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Biotechnology, Human Dignity & the Teaching of the Church
by John M. Haas
The man across the table from me was articulate, passionate, zealous, brilliant, principled, and committed to doing good. I had sat spellbound as he delivered for my personal benefit one of the most fascinating and lucid microbiology lectures I had ever heard. He was also engaged in research that I found morally reprehensible.
His company, Advanced Cell Technology, was taking the DNA from human somatic cells, placing it in enucleated cows’ eggs, and beginning the cloning process for a human being. The organism would be allowed to grow to a mass of about 100 cells before it would be dissected to obtain human cells for research. These were cloned human beings with cow mitochondrial genetic material.
The company had no interest in producing cross-species creatures. Its activities were driven by concerns of simple research, efficiency, and cost control. For the cloning process, cows’ eggs were easier and cheaper to obtain than human ova. Also, the cows’ eggs were bigger than human ova and easier to work with. These were utilitarian concerns, pure and simple.
But as we spoke in his boardroom, in his laboratories human embryos were lying in petri dishes, subjected to experimentation, dissected, and killed; some were frozen for future use. Human embryos—embryonic human beings—it does not matter how it is put; they were beings who were human.
The poet, philosopher, and theologian within our cultural tradition all once spoke of the transcendent worth and inviolability of the human being. Legislators, jurists, warriors, and police once protected the innocent of our species, from the moment of conception. The medical profession from the time of the pagan Hippocrates swore never to kill the unborn child. In more recent times the World Medical Association adopted the Declaration of Geneva, which includes an oath for physicians to take upon beginning their medical career: “I will maintain the utmost respect for human life, from the time of conception.”
It was human life that engendered such awe, the creature before whom we stood in reverence, for in this creature we saw even more than ourselves. We could see the very image of God himself. We were not simply one species among others. As the psalmist, and later the apostle would declare: “What is man, O Lord, that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You have made him a little lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, subjecting all things under his feet” (Heb. 2:6–8).
The bard and playwright Shakespeare declared with equal eloquence: “What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties . . . in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals” (Hamlet, act 2, scene 2).
But it was man’s godlike qualities that set him apart. His dignity was a participatory dignity, for One alone is truly good, the One in whose image we knew we had been created and by whom we have been redeemed.
That living reality, which engendered such reverence, now lies in untold numbers of petri dishes. Those formerly awe-inspiring beings are now experimented upon, dissected, cloned. They are frozen, in suspended animation, in countless containers of liquid nitrogen. Man has been increasingly stripped of his godlike qualities even as he presumes to act more and more like God.
One of the developers of in vitro fertilization (IVF) declared that it is a sin to bring a deformed child into the world. But the Incarnate God whom we worship is described thus:
There were many who were astonished at him—so marred was his appearance. (Is. 52:14)
He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him . . . a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity. (Is. 53:2–3)
That is the God of whom we had stood in awe and whom we would see and venerate in the weakest, the sickest, the most vulnerable. Now, in our contemporary culture of death, these are the very ones who are viewed as expendable, as the source of cells, tissue, and organs for the benefit of others.
Uncreated Man & Beast
It is the overarching philosophy of abject materialism that has robbed man of his dignity. The supposed material origins of even human life are not even questioned in our day. The Princeton molecular biologist Lee Silver states baldly what he believes to be the truth: “Most biologists believe that life had to coalesce spontaneously from inanimate matter on earth” (Remaking Eden, 28). Yet the position that is truly unreasonable is that this creature “noble in reason . . . infinite in faculties” could have spontaneously arisen from inanimate matter.
In truth we cannot properly speak of man without speaking of the One who has created him. In fact, without his creator, man is, quite fundamentally, unintelligible.
In his book, Existentialism, the atheist Jean Paul Sartre says there is no human nature because there is no God to creatively conceive it. The Catholic German philosopher Josef Pieper maintained that Sartre’s logic was unassailable. If Sartre’s premise were accepted, i.e., that there is no God, then his conclusion would naturally follow: There is no human nature.
