Monday, December 15, 2008

On the Bioethics Front...

In the past week, two fairly noteworthy documents have been released...

1. Dignitas Personae

The CDF released an update to Donum Vitae entitled Dignitas Personae. A summary and a Q and A have also been released. The document focuses primarily on beginning of life issues and reproductive technologies like in vitro fertilization. The document also addresses several new issues and technologies which had not yet been formally discussed by the Magisterium. The Q&A doc explains:
Some very new issues are discussed here for the first time. Some proposed methods for altering the technique for human cloning so it will produce embryonic stem cells but not an embryo (e.g., “altered nuclear transfer”) are judged to require more study and clarification before they could ethically be applied to humans, as one would have to be certain that a new human being is never created and then destroyed by the procedure. (These cautions do not apply to an even newer technique, using genetic or chemical factors to reprogram ordinary adult cells directly into “induced pluripotent stem cells” with the versatility of embryonic stem cells. This clearly does not use an egg or create an embryo, and has not raised objections from Catholic theologians.) Proposals for “adoption” of abandoned or unwanted frozen embryos are also found to pose problems, because the Church opposes use of the gametes or bodies of others who are outside the marital covenant for reproduction. The document raises cautions or problems about these new issues but does not formally make a definitive judgment against them. The document also goes into far more detail than past documents in raising moral concerns about use of “germ-line” genetic engineering in human beings, for treatments and especially for supposed “enhancement” or tailoring of human characteristics.
Despite all the cautions, the CDF attempts to emphasize that the Church's overall attitude toward bioethical research is a positive one, provided that the dignity of the human person is always respected and made a top priority of all research. The document explains:
Behind every “no” in the difficult task of discerning between good and evil, there shines a great “yes” to the recognition of the dignity and inalienable value of every single and unique human being called into existence.
Interesting stuff. I only wish they had addressed end of life issues. Important and difficult questions remain, but an update to Donum Vitae was needed and is helpful.

2. The Dignity of Chimeras

For those of you who may not know, a chimera is some sort of hybrid animal, in this case, part-human part-something else. Chimeras have for the most part been creatures of fantasy and sci-fi... up until now. Crazy stuff!

The British Parliament has drafted a Human Tissue and Embryo Bill. One of the issues addressed in the bill is chimeras. If the bill is passed, "the creation of animal-human embryos - created by injecting animal cells or DNA into human embryos or human cells into animal eggs" - will now be legal. Wow! Another instance of scientists using the dangerous philosophical approach of "let's see what we can do" rather than asking "should we even be doing this." This could potentially be very dangerous stuff, which is why the bill mandates that if a scientist chooses to create chimeras, the part-human/part-animal hybrids must be destroyed within two weeks.

This is where the Scottish Catholic Bishops' Conference stepped in. Now if you read about the bishops' statement on a secular news site, you will probably only hear that the bishops said that the chimeras must be treated with dignity, their right-to-life must be respected, mothers whose eggs are used to create chimeras must be given the right to bring their child to term, etc. Predictably, that's not an entirely accurate representation of what the Scottish bishops had to say.

First they called for the bill to be rejected by Parliament saying that creating human hybrid creatures is horrific and breaks a moral boundary which is not to be crossed. Only after denouncing the bill in toto and calling the creation of chimeras alarming and horrific did they proceed to add that if a chimera were created, "it should not be a crime to transfer them, or other human embryos, to the body of the woman providing the ovum, in cases where a human ovum has been used to create them" and "Such a woman is the genetic mother, or partial mother, of the embryo; should she have a change of heart and wish to carry her child to term,
she should not be prevented from doing so." The bishops conclude "at very least, embryos with a preponderance of human genes should be assumed to be embryonic human beings and should be treated accordingly."

This makes sense to me. The bishops are right to be alarmed to call for the denunciation of this "research." However, we cannot know whether or not these hybrids would be persons or not. In order to play it safe and prevent ourselves from murdering innocent persons with intrinsic dignity and an inherent right-to-life, we must allow (and demand!?) that they be taken to term and treated as any other person once they are created.

Sigh... God help us!

More coverage here and here.

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