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Bio-tech advances sprint ahead of human ethics, Mitchell says

DALLAS (BP)–Ethical questions about cutting-edge medical treatment start with an understanding of what it means to be a human being, C. Ben Mitchell, professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity International University, told a Dallas bioethics conference.

“Some [people] are even talking about extending human life indefinitely,” well beyond 100, 150, 300 or 1,000 years,” Mitchell, who also a senior fellow of Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity think tank in the Chicago area, reported.

“Some are arguing that technologies are going to enable us to have an immortal life in this physical body or in some bodily form,” Mitchell said, while other prognosticators are confident life will be created in the lab.

Mitchell was among the speakers at the “Cutting-Edge Bioethics: Human Life on the Line” conference on “end-of-life issues, reproductive technologies, stem cell research and beyond” at Criswell College April 29-30. Joining the college in sponsoring the sessions were Trinity International University, the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, Christian Medical & Dental Associations, The American Academy of Medical Ethics and Baylor Health Care System of Dallas.

Imagine marrying someone “’til death do us part” when that commitment could span 450 years, Mitchell said of developments in physics that raise the question of whether aging can be postponed.

“Sex selection is already with us as various clinics will guarantee to some degree that you can have the gender child you want,” Mitchell continued, asking, “Is the gender of our children something we receive as gifts or do we choose gender?” Current discussions in genetics, he noted, envision manipulating a person’s genes so that those linked to certain diseases might be turned off.

Mitchell said “the list is huge” for the number of conditions known to have a genetic link or contribution.

“Increasingly, physicians are more interested in your genetic information than they are other patient information,” he said. As a result, the practice of diagnosing an ailment by listening to heart rhythms and touching the patient is being replaced by ordering a lab work-up to gain insight into the condition, he said, and gene therapies may someday prevent or possibly cure certain illnesses.

But Mitchell warned, “Right now we are in a no man’s land where we know a lot about the [genetic] map but we don’t have much on [the other] side of the scale. We can diagnose a lot more conditions and diseases genetically than we can do anything about.”

This “diagnostic therapy gap” raises the question of how early the knowledge of a disease would affect how a patient lives his life, Mitchell said. Using Huntington’s disease as an example, he said the loss of fine motor coordination and weakening of the nervous system between 40 and 50 years of age are symptoms that precede an earlier than normal death. “If you’re 45 years old and know the symptoms might start at 50, do you want to know when there’s no treatment for it? Would knowing at 25 — even though there are no symptoms until age 45 or 50 — significantly reorient your life? … What would it mean to know as an adolescent that you had what some would call a ticking time-bomb syndrome? Would parents want to know when the child is 2 or before birth?”

The discussion takes a more unusual turn in addressing how genes affect behavior, Mitchell said, noting that some socio-biologists believe there are risk-taking genes that prompt the watching and playing of extreme sports while risk-aversive genes have no interest in such things. Whether a behavior is aggression, anxiety or cleptomania -– “the stealing gene” — “we just blame it on our genes now,” Mitchell said.

“What we can say is that there may be a genetic component, but there are also environmental remedies you can apply to lessen the effect,” he said. “Even if we find certain propensities to certain behaviors, that doesn’t mean our genes made us do it. It doesn’t absolve us of responsibility for our behavior.”

Mitchell predicted that certain people with “bad genes” may face stigmatization.

“We used to stigmatize people based on phenotype — the color of their skin or ethnicity,” he said. “With the power of new genetics, we could discriminate against people on the basis of genotype.”

Concerning cloning, Mitchell recounted, “The original from which Dolly the sheep was copied began as just a mammary cell from a sheep’s udder.” He noted, “It didn’t turn out well for Dolly or her predecessors.” With 277 attempts to get one cloned sheep, Mitchell reminded, “A lot died in the process.” Furthermore, the cloned sheep had a syndrome that made her larger than her peers, she aged prematurely, developing arthritis and other conditions, and had to be put down, he said.

“If the lessons from Dolly are any indication, there would be tremendous carnage on the way to getting a sub-healthy human being,” Mitchell warned, noting that there are other reasons not to clone human beings. “Do we just have to have safety and efficacy reasons not to clone?” he asked.

Recalling that the original eugenics movement from the early part of the 20th century was tied to Darwinism, Mitchell said advocates believed the human race could be improved by encouraging the right people to breed while discouraging the wrong people. State fairs in the 1920s sought to educate people to stop breeding by those who are “insane, feeble-minded and criminals,” Mitchell said, quoting from such literature. Instead, the development of a “high-grade person who will have the ability to do creative work and be fit for leadership” was encouraged. It was alleged that this preferred group reflected only 4 percent of the population.