Pieper pointed out that anything has a nature by virtue of its having been created. A pair of eyeglasses are eyeglasses precisely because that is what they were created to be. The creator of anything bestows the nature upon what has been created. If there is no Creator God, then there is no human nature as such. Human beings would simply be so much raw material, so much stuff, to be manipulated and used, redirected and reconstituted at the whim of those who had power over them.
Human dignity, and the safeguards put in place to acknowledge and protect that dignity, were derived in our civilization primarily from our recognition that we had a Creator. Innocent human life was sacred because the One in whose image it was created and by whom it was created was known and acknowledged as sacred.
However, today we live in a desacralized, secularized society. Nothing is sacred any longer, not even innocent human life. Not only is human life no longer sacred, it is no longer even understood for what it is. Having lost sight of God, we no longer understand even who or what man is.
Medical science now treats man as veterinary medicine had dealt with lower animals. Contraceptive and reproductive techniques, some of which have been around for centuries, were never applied to human beings until our own day. Camel drivers on caravans wanted to prevent the female camels from becoming pregnant during the trek across the desert. So they would simply thrust a stone up into the camel’s uterus. Centuries later in America we now thrust IUDs into women’s uteruses for the same reason.
Cats would be spayed, dogs neutered. Now we do it to human beings. Artificial insemination has long been standard in the breeding of cattle. We now do it to women. Human life in its coming into being is no longer considered human life and is subjected to experimentation and the ignominy of cryopreservation. We no longer treat human beings with the awe and reverence due to those endowed with the divine image.
The words of the Second Vatican Council have proven to be prophetic in our own day: “When God is forgotten . . . the creature itself grows unintelligible” (Gaudium et Spes, 36).
When Karol Wojtyla wrote his first encyclical as Pope John Paul II, he dedicated it to the human person and warned of the implications of this practical atheism of the West:
Man’s situation in the modern world seems indeed to be far removed from the objective demands of the moral order, from the requirements of justice, and even more of social love. We are dealing here only with that which found expression in the Creator’s first message to man at the moment in which He was giving him the earth, to “subdue” it. This first message was confirmed by Christ the Lord in the mystery of the Redemption. . . . The essential meaning of this “kingship” and “dominion” of man over the visible world, which the Creator Himself gave man for his task, consists in the priority of ethics over technology, in the primacy of the person over things, and in the superiority of spirit over matter. (Redemptor Hominis [RH], 16)
As the English cultural historian Christopher Dawson put it in his Progress and Religion, “It is the religious impulse which supplies the cohesive force which unifies a society and a culture. . . . A society which has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its soul.”
And when the soul of a society has been lost, it is man himself who ultimately suffers. As Pope John Paul II has said: “We have before us here a great drama that can leave nobody indifferent. The person who, on the one hand, is trying to draw the maximum profit and, on the other hand, is paying the price in damage and injury, is always man” (RH, 16).
Injury & Condemnation
What does this mean for man as the biotech century dawns? Myriad new ways have been developed for engendering human life, and many of them result in man paying the price in damage and injury, even as he tries to draw the maximum profit.
Surrogate mothers are often indigent women who are willing to subject themselves to being artificially inseminated and to the dangers of pregnancy and to the relinquishing of the rights and obligations toward their own child in exchange for the fee to be earned through the procedure. To ensure a greater chance of a successful pregnancy through IVF, several embryos will be engendered. Only the healthy will survive the petri dish. Once a number of embryos have been implanted in the woman’s womb, usually only one of them will survive so-called fetal reduction. What appear to be good and noble undertakings result in the wastage of human life and a violation of the integrity of marriage.
When I met for several hours with the CEO of Advance Cell Technology, who was cloning human beings with cow and human eggs, he was amazed to learn that the Catholic Church had actually condemned cloning in 1987. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had issued an “instruction” that morally assessed various means of overcoming infertility.
