Life is too important to be left to scientists

IAN HUNTER

At press conferences today in Washington, London, Paris, Berlin and Tokyo, scientists will announce the completion of the Human Genome project. It is remarkable that, in less than a half century, we have gone from Crick and Watson’s discovery of the structure of DNA to a basic map of our 100,000 human genes.

At press conferences today in Washington, London, Paris, Berlin and Tokyo, scientists will announce the completion of the Human Genome project. It is remarkable that, in less than a half century, we have gone from Crick and Watson's discovery of the structure of DNA to a basic map of our 100,000 human genes.

Genetic technology offers seductive prospects: earlier detection and treatment of fatal diseases; the development of effective, focused vaccines; even the possibility of gene selection. Perhaps in future, as former U.S. president Bill Clinton once suggested, our grandchildren will know the word "cancer" only as a heavenly constellation.

Unfortunately, everything in life (except God's grace) comes at a price; we have not yet, I think, debated the price of gene conquest. Is it just the latest phase in medicine's ongoing mission to treat disease and thereby alleviate human suffering, or is it something quite different and possibly sinister - an attempt to remake life in man's own image?

One man who has thought deeply about this question is Professor Leon Kass, a physician and ethicist at the University of Chicago. He contends that genetic engineering is not a continuation but rather a radical departure in medicine. Medicine, Kass says, treats only existing individuals and treats them remedially; genetic engineering, by contrast, is prepared to make deliberate changes to what human beings are, changes that are transmissible to future generations. Moreover, genetic engineering is prepared to treat humans not only remedially but prescriptively (e.g., abortion for genetic reasons). Indeed, genetic profiling holds out the prospect of creating life to planned specifications and eliminating offspring that fail to measure up. Ultimately, perhaps, the goal is to say what sort of life will be allowed; as far back as 1971, geneticist Bentley Glass promised: "No parents will in the future have a right to burden society with a malformed or mentally incompetent child."

The question "Who is a human being?" is today debated in ways that our parents and grandparents could never have imagined. It is the unspoken question at the heart of the debate over Robert Latimer's fate.

Is it an oversimplification to assert that we shall soon be compelled to decide not only how we shall live, but who shall live? Are we creatures in a factory farm? Or are we all members of a family, created in the image of a loving God, brothers and sisters who sojourn in time but whose true habitat is eternity?

Or have we, perhaps, already gone too far down the road of genetic engineering to turn back? Leon Kass thinks so: "The genetic genie first unbottled to treat disease will go its own way now, whether we like it or not."

Are there serious objections to genetic development? I suggest there are three basic questions (and a host of minor questions) that urgently require answers.

First, who is qualified, and by what attributes, to make the life and death decisions that genetic technology makes possible? It was often said that war was too important to be left to generals; is not life too important to be left to scientists?

Second, is genetic engineering likely to enhance or diminish human freedom? Will it lead (Leon Kass again) to "the benevolent tyranny of expertise"? C.S. Lewis thought so; his remarkably prescient 1943 book, The Abolition of Man, contained this warning: "... if any one age attains, by eugenics and scientific education, the power to make its descendants what it pleases, all men who live after it are the patients of that power ... if the dreams of scientific planners are realized, it means the rule of a few hundred of men over billions and billions of men."

Third, is the hubris that inclines men to play God not ultimately self-destructive? Or were our two 20th-century examples of this hubris in action (Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union) just aberrations?

If, as many scientists today contend, God is dead (or never was, which comes to the same thing) then the objection about playing God is outmoded or obscurantist. For my part, I agree with Malcolm Muggeridge, who said a primitive jungle savage, prostrating himself in worship before a painted stone, displayed a greater grasp of the essential truth about the human condition than any scientist in his laboratory.

The Book of Genesis tells us that when God had finished with creation, He pronounced it "very good." Will history pass the same judgment on the geneticist's creation?

Leon Kass again: "Though well-equipped, we know not who we are or where we are going. We triumph over nature's unpredictabilities only to subject ourselves, tragically, to the still greater unpredictability of our capricious wills and our fickle opinions. That we do not recognize our predicament is itself a tribute to the depth of our infatuation with scientific progress and our naive faith in the sufficiency of our humanitarian impulses."

To have answered the question "How" is a stunning scientific achievement. But who will answer the question "Why"?

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Ian Hunter, "Life is too important to be left to scientists," National Post, (Canada) February 12, 2001.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post.

THE AUTHOR

Ian Hunter is professor emeritus in the faculty of law at the University of Western Ontario.

Copyright © 2001 National Post


Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter

 

 

Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.