announcement of the cloning of a human being in the embryo stage has reopened
the debate on the origin of human life: when do we begin to exist? Can a “clone”
be considered a full-fledged human being? Do clones have souls? Although quite
reasonable at first glance, these questions often conceal linguistic ambiguities,
“mental cramps”, undue crossings from the realm of scientific concepts to
that of philosophical expressions.
With no pretence to exhausting the subject of the origin of human life, it may help to attempt a terminological clarification. There can be no discussion when there is no agreement on what is being discussed. Even those who make it a point to appeal to facts, to empirical data, to concrete “things”, cannot ignore that in order to do so they must still resort to “words”. Words have “weight”, just as the facts they are meant to (or purport to) describe.
I shall limit myself to two examples: the use of the concept of embryo and of the concept of human soul. Putting Words in Order Cloning, by which we mean here the agamic reproduction of an organism (and not simply the reproduction of a number of cells), has rekindled the debate on the definition of the human embryo. The very notion of human embryo or, say, of a mouse embryo, can lead to misunderstandings: an embryo, in fact, is not a thing in itself, but a phase in the development of something or someone. In a strict sense, we should speak instead of a human (or a mouse) in the embryo stage. The order of words is not without importance. The expression “human embryo” might raise the question: When is an embryo human, or when does it become so? The question becomes meaningless if we use the expression “human being in the embryo stage”.
From a linguistic point of view, it is obvious that a mouse, a dog, a maple or a man in the embryo stage are already a mouse, a dog, a maple or a man. The word embryo, used as a predicate for a living being belonging to a certain species, conveys the impression that an embryo is a thing in itself. But it is only through an abstraction, a methodologically legitimate operation, that we can isolate the idea of embryo from its already existing qualification as a stage in the development of a certain species. To facilitate classification, biology tends to separate the continuous process of development into different stages, introducing terms that help to distinguish and determine the aspects under examination.
Therefore, words like zygote, pre-embryo, embryo and foetus are concepts that identify the stages of a continuous development. Yet that continuity is more than generic. There are, in fact, empirically important differences between the development of a cell, an organ or an organism.
When biologists talk about zygotes, or pre-embryos, they are describing the development of an organism, not of a cell or of a group of cells. The difference between a single cell and an organism, whether unicellular or multicellular, is the difference between something that is alive and a living being.
The practice of cloning (from Dolly onward) has not changed this state of things. It has been asked whether a clone can or cannot be called an embryo, since it does not result from the fertilization of an oocyte by a spermatozoon.
This pseudo-issue combines two different problems: establishing when we can speak of an embryonic stage and determining how an embryonic stage comes to be. With cloning (the type based on the transfer of nuclei), embryos are not formed by the spermatozoon penetrating an oocyte because the procedure itself, although applied artificially to mammals, simulates the reproduction of species that are less biologically evolved, in which there is no need for male and female gametes. The how stands for the method of reproduction of a species, whereas the when indicates the stage of development of a specific organism. Of course we must also consider that we have the power to distort the reproduction methods of animals and humans. But that is another problem, pertaining to the sphere of morals.
The Clone’s Soul
Further ambiguities arise when dealing with the soul, which is a familiar word, but burdened with a succession of different meanings. In the Aristotelian tradition, a soul is simply the vital force that presides, so to speak, over the organization of a living creature. In that sense, vegetables, animals and humans have souls not because they are “alive” but because they are living organisms. This vital force is what allows single species to carry out different activities.
Thus, calling man a rational animal is the same as stating that the unifying principle of all the vital functions of man is also the source of his cognitive activities. Wherever there is a living human organism, there is also a rational soul. Rational activity does not necessarily coincide with the rational soul: human beings can exist even when not performing that activity (for example, when the proper conditions for development are lacking, or in the first stages of life, or during sleep).
So there is no point in asking when does a soul enter a human body, because if there is a living human body, then there’s a human soul. It is not even necessary to be a materialist to make that statement. Indeed, spiritualists believe that the unifying principle of human life is spiritual, as opposed to material, but that it is the source of unity of living matter. In this theoretical context it is therefore meaningless to ask oneself whether clones have souls or not: if the “clone” belongs to our species, it is “one of us” in its own right, regardless of how it was given birth.
The case is different for those who believe that souls are a strictly human feature and that, following Descartes for example, they correspond to the “res cogitans” - the mind. In this case, however, the soul is synonymous with activity (mental activity), for which reason it cannot exist if there is no development of the human being. Considered as rational activity, the soul is not yet present in a clone, nor in an embryonic stage, nor in an infant stage (and neither when we sleep). This approach, which would appear to be more spiritualistic, often comes to the conclusion that it is the brain (the organ of an organism) that produces thought – just as a stomach produces gastric juices. If we follow this reasoning, we must deny that animals have souls, and we must explain non-human life in mechanistic terms. But this idea of a soul is not applicable when discussing the beginning and end of human life, which is the precondition of the activity of thinking.
These extremely synthetic reflections give an idea of why debates on bioethics often seem to carry on endlessly. On the one hand there is the complexity of the subject, that calls for competence in various fields and the use of special terminology, on the other there is an often-inaccurate use of terms and of their proper meanings. Of course we cannot simply choose at will a particular use of terms rather than another – we must refer to the argumentation that justifies the choice of one specific philosophical approach over another. But that can be possible only if we try not to use the wrong words and stay away from the pitfalls represented by certain pseudo-questions.
The main requisite for understanding and discussion is to agree on the terms. The word “clone”, attributed to a human being, just like the word “twin”, does not stand for a new, special kind of living creature, but for a human being that is (almost) biologically identical to another. Respect for words may perhaps guide us to increased respect for our fellow creatures. (trad. Interpres-Giussano)
Cattedra di Bioetica Università Cattolica di Milano