One reason for his amazement was the fact that the Church had condemned cloning at a time when the scientific community thought the cloning of mammals was impossible. Donum Vitae (DV ) was issued in 1987, ten years before the first cloning of a mammal, the sheep Dolly. At the same time, the Church condemned the engendering of human life through parthenogenesis, a technique that has been developed, albeit not yet successfully, in only the last few months.
How was the Church able to anticipate and morally assess a means of engendering life before it had even been tried? How is it equipped to reflect morally on human developments even before they occur?
The Church can accomplish this because it is, as Pope Paul VI said, “the expert in humanity.” The Church knows human nature, in its created state, in its fallen condition, and in its redeemed state. The Church knows whence man has come and whither he is going. The Church knows the purposes for which man was created and so can unerringly judge whether certain actions will thwart those purposes.
Moving from Crime to Right
It is impossible to address the ethical issues of reproductive technologies or cloning or stem-cell research without seeing that the debates surrounding them take place in a cultural context, a context that fundamentally shapes the debate itself and gives meaning to the words being used. The truth is that in any society there is always a dominant view of the world that frames the debates and is so pervasive that it is not even questioned.
There are certain cultural presuppositions in our own society that are the starting points for conversation, for public policy, and for our common life. These presuppositions function as cultural coordinates that help society navigate from one point to the next. They are not questioned any more than sailors would question the position of the stars by which they navigate from port to port.
There are indeed a number of such cultural coordinates, and the ones most prominent in our society go by the names of moral relativism, utilitarianism, and human autonomy. And the one word that has come to embody them all in popular culture is choice. I will choose whether I live or die—and if you are sufficiently weak and vulnerable and dependent, I will choose whether you live or die.
Pope John Paul II issued a remarkably insightful encyclical a few years ago entitled Evangelium Vitae, or The Gospel of Life. Some hailed this encyclical as a major advance in the development of moral teaching, since the encyclical had moved very close to making infallible pronouncements on the direct killing of the innocent—abortion and euthanasia. While the encyclical presents clear, forceful, and unequivocal teachings, it cannot be seen as an advance since that teaching has always been in place, both in the hearts of men, as St. Paul reminds us in Romans, and in the written Word of God: “Thou shalt not murder.”
Even so, this encyclical does provide a penetrating reflection upon and analysis of the underlying cultural presuppositions that have given rise to what the pope has called “the culture of death.” The encyclical is fundamentally a critique of culture—our culture, our advanced, technological, secularized culture. The pope poses more a cultural question than a moral one when he asks in the encyclical: How is it possible that what was abhorred as a crime in very recent history has now come to be claimed as a human right? How is it possible?
What has happened culturally is that the liberal, Enlightenment, secularist worldview has now come to dominate our society and has suppressed or choked off any mode of discourse that acknowledges the spiritual, the transcendent, the supernatural, the divine. As a consequence, it is impossible to understand the nature of the human person, who even in his natural state is the image of the ineffable God who has created him. Remember that it is an insight of natural reason, not divine revelation, that there is a God who has created the world, which is by virtue of that creation intelligible.
Doing Good Badly
As a Catholic, I am not surprised that individuals are trying to accomplish good through many of these new procedures in the so-called reproductive technologies. Still, the use of the term reproductive instead of procreative and the application of the notion of technologies to the engendering of new human life vividly illustrate the dehumanization of the human person that has occurred in our secularized, godless culture.
But as I said, I am not surprised that individuals are trying to accomplish good through these procedures, to overcome infertility or other problems inhibiting the generation of new life. This should not surprise Catholics because the Catholic Church espouses a positive philosophical anthropology or understanding of the human person. The doctrine of “the total depravity of man” is not of the Catholic religious tradition. We believe that what fundamentally drives human behavior is a search for happiness and a desire to do good.
When I met with the other scientists at Advanced Cell Technology, I pointed out that the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not define sin fundamentally as an act against God’s will or his commandments or his laws. The Catechism teaches that “sin is an offense against reason, truth and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods” (1849).
