November 29, 2012

Stanford Bioethicist Looks at the Future of Human Dignity

By Rick Plasterer

Rapidly advancing biotechnology threatens to impair or even eliminate human dignity, reducing human beings to the level of natural phenomena, to be manipulated and used for other purposes. That was the message of Dr. William Hurlbut, physician and consulting professor at the Stanford University Medical Center, and formerly a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, to those attending a lecture for Congressional staffs at the “Faith and Law” lecture forum on Friday, November 16.

“In our era, there are some very major things happening, and one of them is the ascent of biotechnology and its meaning for human dignity … these are huge issues, these are civilizational issues,” Hurlbut said. The legalization of abortion has combined with the development of biotechnology to bring the prospect of using human beings as material for what are held to be compelling health goals. To achieve these goals, human cells at various stages of development must be available, and these, it is proposed, should be obtained from human embryos and fetuses which are sacrificed to scientific research. They can then be tailored to use for various medical purposes, either to cure infirmity or even to enhance human capability. Dr. Hurlbut pointed to the success of a Japanese Nobel prize winner who discovered the technical means to “directly reprogram cells.”  Any opposition to the sacrifice of unborn children is then presented as a case of religion obstructing science and progress. A recent campaign in California used such slogans and claims as “we fight because lives can’t wait,” and “millions of people would be cured.”

Against these claims, Dr. Hurlbut noted that it is scientifically sound to say that a new human being begins at fertilization and ends at natural death. “Small is not a measure of moral meaning,” Hurlbut said, “the truth is your life begins there.” If we get this wrong, it radically distorts subsequent moral reasoning, and “those who choose the beginning of a road also choose its destination.” Current policy in England was pointed out, where human embryos may be produced in test tubes and retained for 14 days for scientific experimentation. While limited by the supply of egg cells, this limitation is being overcome as more women are willing to donate eggs. Additionally, advocates of the use of embryonic and fetal material for scientific and medical purposes hold out the possibility of aborted fetuses being used as “cash cows” by women.

Once it is judged permissible to kill an unborn child for research purposes, however soon after conception, there is no rational way to draw a firm line against research beyond a point deemed immoral. Tolerating the use of human embryos for research in England is “very damaging to our moral sentiments.” There is no rational basis for choosing a 14 day limit, and use of embryos at later stages is desirable for research because they are cells from more “differentiated tissues.” Noting that “extreme positions have a way of moving to the center,” Dr. Hurlbut pointed out that dismembered parts of fetuses can be used to grow body parts. Relating a real case of this he had observed, he reminded the audience “that was going to be somebody’s hand.” As far as humanity is concerned, abandoning the sanctity of life in biotechnology involves “turning landscape into machinescape.”

While the legal situation with respect to embryonic research varies from one country to another, in the United States the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, passed in 1996 and signed by formed President Bill Clinton, prohibits federal funding of projects that involve producing human embryos for research purposes. This amendment, Dr. Hurlbut said, is “a bulwark against barbarism.” Nevertheless, President Obama has issued an executive order establishing “a strategic beachhead” for stem cell research, and those dissatisfied even with that have filed a lawsuit to overturn the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. If it is stuck down, it will be “a disaster for civilization,” Dr. Hurlbut said.

Arguing against the violation of human dignity can be difficult, according to the bioethicist, because of the “great temptation to see human perfection.” Nevertheless “we can’t forget in our quest for self-fulfillment what else exists … the world has a deep moral order … our powers are great, but the power that’s really great is the power of Christ, the power of truth, and the power of love.” This then means that we would accept that we must allow the “foregoing [of] some cures if we have to.” But we would then recognize that “the Lord of Life would never keep us from the possibility of cures.” He will “provide moral ways to find cures, we just have to work at it.”

 

The Institute on Religion & Democracy is a donor-supported 501(c)3 organization. Your tax-deductible gift to the IRD will ensure continued coverage of this and similar ethical issues pertaining to the Church’s social witness.  Please donate here