Would a clone have a soul?

  • Question 127 from Joy, UK
    Do clones have souls?

    The Christian idea of a ‘soul’ is itself an example of an ‘evolving doctrine’. In the Old Testament there is a concept of a ‘shade’ dwelling in ‘sheol’ (often translated as ‘the grave’), hinting at some undefined continuance of human life. In the New Testament, life after death is described predominantly in terms of bodily resurrection, with virtually no sense of a ‘soul’ existing apart from a physical body.

    As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, a belief in souls as a part of a human being, distinguishable from the body, was soon assimilated into Christian thought. Souls, in pre-Christian philosophy were regarded as immortal, and some Christians have taken a view that when a person dies their soul continues to exist, in a diminished capacity, until it is reunited with its body at the resurrection.

    Technically, whether the soul is accepted as immortal or not, the Christian view of humanity is holistic. To put it another way, a person’s soul or spirit is only definitely known to exist ‘embodied’ in a physical body, hence the New Testament emphasis on physical resurrection in ‘perfect bodies’.

    Another area for confusion is between the soul and the mental, thought processes, which could be described as consciousness, and are often described as ‘mind’. A ‘soul’ is often grouped with mind and body to describe a human bieng in three parts – for example, body, mind and spirit. A soul cannot be detected by any empirical tests, unlike the physical body and consciousness/intelligence (usually described as ‘spirit’ or ‘mind’), so the belief in human souls is a matter of faith.

    However, for those who do believe in souls, and most Christians do, there are two issues relating to the current debate on cloning with regard to souls. The first is whether a cloned embryo would have a soul. The second relates to the link between souls and genetic identity; or to put it another way: would a clone have a cloned soul?

    Artificial embryos: artificial souls?
    Some Christians, including the Roman Catholic church, would argue that life begins at the very moment of conception, so as soon as sperm and egg fuse together to create a new genetic identity, the ensuing embryo has a soul. For example, British pressure group Care state: “CARE believes, as do many others, that human life begins at conception. … We do not see any moral distinction between an embryo, a postnatal baby and an adult.” [Human Cloning – Your Questions Answered, CARE, 2000]

    This belief that an embryo has a soul, is why anti-abortion campaigners oppose ‘early abortion’ methods such as the morning-after pill, which prevents an embryo implanting in the uterus, effectively killing it. Some also oppose infertility treatment, because it often creates a number of surplus embryos which are not implanted and are subsequently destroyed. [See for example: Cherishing Life (teaching document from the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales on life issues), published in 2004]

    Other Christians regard an embryo as only a ‘potential human’, rather than a full human, but then it is debatable when ‘ensoulment’ occurs, and what causes it. The Catholic position, echoed by many anti-abortion campaigners is a catch-all. By insisting that life begins at conception, when God gives an embryo a soul, the awkward question ‘When does a foetus gain a soul?’ is avoided.

    If the soul does come into existence at the moment of conception, that means if an artificially created embryo survives and develops into a human being, such a position would have to regard the clone as having a soul.

    A cloned embryo would be developed in a very similar way to an embryo created through standard infertility treatment, which would be regarded as having a soul. The only difference is in the source of the genetic material. There is still a ‘moment of conception’, regardless of the origin of the genetic material.

    Genetic identity and cloned souls
    Except, as in most medical ethical issues, it is not as simple as that. A clone would, of course, share the exact same genetic identity as another human being. This already happens in the case of identical twins, but as ethicists frequently point out, identical twins are usually very similar in age, and are also formed naturally. A clone would be younger than it’s genetic twin and “would be denied the right to genetic diversity and the unique identity and individuality that natural procreation provides.” [- Philippa Taylor, Cloning: Issues and Implications, The Centre for Bioethics and Public Policy, Summer 2003]

    If the Christian holistic view of humanity is to be believed, a human’s soul is inextricably bound up in their genetic identity, even more so if human embryos have souls from the moment of conception, as in the views outlined above. If a human clone was regarded as having a soul, then would that soul be an exact replica of its genetic twin? Would the cloner effectively be cloning a soul too?

    On a facetious level, if God ‘gives out’ souls when an embryo is created, then this issue is irrelevant. A new embryo would have a new soul. If, however, souls are produced along with new genetic material – and are inextricably linked to it – then re-creating that genetic material may create an additional soul too.

    Creating clones
    As a final point in this whole discussion it is probably worth pointing out that a clone, in this context, is likely to be the victim of circumstances. While there is no evidence that a successful human cloning has taken place, and some debate over whether the procedure could even produce a viable human being, there is a deeper ethical issue of why a person would want to produce a clone.

    If clones were produced to harvest body parts, as in science fiction film The Island, then the clone would be a victim. The Christian, Biblical depiction of God is of a deity who takes the side of the oppressed – in this case the clones. Certainly, in order to deny the human rights of a clone, it would be easy to imagine people claiming they were without souls and less than human.

    But it would be hard to square the Biblical injunctions to protect the weak and the powerless (the ‘voiceless’) with aggressively cloning humans and using the clones as ‘spare parts’. However, whether it would be acceptable to use cloned embryos to create ‘stem cells’ or other medical treatments, will depend on whether a human embryo is considered to have a soul or not.

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