One of the scientists who had been cloning himself by using cells from the inside of his cheek exclaimed, “Wow, sin as an act against reason!” He began writing down the quote and asked, “Who said that again?” To his incredulity, I pointed out again that it was the teaching of the Catholic Church.
But the understanding of sin within the Catholic tradition is that the act is not only “an act against reason” but also involves “a perverse attachment to certain goods.” The anthropology of our religious tradition is such that we see even in human sin a natural human attachment to “certain goods.” So Catholics are not surprised when they are told by those whom they are trying to dissuade from immoral actions that these individuals are only trying to do good. This is what we understand to be the motivation for human behavior.
The biotech researcher wants to obtain embryonic stem cells, which are pluripotent, to see if he might not be able to tease them into becoming neurological cells to help cure Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. He has no particular ghoulish pleasure in destroying human embryos. The physician sets about to abort the anencephalic child because he wants to help the parents avoid an emotionally wrenching and difficult birth and the early death of their child, not because he hates children. The fertility technician engenders eight embryos in petri dishes, instead of just one, to increase the chances that a couple will be able to overcome their heartbreaking infertility. The surrogate mother who already has two children of her own is willing to endure the difficulties of another pregnancy to help an infertile couple have their own child—or to make more money for her own family. Reproductive scientists feel bad for the lesbian couple unable to have a child of their own genetic makeup and devise a technique to make this possible. Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis is used to avoid implanting a child who will be a hemophiliac.
Restoring Our True Dignity
The Catholic is not surprised by the great good all these individuals want to bring about. In fact, he expects that they will be so motivated. Our task is to bring them to see that, even as they want to do good things, the means they are choosing may not be good—in fact, they may be wretchedly evil because they assault fundamental human goods. The heart of the immoral behavior is not that these people are seeking to do evil, and it certainly is not that these individuals have an attachment to certain goods, but rather that the attachment to the goods they seek is disordered in some way.
The fundamental moral principle that applies in bioethics is the same one that applies in economics, just war theory, medicine, and social communications: Primum non nocere. “First of all, do no harm.” All of the actions cited earlier—abortion, in vitro fertilization, pre-implantation, genetic screening—are meant to enhance human happiness, human flourishing. There is the desire to have children when that is not possible or to avoid children when having them would appear to hurt someone. There is the burning wish to save lives or to overcome crippling pathologies. There is, in a word, a desire to promote human flourishing. But what must be avoided in that pursuit is anything that would violate human dignity, because that would vitiate the very good that is being sought.
The resolution of these dreadful social and moral evils will be accomplished only through the re-evangelization of culture, so that we can once again come to know the true nature of the human person, of marital love, and of establishing and raising families.
Many of the activities taking place within the so-called reproductive technologies industry, and many of the attitudes that are fostered toward the human person within that industry, put the lie to the good that is sought.
Great human good can come from contemporary advances in microbiology and biochemistry, but these advances will turn to bitter ash if they are achieved at the expense of the human person. This human embryo lying in a petri dish was created a little lower than the angels and is destined to be crowned in glory and honor. To destroy it, to experiment upon it, to use it for the benefit of others is to violate its dignity and the dignity of those who would so use it.
The Catholic Church teaches in Donum Vitae that
the fruit of human generation, from the first moment of its existence, that is to say, from the moment the zygote has formed, demands the unconditional respect that is morally due to the human being in his bodily and spiritual totality. The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life (DV, I.1).
The “gift of life” itself has been under assault, as Donum Vitae goes on to point out: “This century has so far been a century of great calamities for man, of great devastations, not only material ones but also moral ones, indeed, perhaps above all, moral ones” (17). This new century may be one of new human hope only if we enthusiastically undertake the re-evangelization of culture under the teaching and governing authority of the Church, because the transcendent vision of the human person must be restored if man is to be safe even in his natural condition.
John M. Haas is a former contributing editor of Touchstone. This article was adapted from a paper presented at the Integritas Forum’s Second Annual Symposium on Human Dignity & Contemporary Health Science, March 4, 2002, at the University of Illinois at Chicago.