Playing God?

The Challenge of Bioethics

Playing God?

The Challenge of Bioethics

Inside the Vatican, January 2001

By John Mallon

Just before 1900 during the “Belle Epoch,” there was a curious interest in the idea of “human engineering,” as many suspected the new age following the industrial revolution would again tempt man to play God. This is reflected in such books as Mary Shelly's Frankenstein. 

Some 40 years later these Gothic horror tales were made into films of extraordinary atmosphere portraying such archetypical symbols as Frankenstein, (a manmade “man”), the werewolf or wolfman, (a man turned into an monstrous animal), and Dracula, the diabolical “undead man” addicted, and doomed to roam the darkness feeding on the lifeblood of others, making them like him but stopped in his tracks by the light of day and the Cross of Christ.

In the century since, the theme of human engineering and inhuman social reform cropped up with tragic frequency. The field of eugenics, much discussed at the beginning of the twentieth century, drew the interest of people like Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood. She even conferred with Nazi scientists whose interest with the eugenics led to experiment on helpless human beings. 

Nitzche’s notion of the “Übermensch” (the superman) and the German book, On the Subject of Life Unworthy of Life, published in the 1920s, influenced Adolph Hitler who wove eugenic thinking into the mix of occult and twisted Teutonic mythology upon which he began to build his empire.

As the world strove to dig out and recover from World War II, Americans safe at home sought peace and prosperity as the Cold War and the arms race began. But by the 1960s a new generation came of age. Pope Paul VI's warnings of what would be set in motion if contraception became commonplace were scoffed at and ignored. Contraception led to abortion, which ushered in an ethos of convenience over human life. That in turn led to euthanasia and to the current Pandora's Box of bioethical questions. 

With computer technology leap-frogging ahead at the end of the 20th century in a way that even the computer manufacturers could barely keep up with, at the beginning of the 21st century biotechnology took off at a pace so rapid there was barely time for the accompanying ethical questions to be asked, much less answered. In short, the turn of the millennium witnessed the return of Dr. Frankenstein.

But now, after decades of abortion-induced relativism, humanity’s very capacity to make sound judgments about the ethical issues involved seems marred. A terrible pragmatism and utilitarianism had taken hold. 

In England on December 19, [2000] parliament, by a vote of 366 to 174 approved a measure allowing experimentation on any fetus less than 14 days old. Bishop Elio Sgreggia, vice president of the Pontifical Academy for Life and director of the Bioethics Institute of Catholic University in Rome, told Vatican Radio the decision is “one of the most catastrophic events of the millennium’s end.” We agree.

The Church, especially Pope John Paul II, a keen student of history and morality, anticipated much of this. John Paul began issuing documents and forming pontifical commissions for the study of these matters as soon as he became Pope in 1978. (The Pontifical Council for the Family, The Pontifical Academy for Life are two such bodies).

Terrible questions face us as biotechnology seeks ever more scope for its work: fetal tissue experimentation, human cloning, animal-human hybrids, (and patents on them), assisted suicide, euthanasia, human stem-cell experimentation, genetically engineered foods, in vitro fertilization, genetic manipulation, "designer babies," xenotransplantation, (animal-to-human organ, cell and tissue transplantation), genetic discrimination, (being rejected from getting a job or medical insurance because of a genetic profile via DNA chips, a screening tool now used to detect genetic traits, showing indications of present or future medical problems). 

In the US lawmakers have been considering a ban on Partial-Birth Abortion, a ban on the harvesting of baby body parts, and a ban on experimenting with human embryos, (the Unborn Victims ofViolence Act, the Innocent Child Protection Act, and the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act). But the British precedent is not a hopeful sign.

It is a Catholic principle that just because something can be done it does not mean that it should be done. Enter Dr. Frankenstein. Inevitably there will be those who have no regard or interest in Church statements or authentic human anthropology who will attempt certain acts simply because they can be done. 

No one knows what sort of creature would result from wild experiments in human-animal hybridization, although experiments are being done at the cellular level on pig-human hybrids in hopes of raising and harvesting transplantable organs to reduce the danger of cellular rejection in transplant recipients. What if such experiments were taken further? Who knows what could result from the patenting and production of chimeras (mixed-species creatures)?  

The lure of power or profit has already launched human cloning attempts, and it seems it seems likely that cloned humans will soon exist. What would be the nature of a cloned human? Spiritually? Psychologically? 

Human cloning was condemned in the 1987 instruction Donum vitae, and the Pontifical Academy of Life recently issued a clarion call to humanity to halt the human cloning project.

“The idea is fostered that some individuals can have total dominion over the existence of others, to the point of programming their biological identity—selected according to arbitrary or purely utilitarian criteria—which, although not exhausting man's personal identity, which is characterized by the spirit, is a constitutive part of it. This selective concept of man will have, among other things, a heavy cultural fallout beyond the—numerically limited—practice of cloning, since there will be a growing conviction that the value of man and woman does not depend on their personal identity but only on those biological qualities that can be appraised and therefore selected. ...

“The proclamation of the ‘death of God’, in the vain hope of a ‘superman’, produces an unmistakable result: the "death of man". It cannot be forgotten that the denial of man's creaturely status, far from exalting human freedom, in fact creates new forms of slavery, discrimination and profound suffering. Cloning risks being the tragic parody of God's omnipotence. 

“Man, to whom God has entrusted the created world, giving him freedom and intelligence, finds no limits to his action dictated solely by practical impossibility: he himself must learn how to set these limits by discerning good and evil. Once again man is asked to choose: it is his responsibility to decide whether to transform technology into a tool of liberation or to become its slave by introducing new forms of violence and suffering.

“The difference should again be pointed out between the conception of life as a gift of love and the view of the human being as an industrial product.

“Halting the human cloning project is a moral duty which must also be translated into cultural, social and legislative terms. 

“The progress of scientific research is not the same as the rise of scientific despotism, which today seems to be replacing the old ideologies. In a democratic, pluralistic system, the first guarantee of each individual's freedom is established by unconditionally respecting human dignity at every phase of life, regardless of the intellectual or physical abilities one possesses or lacks. In human cloning the necessary condition for any society begins to collapse: that of treating man always and everywhere as an end, as a value, and never as a mere means or simple object. 

“The most urgent need now seems to be that of re-establishing the harmony between the demands of scientific research and indispensable human values. The scientist cannot regard the moral rejection of human cloning as a humiliation; on the contrary, this prohibition eliminates the demiurgic degeneration of research by restoring its dignity. The dignity of scientific research consists in the fact that it is one of the richest resources for humanity's welfare."

© 2007, 2020 by John Mallon