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Embryonic Manipulation and Ethics

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8/28/2004 -  David Morrell, Hillsdale, MI writes ...
Public Ethics
      Post to Main Thread   Reply to David Morrell

The social maxim “knowledge is power” echoes throughout society as we move towards the outer limits of biotechnological innovation. Francis Bacon, a philosopher and scientist, championed this phrase. Bacon believed that society must work towards new scientific investigation in order to manipulate nature and improve the human condition. With the rise of human achievement in science, the ever-pressing issues regarding biotechnology move to the forefront of our social and moral concerns. At stake in the debate over biotechnology is not a change in our nature, but rather the potential abolishment of our very essence and the degradation of human life. This year’s presidential election will have a large impact on this debate and the future policies regarding biotechnology.

Biotechnology, in the simplest sense, is the technical manipulation of living organisms to provide or create products and services that satisfy human desires. Contemporary biotechnology began in the early 1970’s when scientists completed the first conclusive research dealing with the manipulation of genes, with respect to cloning, and the natural order of humans and animals. Scientists have pushed this technology to its furthest limits, developing new medicines, body parts, and embryos for implantation.

In 1992 bacteria made human insulin for the first time, which was the first drug approved by the FDA that was a product of biotechnology. As our science changes, so does the nature of our moral dilemmas. The use of various forms of biotechnology and reprogenetics poses not only potential dangers inherent in genetic modifications, but inevitable ramifications from the alteration of human life. Artificial wombs, altered genes, and constructed babies are among the possibilities that lay ahead of this nascent technology. Human nature may one day forever change due to the pervasive use of biotechnology; a scientific and social revolution passes before our eyes as more parents see their children as commodities rather than the product of love.

The moral dangers of experimentation and use of human embryos are many. The common limitation on the use of embryos is 14 days. However, many argue that this number is nothing more than an arbitrary limit that scientists will push farther, under the guise of utility in research. The zygote itself and all of the subsequent embryonic stages go through the most complex chemical reactions known in the universe: no other cells on earth have full organismal interactions as does the embryo. Within such a small clump of cells exists a magnificent body plan; to interfere with an embryo’s development is to interfere with a stage of human growth. It is necessary to calculate the possibility of human life coming from the embryo as a future reality; potentiality is reality. The embryo is something, although small, that must be treated as a human being. It is impossible for a healthy embryo to become anything but a human being and thus, it carries the moral status of a human being. The fact that life is vulnerable and fragile at an early stage does not lessen the moral impact of destroying it. There is an intrinsic value to human life that is found in every stage of development because of the sanctity placed on life by its Creator.
The use of reprogenetics cannot but devalue human life when its use rests upon a utilitarian framework in which the ends justify the means. Despite “precautions” taken in this research, the degradation of human nature is unavoidable with such a technology in a consequential framework. This framework involves the idea that as long as the greatest good is done to the greatest number of people, the means will always be justified; the means could be horrendous, but as long as the pleasures outweigh the pains, the technology is vindicated. Consequences exist that are beyond the ends in the cost-benefit calculus.

A decision that has serious consequences regarding humanity cannot be left to handful of scientists. In finding specific solutions to the potential problems faced with this technology, the debate over biotechnology should be turned into a political debate. If this happens, it would sharpen intellects and focus the challenges and questions over the technology. President Bush has already begun to politicize this debate by putting together a presidential board of advisors on bioethics. Like the President, we must look to and follow the principles set forth by the Founders and the God that this “one nation” is under.

As we go to vote in November, remember that Francis Bacon was right in saying that “knowledge is power.” But this is far from a justification for the pursuit of power that will fundamentally harm humanity as we know it. The cries for progress must be limited within the bounds respecting all forms of human life.

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