On Bioethics

catholic moral standing on the special ethics of life

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The UK’s leading medical research group says that creating hybrid embryos from empty animal eggs and human genetic material is “vital” for the fight against disease. As usual, media reports stressed that the resulting cell would be 99.9% human and only 0.1% animal. “There are no substantive ethical or moral reasons not to proceed with research on human embryos containing animal material under the [current] framework of regulatory control,” says Professor Martin Bobrow, a spokesman for the Academy of Medical Sciences.The Academy’s support for the Blair government’s overhaul of fertility legislation was essentially old news. However, astonishingly, Professor Bobrow also advocated creating true hybrids by mixing human and animal gametes. (These would be destroyed within 14 days, of course, as is currently the practice.) This scenario, when mooted by opponents of therapeutic cloning, has consistently been ridiculed as an absurd fantasy by science journalists and researchers. However, it is clearly on the Academy’s agenda.

“We found no current scientific reasons to generate ‘true’ hybrid embryos by mixing human and animal gametes,” the report said. “However, given the speed of this field of research, the working group could not rule out the emergence of scientifically valid reasons in the future.” This may be the first time that this controversial possibility has been flagged publicly by a leading scientist.

The report prepares the ground for these developments by dismissing ethical objections against human-animal hybrids. For one thing, it is not contrary to human dignity, because human dignity this does not exist. The Academy seems to have been paging through Peter Singer’s ruminations on “speciesism”: “On a more fundamental level, we judge it unlikely that ‘human dignity’… derives simply from species membership. If the concept of ‘human dignity’ has content, it is because there are factors of form, function or behaviour that confer such dignity or command respect.

“Either hybrid creatures would also possess these factors or they would not. If they do possess these factors, they would also have a specific type of dignity analogous or identical to human dignity that other creatures lack; if not, they would not. Either way, the distinction between creatures that possess dignity and those that do not remains as it is now,” says the report.

Dipping their toes into the “wisdom of repugance” debate, the Academy dismisses the notion of “unnaturalness” as a reason for banning hybrids. “Not only is it very difficult to specify what unnatural’ means, but it is not clear why ‘unnaturalness’ should be bad; IVF is an ‘unnatural’ process, but it has few contemporary opponents. Vaccination and antibiotic therapy, and nearly all of modern medicine, represent a scientifically informed intervention in nature.” ~ BBC, Jun 17   




With 90% of pregnant women aborting a Down syndrome child after a positive prenatal test, American parents of Down syndrome children are turning into activists to protect their children’s future. According to a special report in the New York Times, a dwindling Down syndrome population — now about 350,000 in the US — could mean less institutional support and reduced funding. Even though many of these parents describe themselves as pro-choice, they oppose eugenics. “For me, it’s just faces disappearing,” says a New Jersey mother. “It isn’t about abortion politics or religion; its a pure ethical question.” A number of people are asking doctors to send them couples who an abortion so that they can meet their children.They have a greater sense of urgency after the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommended in January that all women, regardless of age, be offered a new screening test to detect Down syndrome early in a pregnancy. Although critics term this a “search and destroy” mission, some doctors see nothing wrong with it. Cute as they may be in childhood, they claim, Down syndrome children may be at risk of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, thus saddling ageing parents with even more onerous responsibilities. 

There are many couples who do not want to have a baby with Down syndrome,” said Deborah A. Driscoll, of the University of Pennsylvania, an author of the recommendations. “They don’t have the resources, don’t have the emotional stamina, don’t have the family support. We are recommending this testing be offered so that parents have a choice.”

But as the Times points out, doctors often paint too gloomy a picture. “She may be able to count change for the bus,” one doctor told a pregnant Delaware woman. “But what’s going to happen when the bus doesn’t come?” Her Down syndrome daughter, now 5, does not yet take the bus, but she does ride horses. ~ New York Times, May 9   


Genetic testing is shaking the mindset even of abortion advocates, says the New York Times. Although 70% of Americans would support women who terminate a pregnancy if a child has a serious genetic defect, all but the staunchest supporters of pro-choice policies question whether any defect whatsoever is reason enough. The problem is that the pro-choice stand is colliding with a commitment to tolerance of human difference. And now that tests make it possible to select for late-onset diseases like breast cancer or arthritis, and may some day make it possible to select for intelligence or eye colour — not to mention sex — pro-choice disability advocates are finding hard to draw the line.”It so buys into this consumer perspective on our children,” says Marsha Saxton, of the World Institute on Disability, in Oakland, an abortion-rights supporter.

Some religious conservatives say that they trust God to give them the child that is meant to be,” wrote Ann Althouse, a law lecturer at the University of Wisconsin, on her legal blog. “But isn’t there something equivalent for social liberals? Shouldn’t they have moral standards about what reasons are acceptable for an abortion?” ~ New York Times, May 13   




Last week BioEdge’s lead story featured research which points to the brain as the source of ethics. An even more daring theory is that the brain is the source of God. According to Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist, or rather, a neurotheologian, human beings are hard- wired to believe in God. Like a number of other researchers, he believes religion and spirituality can be explained in terms of brain processes. The frontal lobe helps to focus attention in prayer; the parietal lobe is involved in the feeling of becoming part of something greater than oneself; the limbic system is responsible for feelings of joy and awe.A number of recent books support variations of this claim. There is In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, by anthropologist Scott Atran. Last year Newberg published Why We Believe What We Believe: Uncovering Our Biological Need for Meaning, Spirituality, and Truth. Matthew Alper also released last year a revised edition of his 1996 bookThe ‘God’ Part of the Brain: A Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God.  

Of course, such ideas are hardly novel. Marx said that religion was invented to oppress the working class; Freud believed that it was an illusion which sprang from unresolved sexual conflicts. William James claimed that religious experience could be induced with drugs. But the increasing power and prominence of neuroscience suggest that in the future theological debates will centre on the brain. ~ CNN.com, Apr 4