Lawrence P. Grayson
Present reality surpasses the imaginary worlds of science fiction. Neither the life-creating, warped experiments in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein nor Aldous Huxley’s description of a dystopian society in his novel Brave New World measure up to what is occurring today. Scientific and technological advances have allowed mankind to cure many diseases, extend life, and give comfort to the ill. They also have provided a hideous ability to create, genetically alter, and destroy life.
Rapid advances in science and technology have far outpaced evolving ethical and moral principles. These fields of endeavor have no direction in themselves; their development and use must be guided by moral principles to assure their compatibility with man’s purpose on Earth. Without an understanding of why he exists, man’s conquest of nature leads him to mold his world and himself to his desires for wealth, prestige, power and pleasure. As a result, regardless of original intentions, human dignity too often becomes a casualty of so-called progress. Consider the following developments.
In 2012, a startup company called MicroCHIPS Biotech developed a miniscule device to treat chronic pathologies such as diabetes and osteoporosis. Implanted under a person’s skin, it can be remotely programmed to periodically discharge medication over an extended period of time. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation now is funding the company to create a semi-permanent contraceptive device. The chip can release daily dosages of levonorgestrel, a hormone used in morning-after pills, into a woman’s body for up to 16 years. The hormone acts in part as an abortifacient to prevent a newly conceived embryo from implantation in the uterus. While proposed for family planning, it could be used by a tyrannical government to enforce a one-child policy or, in a hitlerian-type eugenics program, to prevent certain classes of people from ever conceiving.
A technique for DNA transfer is being developed to correct genetic abnormalities. Mitochondria, which is found in almost all human cells, creates the energy needed by the body to sustain life and support growth. When abnormal, severe organ damage and even death can result. As genetic defects can be passed down from mother to child, a method has been created to replace defective mitochondria in a mother’s egg with a healthy version from a second woman. The preferred approach is to create two embryos, one using a fertilized egg from the infected person and a second from a donor free of the defect. The nuclei of both embryos are removed and a third embryo is created using the uninfected nucleus from one embryo and the enucleated egg from the other. The result is a child-to-be with three genetic parents.
While therapeutic in intent, numerous moral questions arise. Two embryonic children have been destroyed to create a third. If the three adults involved have a loving relationship and desire to raise the child jointly, should they be allowed to be married as a triple? After all, if two people of the same sex can marry, why not three genetic parents? If three, why not four or more people who are in a polyamorous relationship? Genetic manipulation creates a set of arguments, though in opposition to Church teaching, to redefine the concept of marriage.
Laboratories are already creating customized human organs. Seven children suffering from spinal bifida have received new bladders grown from stem cells. A trachea was bioengineered for a two-year old girl to replace her defective one. Tissues can be grown and expressly designed to fit a patient’s need for cartilage or to treat bone defects. Cell-infused myocardial patches can be affixed to tissues damaged by a heart attack to help it regain normal strength. It soon will be possible to manufacture livers and pancreases using 3-D printing techniques with hydrogel serving as a cell-rich biological ink.
Synthetic bioblocks of DNA sequences are being developed to be inserted into human cells and manipulated LEGO-like to produce functions that do not exist naturally, such as limiting the harmful overproduction of a given protein. Biofabrication techniques are developing to regenerate damaged skin. Sweden’s University of Gothenburg is pioneering efforts to grow a uterus to treat infertile women. Kallistem, a French company, recently announced that it has created human sperm.
Genetic engineering, female egg manipulation, biofabricated uteri, laboratory-produced sperm -- How long will it be before the capability exists to create genetically-designed, factory-produced children? The human “hatchery and conditioning center” of Huxley’s Brave New World may not be unrealistically imaginative.
What are needed are moral values and an understanding of how they apply to act as restraints on the unfettered applications of man’s genius. The fundamental questions that should be asked revolve not around what we can do, but rather around what we ought to do.
In his desire for progress at all costs, man has developed a purely functional outlook. God has been relegated to the subjective, as something uncertain and unprovable, suitable only for private belief. Religion, and the morality and virtue which flow from it, have been removed from the public conscience. When God is forgotten, when religion becomes secondary, when the purpose of existence is unknown, anything is possible.
A public moral culture must exist so that man will use the material world for his advantage, not his destruction. This is something to which each of us can and must contribute. We must know our faith, believe it with deep fervor, and have the courage to live it, vigorously and without apologies. We must make our public behavior consistent with our private beliefs and thus help shape a societal conscience by injecting the principles of our faith into the public square.
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Published July 2015