When the Eugenics Society sponsored “fitter family contests,” Mitchell said, medals praising “a goodly heritage” almost always went to Caucasians of European origin with no physical or mental defects. He added that mandatory sterilizations skyrocketed from 3,200 a year to more than 22,000 between 1907 and 1935 as most states legalized the practice among the mentally retarded. The movement that inspired Nazi scientists soon went underground following the Holocaust, Mitchell recounted.

A new eugenics mentality now makes judgments about what it means to be “a good one of us in more sophisticated ways,” Mitchell said, citing a March of Dimes poll from 1993 which revealed:

— 11 percent of parents said they would abort a child whose genome was predisposed to obesity.

— four out of five said they would abort a fetus if it would grow up with a disability.

— 43 percent said they would use genetic engineering simply to enhance their child’s appearance.

Referring to an ad from a campus newspaper in Minnesota seeking an egg donor for in vitro fertilization, Mitchell said preference was stated for height of 5-foot-6 or taller, Caucasian, high ACT or SAT scores, college student or graduate under age 30 and no genetic issues, with extra payment promised if both athletic and musical skills are evident.

Asking if anyone in the audience knew “what a dozen eggs goes for these days,” Mitchell said, “If you met the criteria and, if in fact the couple took home a baby, then you could be remunerated $80,000 for your egg.” While parents might sit down and talk to their daughters about going to college, advising them to study hard, avoid staying out late at night and coming home to visit regularly, Mitchell said some might say, “‘If you sell your eggs, get a good deal.’ It’s just eggs — right?”

In the world of bio-technology, Mitchell said eugenics questions why society should be satisfied with a frail human biology limited by thousands of disease genes, mental capacity, dwindling energy, failed eyesight and balding heads. “Why not meld the human with the machine and get the best of both worlds with a bionic man or woman?” he asked. “We used to think that was science fiction. It’s increasingly becoming science fact.”

Mitchell reminded the audience of the biblical understanding of each human being as a unique person made in the image of God and the incarnation of God in bodily form. “Maybe we shouldn’t just easily commit to the idea that we can preserve persons without preserving bodies,” he said. “If biological humans cease to exist, what other kind of humans are those who could live in a computer with a vast neurological network?” Though such ideas sound far-fetched, Mitchell encouraged Christians to ask what is forfeited in the move from homosapiens to robosapiens. “Have we become post-human? What does it mean to be one of us?” he asked.

While some question whether a person ceases to be human with the loss of the ability to think or relate to others, Mitchell said persons are not determined by their functional capabilities or performance. “Personhood is not a function of our biology. Personhood is about who we are, our being, nature and what it means to be an image of God.” Therefore, a person compromised by illness and brain injury is still a person to whom others have responsibilities and obligations, he stated.

“You are still a human being made in the image of God and that’s where we have to begin if we’re going to answer this question of what it means to be one of us.”

In a later presentation on stem cell research, Mitchell was careful to distinguish between embryonic stem cell research and that which relies on non-controversial sources like adult tissues, umbilical cord blood and placentas.

“Embryonic stem cell research is the gateway to human cloning, genetic manipulation and eugenic selection,” he said. “It creates a class of humans who exist only as a means to achieve the ends of others.” Other dangers include the risk and exploitation for women and diversion of research from non-controversial avenues of stem cell research toward modification and commercialization of human life. “It is unsafe, unethical and unnecessary,” he insisted.

“We ought to be champions of adult stem cell research” that should be conducted ethically, Mitchell said. “Destroying human embryos for their stem cells crosses an ethical line and is an affront to human dignity.”

Mitchell asked, “Is it ethically permissible to kill an innocent human being who is not mourned? Whether no one cares about you or not doesn’t justify killing you” through stem cell research. “Whether you’re biologically mature doesn’t matter, whether you’re able to experience pleasure or pain, whether you’re aware of being killed or not and whether you are wanted by others — that doesn’t justify killing a human being.”

Describing embryos as living, growing individuals that are genetically complete with development that is pre-programmed, Mitchell said, “They are the offspring of human parents and are loved by God. Those qualities seem to me to make it unjustifiable to destroy human embryos.”
Tammi Reed Ledbetter is a contributing writer to the Southern Baptist Texan, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, online at www.sbtexas.com.

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