told us very clearly that we are supposed to love each other as He loves us. If I have the dignity that God gave me, then I have a duty before God to protect other people who have the same dignity.

“Don’t treat people like things. I urge you, please, to ban cloning. Thank you very much.”

These speakers were unabashedly religious, and spoke about dignity. Members of the NBAC, who are committed to developing a secular approach to ethical issues, did not use the word. It is obvious that the word “sanctity,” which refers at least obliquely to God, would not be useful in a secular approach. But it was not obvious at the outset that “dignity” would also disappear in a non-religious setting.

The eclipse of dignity is not inconsequential. Members of the NBAC repeatedly asked people from religious backgrounds who spoke against cloning to try to re-state their views in non-religious terms.  The term “dignity” is a part of a long-term, consistent effort to do just that. But Professor Macklin finds the word to be fuzzy. It is a little frustrating to be asked to strip your language of religious references, then to be told that the carcass is not robust.

A more precise account of “dignity”

Dignity refers to the intrinsic worth or value of a person or thing, and the idea is accessible by anyone, regardless of religion. However, it may be worthwhile looking at the way the word is used in the Catholic Church. The word has immense richness in that tradition.

Pope John XXIII, who initiated immense changes in the way the Catholic Church relates to the modern world, situated human dignity squarely in heart of the Church’s social teaching:

“[T]he Catholic Church’s social teaching. . . rests on one basic principle: individual human beings are the foundation, the cause and the end of every social institution. . . . On this basic principle, which guarantees the sacred dignity of the   individual, the Church constructs her social teaching (Mater et Magistra, #119-120, May 15, 1961).”

Dignity, as he understood it, was an attribute of an individual.

Pope John Paul II also understands human dignity to be key to the whole idea of humanity. In his address to the United Nations on October 5, 1995, he recalled the struggle for freedom in central Europe, a struggle that had shaped his life, and a major triumph of his papacy. In that speech, he linked dignity and freedom, and in fact described dignity as the basis for the quest for freedom. Further, he described totalitarianism as an assault on dignity:

“The moral dynamics of this universal quest for freedom clearly appeared in Central and Eastern Europe during the nonviolent revolutions of 1989.  Unfolding in specific times and places, those historical events nonetheless taught a lesson which goes far beyond a specific geographical location. For the nonviolent revolutions of 1989 demonstrated that the quest for freedom cannot be suppressed. It arises from a recognition of the inestimable dignity and value of the human person, and it cannot fail to be accompanied by a commitment on behalf of the human person. Modern totalitarianism has been, first and foremost, an assault on the dignity of the person, an assault which has gone even to the point of denying the inalienable value of the individual’s life.”

These excerpts show the centrality of dignity in Catholic teaching. In fact, in a list of 22 encyclicals and similar documents related to the field of bioethics, the word recurs 420 times (see “Bioethics Samizdat,” in NBAC files under correspondence from American Life League).

Dignity is discussed at length in the Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes, or The Church in the Modern World (December 7, 1965), a document that was addressed not to the Church, but to everyone. There, the basis for dignity is specified, and is tied to human origins:

“[T]he very dignity of man postulates that man glorify God in his body and forbid it to serve the evil inclinations of his heart.

“19. The root reason for human dignity lies in man’s call to communion with God. From the very circumstance of his origin man is already invited to converse with God. For man would not exist were he not created by God’s love and constantly preserved by it; and he cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and devotes himself to His Creator. Still, many of our contemporaries have never recognized this intimate and vital link with God, or have explicitly rejected it. Thus atheism must be accounted among the most serious problems of this age, and is deserving of closer examination.

“The Church holds that the recognition of God is in no way hostile to man’s dignity, since this dignity is rooted and perfected in God. For man was made an intelligent and free member of society by God Who created him; but even more important, he is called as a son to commune with God and share in His happiness. She further teaches that a hope related to the end of time does not diminish the importance of intervening duties but rather undergirds the acquittal of them with fresh incentives. By contrast, when a divine substructure and the hope of life eternal are wanting, man’s dignity is most grievously lacerated, as current events often attest; riddles of life and death, of guilt and of grief go unsolved with the frequent result that men succumb to despair.”

A more recent document (March 25, 1995), Pope John Paul II’s letter The Gospel of Life, reaffirms the connection between human dignity and origin, and adds that human dignity is also connected to human destiny (at #38):

“The dignity of this life is linked not only to its beginning, to the fact that it comes from God, but also to its final end, to its destiny of fellowship with God in knowledge and love of him.”

The teaching of the Catholic Church that is specifically about assisted or artificial human reproduction is in Donum Vitae (or Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation, 1987, from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). Donum Vitae uses the word “dignity” in a way that is somewhat new, referring to the “dignity of human procreation” and to the “dignity of the conjugal union.” Previous documents had generally referred to the dignity of the person.

“[Attempts] . . . to obtain a human being without any connection with sexuality through “twin fission,” cloning or parthenogenesis are to be considered contrary to the moral law, since they are in opposition to the dignity both of human procreation and of the conjugal union.”

The Church’s teaching on labor refers often to the dignity of human work. Work has dignity because humans do it; the dignity of workers gives dignity to the work. Further, the definitions of dignity (e.g., from the Vatican Council and The Gospel of Life) refer to man’s origin and destiny in God, so it is no great leap to speak very specifically about the dignity of man’s origins.

The key point about the dignity of human procreation is perhaps most easily understood when it is stated negatively: human procreation is not like animal procreation. The physical process may be similar, or almost identical, just as the bodies of mammals are similar. The difference between human procreation and animal procreation is the difference between humans and animals. Human procreation is different from animal procreation because it produces a human, made in God’s image and called to live forever with God. Donum Vitae puts it this way:

“God, who is love and life, has inscribed in man and woman the vocation to share in a special way in His mystery of personal communion and in His work as Creator and Father. For this reason marriage possesses specific goods and values in its union and in procreation which cannot be likened to those existing in lower forms of life.”

Returning to Professor Macklin’s challenge, suppose you ask for an account of human dignity, and insist that this account make no reference to human origins or destiny in God: what remains? It may still be possible to assert that it is self-evident that human beings have intrinsic worth. But what is self-evident to you may not be be self-evident to me. To carry on an intelligent argument requires some consensus about some basic truths; when a culture passes “beyond freedom and dignity” (or re-defines freedom and abandons dignity), debate may become impossible. In fact, one of the great political documents of our time refers to the long struggle over the source of human freedom and dignity. In 1961, in his inaugural address, John F. Kennedy compared his time with the time of the American Revolution, and said:

“The world is very different now. For man holds in his hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God. We dare not forget that we are the heirs of that first revolution.”