Did Obama Allow Human Cloning? Part 1 of an E-mail Debate

Two prominent Roman Catholic legal scholars debate whether Obama has allowed human cloning.

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Robert P. George
Robert P. George

By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

Douglas Kmiec
Douglas Kmiec

Does President Obama's executive order on embryonic stem cell research allow federally funded human cloning? According to Princeton University legal scholar Robert P. George, a prominent Catholic conservative, it does. He notes that Obama's action leaves the door open to federally funding the creation of human embryos—what he calls cloning—for the express purpose of stem cell research, which entails destroying those embryos.

But Douglas Kmiec, a Pepperdine University legal scholar and also a prominent Catholic conservative—although he is an outspoken Obama supporter—argues that the president has banned reproductive cloning as the term is scientifically understood: creating an embryo with the purposes of implanting it in the uterus for gestation. To be sure, Kmiec opposes Obama's apparent support for funding the creation of embryos for the purposes of research and destruction. But he's hopeful that meaningful ethical guidelines can be developed by the National Institutes of Health to guide embryonic stem cell research.

Over the past few days, George and Kmiec have engaged in a rigorous E-mail debate on the nature of human cloning and other thorny issues surrounding embryonic stem cell research—like whether Catholics who use medical treatments developed from embryonic stem cell research are complicit in what the Roman Catholic Church calls the evil of embryo destruction. They've CC'd me on their E-mails back and forth.

The debate was set off by George's rebuttal to Kmiec's comments on this blog last week commending the president for "his strong prohibition of human cloning" in lifting restrictions on federally funded embryonic stem cell research. George says Obama's executive order did no such thing.

With the permission of both, I'm reprinting the nine-E-mail volley on the blog. The note from Robert George (who goes by Robby) to Douglas Kmiec (who goes by Doug) that started the debate is below. I'll post the rest tomorrow.


From: Robert P. George

Sent: Thursday, March 12, 2009 7:07 p.m.

To: Kmiec, Douglas

Subject: Cloning

Dear Doug:

You are quoted in a recent interview with Dan Gilgoff as saying "I commend the President for his strong prohibition of human cloning." The truth, however, is that President Obama did not prohibit human cloning. Under the policy he announced on Monday, the practice of cloning (somatic cell nuclear transfer) to create embryonic human beings will not be prohibited. In fact, stem cells produced by the destruction of human embryos created by cloning will be fully eligible for federal funding under that policy. In other words, the President's policy goes beyond funding research on cell lines produced by the destruction of cryopreserved embryos that had been produced by in vitro fertilization in assisted reproduction clinics. It authorizes the funding of research on lines produced by the destruction of embryos created specifically for research in which they would be killed.

Please be assured that I am not accusing you of lying or of being dishonest. What I suspect misled you was the President's statement that he opposed "reproductive cloning." (You can confirm his use of the qualifying term "reproductive" by having a look at the transcript of the President's remarks which the White House made available.) "Reproductive cloning" is a misleading term. It refers not to cloning itself, but rather to what one does or intends to do with the clone, i.e., the embryonic human being created by cloning, once the process of somatic cell nuclear transfer has been successfully completed. A ban on "reproductive cloning" is a ban on implanting a human embryo produced by cloning and permitting the embryonic human to develop into infancy. That is why pro-life critics of the ban on "reproductive cloning," including the Pro-Life Secretariat of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, refer to the legislation proposing the ban as the "clone and kill bill." That description is literally true. The bill forbids not the practice of somatic cell nuclear transfer or any other cloning technique, but allowing the cloned human being to survive.

This will be clear if you consider what cloning is. Genetic material is removed from an ordinary somatic cell and transferred to an ovum whose nucleus has been removed (the enucleated ovum). An electrical charge is administered which, if successful, produces an embryonic genetic twin of the individual from whom the somatic cell had been taken. At that point, the process of cloning has been completed. We now have a new individual member of the species. The only question remaining is this: Will the embryo be implanted and permitted to live? Or will he or she be denied implantation and therefore be caused to die?

What President Obama supports and has now opened the door to funding is human cloning—somatic cell nuclear transfer to create human embryos. What he opposes is permitting human embryos to be implanted if they were created by somatic cell nuclear transfer.

I'm writing because I did not want to criticize you publicly on this matter without giving you an opportunity to correct it. As I say, I don't suppose that this was a deliberate effort on your part to deceive people about President Obama's position. I am sure that you oppose the creation of human embryos and the funding of research involving the killing of cloned embryos. I am no less certain that you would oppose a ban on the implantation of an embryo that had the misfortune of having come into existence as the result of cloning. I just want you to be aware that President Obama is in favor of all these things. Could you kindly let me know promptly whether you are willing to correct the record? I would be grateful.



  • Read Part 2 of this debate.
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  • Read more about the Obama administration.