Posts tagged with: embryo

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, April 2, 2008
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In recent years the UK has emerged as a key player in both genetic experimentation and in corresponding legal battles over the extent to which the government ought to regulate such research. The latest news coming from across the pond involves passage of a bill legalizing the creation of human-animal hybrids with certain restrictions (regarding type and length of survival).

Three members of the governing cabinet were “reportedly considering resignation if forced to back the Bill.” Controversy arose over the call from Roman Catholic bishops in the UK to allow MPs and cabinet members a “free vote” on the bill, allowing them to enjoy freedom of conscience as informed by their faith.

Since the creation of the first hybrid embryo was announced yesterday, religious leaders are calling for the creation of a national bioethics commission.

This has brought some strong reactions from critics of the Catholic and generally “pro-life” position.

My own views were lately characterized as representative of the “Roman Catholic and generally free market think tank, the Acton Institute,” and were then conflated with the reasoning of evangelical scientist Cal DeWitt (with whom I do share denominational affiliation).

According to the Reason piece, the distinction I make between the treatment of plants and animals is “based upon the idea that while God commanded Noah to save animal lineages, the Almighty said nothing about preserving plants on the Ark.” (Update: Joe Carter does a thorough and articulate job of dissecting Bailey’s article here).

In fact, in the piece in which I outline a theological framework for evaluating GM foods, I don’t mention Noah at all. And in proposing a similar framework for evaluating the treatment of animals, my only reference to Noah has to do with the inauguration and the terms of the covenant, not with the fact that the animals were preserved on the Ark.

Christian reasoning about the general treatment of animals and concerns with the role of human stewardship are not based on some obscure biblical text, as Bailey’s dismissive allusion would lead us to believe. There is an overarching biblical theme that has to do with human responsibility over the natural world, plants and animals included.

Rev. Leonard Vander Zee, for instance, uses a reference coming at the very end of the book of Jonah as a point of departure, linking it definitively to the foundational “dominion” mandate in the first chapter of Genesis. He summarizes developments in human stewardship and science this way:

State universities used to be known for their programs of “animal husbandry.” What a wonderful term. To husband the animals is to care for them, to provide for their welfare, as well as to use them for human benefit. In the past few decades, most such programs have become departments of animal science, which makes it possible to look on animals as laboratory specimens we can manipulate.

We needn’t agree with the particular conclusions that Vander Zee draws in order to agree that responsible stewardship is a biblical mandate. Clearly the idea of “animal husbandry” is closer to the biblical picture than “animal science.”

The core problem that Bailey and others have with this theological and moral insight is not that it draws too fine a distinction, but that it proposes to set any limits to research at all. That’s why religious opposition to certain kinds of research (or farming practices, for that matter) have to be construed as wholesale opposition to learning, science, and advancement.

But instead, we might also note with Aquinas that the abuse of something does not destroy it’s legitimate use. Christians do believe that scientific knowledge is a legitimate pursuit and indeed a divine calling. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t limits to legitimate practice. And identifying and defining those limits is precisely what these disagreements are all about.

With great ability comes great responsibility. With apologies to Browning, we might say that man’s scientific reach has exceeded his moral grasp.

Recently the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum, one of the many Catholic universities in Rome, drew together church leaders and scientists from around the globe to discuss the nitty-gritty of embryology in a three day conference on bioethics, “Ontogeny and Human Life.” The presentations ranged from juridical and biomedical topics to the philosophical and theological aspects of developing persons. (A conference program is available in PDF form here.)

I was unable to attend all of the sessions, but some of the speakers included William Hurlbut of Stanford University, Scott Gilbert of Swarthmore College, Carlo Casini of the European Parliament, and more. Like in many other conferences around Rome, a serious attempt is being made to bring modern science and classical metaphysics together for a better understanding of the human person. The common lay person may be scratching his or her head wondering what influence ancient Greece and medieval clerics could have on white-jacket researchers in laboratories.

The beginning of human life is a hotly debated issue these days, but we would be mistaken in assuming that our generation is the first to take it up. However, without modern science the theories of fetal development proposed by Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas are comical in their simplicity. This was obvious when Prof. Labeaga of the Regina Apostolorum presented on “The Concept of Embryo in Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas and the Question of Ensoulment,” which provoked many smiles when taken in contrast with the latest in embryology.

The Catholic Church finds herself in a unique position in this arena. She is often seen in opposition to progress and science, when in fact many crucial modern developments were made by her faithful followers. In the papal encyclical Fides et Ratio, John Paul II examined this point and encouraged science and religion to continue to develop a relationship of dialogue, each enriching the other. Bioethics has a lot to learn about the human person, but most importantly, it still has much to learn about human dignity as well. The Church for her part should not fear the discoveries of science, because truth is never contradictory, and nature only serves to illuminate and illustrate what God has divinely ordained. Looking at ultrasounds of developing human beings, tracing the intricacies of genetic code, and acknowledging how a mother and father are fundamentally designed to create, support, and nourish a new life all bring this mystery to light.

After modern science has dissected its disciplines into various categories, it is the human person as a whole that brings them all back together and helps one inform the other. Science serves man, just as government, economics, and the arts do as well. Science also reminds man that he is dust, and to dust he shall return, but without religion that is where he stays.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, September 5, 2007
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The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) in the UK has given generic approval allowing “human-animal embryos to be created and used for research.” According to a Christian Science Monitor report, Evan Harris, “a lawmaker on a parliamentary committee that has oversight in this field,” says that “No scientist I have found has provided scientific reasons as opposed to religiously based ethical reasons for not proceeding,” he adds, even though his committee “looked high and low for such scientists.”

Typically the case that secular scientists make for such research is based on the necessity of the measure for their all-important research: “Stem-cell researchers say they desperately need the animal matter because not enough human eggs are available. Britain has adopted an accommodating attitude toward stem-cell science, fostering a favorable environment that scientists argue would be undermined if this latest experimentation is rejected.”

“We pride ourselves here on working in a pro-science environment,” says Stephen Minger, director of stem-cell biology at King’s College London, one of two scientists who have applied for the HFEA license. “It would be viewed as a depressing turn of events” if the application were turned down.

Anything not clearly “pro-science” in such a narrow way, like any ethic with religious foundations, is similarly understood to be archaic, obsolete, irrelevant, and reactionary.

For some such “religiously based” arguments, see my series on chimeras in five parts.

For more on how scientists and religious leaders dialogue in the public square, see Thomas M. Lessl, “The Priestly Voice,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 75, no. 2 (1989): 183-97; and this 2005 interview on science and rhetoric.

Update: Reformation21 provides a link to the “Linacre Centre Submission to the Science and Technology Committee Inquiry into Government Proposals for the Regulation of Hybrid and Chimera Embryos” (PDF). The Linacre Centre for Healthcare Ethics is a bioethics research institute under the trusteeship of the Catholic Trust for England and Wales.