Modern Bioethic’s Identity Crisis

ChelseaCloning, Embryonic Stem Cell ResearchLeave a Comment

Fr. TadIt’s taking me a while to get back on the blogging bandwagon after taking a few days off. Please bear with me. Last week Fr. Tad Pacholczyk wrote an article for the Evening Bulletin called Recapturing the Soul of Bioethics, here’s some of it:

Modern bioethics seems to be going through a kind of identity crisis. With ethicists available for hire, drug companies and biotech firms have easy access to “experts” who can provide them with the veneer of respectability if they decide to head in the direction of unethical science. Erwin Chargaff, a pioneer in the field of biochemistry, once quipped that, “Bioethics didn’t become an issue until ethics started being breached. Bioethics is an excuse to allow everything that is unethical.” One common approach to allowing the unethical is to claim that, “We have already made certain choices, and now we really must move on to the next step – we must yield to the inexorable progress of science.” Rather than examining and rejecting certain poor choices that may have been made in prior years, and trying to regain lost ground, bioethicists today unwittingly continue to grease the slippery slopes by their lack of courage in disavowing some of the unethical practices they have aided and abetted in the past.
Today, for example, we see enormous pressure on the public to support embryo-destructive stem cell research. Where do the embryonic humans come from that are to be destroyed for this research? They come from in vitro fertilization (IVF), a practice very few bioethicists have been willing to confront or challenge. IVF has become a kind of “sacred cow” that few outside the Catholic Church are willing to question. Yet it requires very little ethical reflection to see, for example, how making “extra” embryos during IVF and freezing them is a grave moral problem. Relatively few countries (among them Italy and Germany) have legal restrictions regarding IVF. In Italy, it is illegal to freeze embryos, and whenever you do IVF, you are not permitted to make more than three embryos at a time, all of which must be implanted into the woman. Germany has a similar law, and the country has almost no frozen embryos as a result. Such a law is a straightforward attempt to limit some of the collateral damage from IVF, and any reasonable person can see the benefit of enacting such legislation. But in the United States, we face what has been termed the “wild west of infertility,” where few regulations of any kind exist and close to half a million frozen embryos are trapped in liquid nitrogen tanks in fertility clinics. As couples get older and no longer intend to implant their own embryos, researchers begin to clamor for those embryos to use in their research experiments. Bioethicists and politicians then further muddy the waters by suggesting that “they are all going to be thrown away anyway,” which is neither true nor morally relevant. Even when somebody else will perform the dastardly deed of destroying a group of humans (discarding them as medical waste), that does not suddenly make it OK for me to choose to destroy them with my own hands. Here we have a perfect opportunity for some serious introspection about the mistakes of the past, an opportune moment to limit some of the collateral damage from IVF through laws like Italy’s and Germany’s. Yet one finds very few bioethicists willing to step up to the plate to tackle such an unpopular topic…

Bioethics is an exceedingly important discipline for the future of our society, addressing critical issues in science and life. This discipline cannot afford to compromise its integrity as new controversies arise, selling its soul to the highest bidder or playing to powerful special-interest groups like universities or biotech companies. Only by rejecting the demands of expediency and courageously acknowledging past mistakes can it regain the kind of principled moral foundation and credibility it needs to effectively assist scientists, medical professionals and researchers in the future.

For more on Biotech’s slippery slope check out his column of a few years ago: The Slippery Slope of Biotechnology. It is a fabulous resource for trying to understand how we got here in the first place.

Hat Tip: Mary Meets Dolly

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