It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.—attributed to Albert Einstein
BIOTECHNOLOGY: APPLICATIONS OF SCIENCE THAT AFFECT HUMANS
In Part I of this series I argued that the Church should not judge the merit of scientific propositions. Nevertheless, the Church has been involved with science since medieval times, as I showed In Part II. Moreover, Pope St. John Paul II tried to bring about a rapprochement with science; this should be a model for how the Church should deal with science, as I discussed in Part III.
Here, in Part IV, I’ll address issues related to technology, focusing on biotechnology. By “technology” I mean applications of science to procedures, drugs or instruments. And, why biotechnology? Because this is the technology that affects how we exist as humans, as souls with a body. Also, I want to emphasize that such applications do not modify extant theories or lead to new ones. The examples given below will, I hope, make this distinction clearer.
BIOETHICS: THE SANCTITY OF HUMAN LIFE
… thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb.
I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made..—Psalm 139:13,14 (KJV)
The Catholic Church proclaims the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death. See the Catholic Catechism and posts in this blog for a detailed account. Catholic teaching balances on a tightrope, how to use medical science to save our lives from disease and accident while still adhering to Doctrine and Dogma. On the one side of the tightrope there is extreme technology, “unnatural means,” that would change our biological nature. On the other side there is neglect, lack of medical care: for example, not vaccinating children for measles.
We will examine this tension between care and doctrine for the following special cases: contraception, abortion, gene modification.
THE CHURCH ON CONTRACEPTION
In his encyclical, Humana Vitae, Pope Bl. Paul VI emphasized the role of procreation in marriage, that the marital act should always be open to creation of a new life:
Each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life [emphasis added]… This particular doctrine, expounded on numerous occasions by the Magisterium, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage pact. Pope Bl. Paul VI, Humana Vitae 11,12
Accordingly, any chemical treatment which destroys sperm, stops ovulation, prevents a fertilized ovum from inplantation into the uterus, or otherwise prevents conception violates Catholic principles.
THE CHURCH ON ABORTION
Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being.
—Catholic Catechism, 2258
The quote above from the Catholic Catechism says it all. I’ve argued in an article, “Science and Catholic Teaching: Human Life, Sacred from Conception to Birth,” that science shows life begins at conception. I won’t repeat those arguments here, other than to say there is no sharp demarcation point for the developing embryo or foetus giving a division: before this time a non-living thing, afterwards a living human.
THE CHURCH ON IN VITRO FERTILIZATION
The Catholic teaching on abortion also applies to a medical procedure with entirely different goals, in vitro fertilizatIon (IVF). I’ll just summarize what is given in more detail in “Begotten, Not Made,” a publication of the USCCB (US Conference of Catholic Bishops).
In IVF eggs collected from the mother are manually fertilized in a laboratory dish by sperm collected from the father. One or more embryos (fertilized eggs) are then implanted in the uterus of the mother-to-be. The remaining embryos are either put into cold storage or disposed of.
There are two ways in which this procedure violates Catholic teaching:
- conception takes place outside the marital act, the act of conjugal love;
- disposing of unwanted embryos is killing.
As Catholics we believe that life begins at conception, endowed with a soul, and is therefore human. Thus, disposing of an embryo is murder, as in abortion.
Dr. Haas eloquently makes the case for point 1, above:
Children should arise from an act of love between a husband and wife, in cooperation with God. No human being can “create” the image of God. That is why we say that human beings “procreate” with God. Engendering children is a cooperative act among husband, wife, and God himself. Children, in the final analysis, should be begotten not made. —John Haas, Ph.D., “Begotten Not Made“
THE CHURCH ON GENE MODIFICATION: THERAPY, NOT ENHANCEMENT
Gene modification can serve two purposes: therapy or enhancement. The Church approves gene modification only for therapy. As I’ve remarked in another article, the demarcation between these goals isn’t always clear.
Here are the general guidelines given by the Church:
On the other hand, interventions which are not directly curative, the purpose of which is “the production of human beings selected according to sex or other predetermined qualities,” [emphasis added] which change the genotype of the individual and of the human species, “are contrary to the personal dignity of the human being, to his integrity and to his identity. Therefore they can be in no way justified on the pretext that they will produce some beneficial results for humanity in the future. Charter for Health Care Workers, Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance.
GENE MODIFICATION: THE BLURRED DIVIDING LINE
Here, for example, are some diseases and conditions that are genetic in origin and could conceivably be eradicated through genetic manipulation: Huntington’s chorea (Woody Guthrie’s disease), hemophilia, sickle cell anemia, susceptibility to breast cancer, to mention just a few.
Let’s examine the borderline situations. What about conditions that may disable a person, make him more liable to die at a younger age, or are secondary causes of disease, for example:
- obesity (as a precondition for circulatory problems),
- depression (as a precondition for addiction or suicide)?
- babies with Down syndrome?
What do the prescriptions laid out by the Charter tell us here? Would genetic manipulation to avoid such problems be treatment or enhancement? It’s not altogether clear where the borderline is, because the question is so large and invites so much subjective reasoning.
POPE ST. JOHN PAUL II: RESPECT THE DIGNITY AND IDENTITY OF MAN
Pope St. John Paul II made a fundamental requirement clear in his address to the World Medical Association, as quoted in the encyclical Donum Vitae:
“Each human person, in his absolutely unique singularity, is constituted not only by his spirit, but by his body as well. Thus, in the body and through the body, one touches the person himself in his concrete reality. To respect the dignity of man consequently amounts to safeguarding this identity of the man ‘corpore et anima unus’ [body and soul one thing] … It is on the basis of this anthropological vision that one is to find the fundamental criteria for decision-making in the case of procedures which are not strictly therapeutic, as, for example, those aimed at the improvement of the human biological condition.”
And this quote says it all: preserve the God-given dignity of the human being in any use of biotechnology.
The reflection above is only an introduction to bioethics, how Catholics should use biotechnology. Dr. Stacy Trasancos has written a book, “20 Answers: Bioethics,” that gives a more complete exposition. I recommend it highly.
Finally, let me note that a topic not covered in this post, technology applied to our minds and consciousness, is perhaps more in the realm of science fiction than a present day concern. (See here and here.) But someday maybe it will not be science fiction.¹
¹Added 30 September, 2019. Not scifi after all. See this video from Neuralink. The company will (after suitable clinical trials) hook your brain up to computer and enable you to use “Artificial Intelligence” directly rather than through a program on a computer. And will downloading your consciousness to a computer come next?