Rebecca Taylor is guest blogging here this month. Rebecca is a Technologist in Molecular Biology, MB(ASCP) and a practicing Catholic. She has been writing and speaking about Catholicism and biotechnology for five years at her blog Mary Meets Dolly. This is the fourth installment.
More and more movies depicting a dystopian future are playing on big screens everywhere. They are usually cautionary tales of how technology ends up dominating human existence, our choices, our families, our relationships, our lives. These tales are not new. From GATTACA to The Island, from Surrogates to Limitless, what begins as man wielding his superior intellect to mold his world and harness nature ends up as individuals losing their humanity and becoming slaves to technology.
As in Surrogates, often the technology is developed as a way to cure disease or help the disabled, but applied to the common man it changes who we are and how we interact with each other. The message is clear. Technology starts out treating disease or disability. But when used to "fix" was isn’t broken it means a loss of humanity.
Surprisingly, this science fiction theme is critical in understanding human genetic engineering and what the Catholic Church says on the issue. Not all human genetic engineering is morally wrong. There are two distinctions to be made when discussing the Church’s teaching on the ethics human genetic engineering. I will address one this week and the other in next week’s guest blog.
First, under the umbrella of "genetic engineering" there is a difference between gene therapy and genetic enhancement. These concepts are often confused and lumped together, but there are important moral differences.
For many years scientists have envisioned using gene therapy to cure devastating disease. Gene therapy would deliver a copy of a normal gene into the cells of a patient with defective genes to cure or slow the progress of disease. The added gene would produce a protein that is missing or defective in the diseased patient. A good example would be Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy or DMD. DMD is an inherited disorder where a patient cannot make the protein dystrophin which supports muscle tissue. DMD strikes in early childhood and slowly degrades all muscle tissue, including heart muscle. Average life expectancy is only 30 years.
Researchers have recently been able to introduce the normal gene for dystrophin in mice with DMD. They achieved this by inserting the dystrophin gene into the DNA of the mice. The genetically modified mice were then able to produce eight times more dystrophin than DMD-mice without the modification.
More dystrophin means more muscle which, in this case of a devastating muscle-wasting disease, is good. But apply this technology to a normal man who wants more muscle to improve his athletic ability, and you have entered the world of genetic enhancement. Genetic enhancement would take a otherwise normal individual and genetically modify them to be more than human in intelligence, strength or beauty. Genetic enhancement is also called gene doping and the DMD researchers have already been inundated with calls from athletes who want to be genetically enhanced.
So while both therapy and enhancement are technically genetic engineering, they have different intent and very different outcomes. Gene therapy seeks to cure disease. Genetic enhancement seeks to change the very nature of man: to make him "super-human."
The Church is clear that gene therapy is laudable while genetic enhancement is morally wrong. >From the Charter for Health Care Workers:
In moral evaluation a distinction must be made between strictly <therapeutic> manipulation, which aims to cure illnesses caused by genetic or chromosome anomalies (genetic therapy), from manipulation <altering> the human genetic patrimony. A curative intervention, which is also called "genetic surgery," "will be considered desirable in principle. provided its purpose is the real promotion of the personal well-being of the individual, without damaging his integrity or worsening his condition of life.
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,’ 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,’ ‘no social or scientific usefulness and no ideological purpose could ever justify an intervention on the human genome unless it be therapeutic, that is its finality must be the natural development of the human being.
There is a multitude of misinformation surrounding the Catholic Church teaching on human genetic engineering. A perfect example is this excerpt from David Frum’s piece in the New York Times. Frum insists that the Church and John Paul II support genetic enhancement. He performs a slight of hand, whether intentional or not. See if you can spot it:
The anti-abortion instincts of many conservatives naturally incline them to look at such [genetic engineering] techniques with suspicion — and indeed it is certainly easy to imagine how they might be abused. Yet in an important address delivered as long ago as 1983, Pope John Paul II argued that genetic enhancement was permissible — indeed, laudable — even from a Catholic point of view, as long as it met certain basic moral rules. Among those rules: that these therapies be available to all. [My emphasis]
Like many, Frum confuses gene therapy with genetic enhancement. Some argue there is only a hair’s difference between the two so lumping them together is acceptable. This is not the case. Any genetic engineering will no doubt have unintended consequences and unforeseen side effects. It should only be under taken in cases where the benefits will outweigh the risks, as in the treatment of life-threatening illness. Genetic engineering should never be used on an otherwise healthy person because the risk is not worth the so-called "reward."
In movies like Surrogates and GATTACA, it appears inevitable that technology that was designed to help humanity eventually destroys our humanity. To some extent, I believe we have bought into that idea that no matter what we do, technology will eventually be our master. But the real world does not have to mirror science fiction, if we make the distinction that the Catholic Church has made. There is a difference between using genetic engineering and technology to help the sick or disabled and using the same technology to take an otherwise healthy person and enhance them beyond normal human abilities. While therapy seeks to improve the human condition, enhancement seeks to fundamentally alter it. Most are unaware of the distinction. It is our job to enlighten. We do have the ability to control human genetic engineering without it controlling us. To do that we must draw a line in the sand between morally laudable therapy and human altering enhancement.
Next week: Somatic and germ-line genetic engineering. (Sounds like fun doesn’t it?)
Rebecca writes at Mary Meets Dolly which is, literally, the meeting of the world of genetics and genetic engineering, represented by Dolly, “mother” of modern biotechnology, and the teachings of the Catholic Church on the sanctity of life, represented by Mary, mother of Christ and the Church. Rebecca started www.MaryMeetsDolly.com to help everyday Catholics better understand the science and ethics surrounding modern biotechnology in light of Catholic Church teaching. Check her out.