Ethics in genetics is an essential topic, both challenging and delicate.
Recent exciting discoveries have raised numerous ethical questions but
there has been little experience and scant reflection on experience, although
there is considerable impatience for moral guidelines. Achievements in
genetic engineering, in the broad and narrow sense, as well as their promise
for the near future, are simultaneously fascinating, seductive and terrifying.1
If and when we discover the secret of the human genome, who will use this
knowledge and to what end? Will this knowledge become a condition for
marriage, procreation, hiring, the selection of desirables, the elimination
of undesirables, the selection of race etc.? The ethical and moral questions
are increasingly numerous.
From early times, man has selected and preselected among the plant and
animal kingdoms. In recent times, he has discovered laws governing heredity
and the alteration of heredity in living beings. Moreover, he has discovered
that changes can be deliberately induced, according to plan. Mankind has
already reaped great benefits, with greater ones expected tomorrow, in
the areas of food, health and the general quality of life.
When "Mighty Mouse," 80% larger than a normal mouse, was produced
in 1980, the following criticism was heard: "From a giant mouse to
a giant human is only a cat's leap away." Man is heading toward becoming
faber sui ipsius in an entirely new way. Will the great designer finally
be designed himself? Does this mean that homo sapiens will become homo
fabricatus - fabricated man? Man has already patented new plants and animals
to raise and sell. Will he soon patent a new type of person,2 perhaps
a superperson or hominid, to raise and sell?
Although man is intoxicated with his power, he nevertheless asks: "May
a person do whatever he can?" There is great confusion around the
question of whether all technical possibilities are morally acceptable.
Simply expressed, science requires ethics. The scientist is a person who
always and everywhere acts as a morally responsible subject. Ivan Supek,
president of the Croatian Academy of Arts and Sciences, makes a profound
observation when he speaks of the moral responsibility of the individuals
engaged in science: "Scientists have the greatest responsibility
to safeguard and reinforce ethical principles in their research and institutions."3
Genetics has always been a subject of prejudice. Whenever we speak about
genetics, we are reminded of eugenics and all the evil connected with
this otherwise innocuous and beneficial branch of science. The history
of genetics (beginning with the American Society of Eugenics founded in
1926, whose ideas were used by the Nazis, and not only the Nazis...) remains
an example of how science can be abused in the service of ideology.
In the zeal of scientific achievement regarding interventions in DNA,
at least a few contemporary scientists would willingly plan and create
an "ideal" new person. What would this ideal person be like?
According to whose criteria would he be ideal? What would he look like?
A consensus has not been reached. "Such people," as noted by
June Goodfield, "are not only ready to become as God, they are impatient
as well, seeing the next steps in research and application as an inheritance
that is theirs by right."4 The ethicist Paul Ramsey gives the following
advice: "We should not play God before we have learned to be men,
and as we learn to be men we will not want to play God."5 In theory,
this can be very clear and satisfactory. There remains the problem of
criteria for practical application.
In 1993, Dr. Jerry Hall and his colleagues at George Washington University
announced their so-called "cloned embryos" at a scientific meeting.
Their fellow scientists did not react. Only after newspapers got hold
of the news was there heated public discussion.6 Does this mean that scientists
lack conscience, moral sense, moral sensitivity and responsibility?
The difference is not always clear between pure science - which is in
itself neutral, and its application - which can be good or evil. However,
the Noble Prize winner Renato Dulbeco is quite right when he states: "As
it would be a mistake to stop science, it would equally be a mistake for
such a delicate area to be left entirely to the decisions, and not uncommonly
passions, of scientists."7
Despite all the inherent risks of genetics, in 1953 Pope Pius XII expressed
a positive attitude from the Catholic moral standpoint: "The practical
goals that genetics promises are noble, worthy of recognition and encouragement.
From genetics, the only thing sought is that in assessing the means for
achieving its goals, the present distinction between the vegetative and
animal world on one hand and mankind on the other must always be maintained."8
Evidently J.G. Ziegler's axiom is true: "The theory of man determines
a man's actions."9 Clearly, a person's relation toward himself and
others depends on what he thinks about himself and other people. Fundamental
questions include who is man, where does his dignity lie and what is the
value of his life.
On the basis of purely biological scientific data, we shall never attain
an authentic picture of a person, the essence of a person. A person is
more than the total of his individual biological components. Biological
knowledge is necessary but inadequate. A fuller picture is presented by
philosophy and theology.
Holistic Biblical and Christian anthropology expresses the various aspects
of the total person. The physical-spiritual being is united; the body
and spirit are one. Man is a soul to the extent that he is animated by
the Spirit of Life. According to the laws of the body, he enters into
the transience and mortality of the creatures of this world. The soul
signifies his openness to God and eternity. Through his bodily aspects,
he expresses and manifests himself to the world outside himself. At the
same time, he is a being for death and for life. Among his characteristics
are the ability to recognize good and evil, freedom of action and responsibility
for acts, self-reliance, ability for self-determination, i.e. he is a
morally responsible being.
Of a person's relationships with all creation, especially with other human
beings, the most significant is his relationship with God the Creator
in whose image he is made: "God created man in his image; in the
divine image he created him; male and female he created them." (Gen
1:27) His history is characterized by God's promises for the present and
future, but also by the fall-sin and by forgiveness-salvation. The reality
of grace and the reality of sin, omnipresent, precipitates or hinders
his life and activity on the intellectual and affective levels: in the
cognition and choice of good or evil. Recognizing himself as a subject,
an individual, personal being, the most exalted being among all creation,
nevertheless he is only a creature. This would somewhat define the Biblical
anthropology of a human being, his role and mission in this world.
Is such a person permitted to violate and break down the barriers that
have been established in nature? Is it permitted for man to trick nature
by evading the natural currents in the exchange of genetic material? Having
learned the lesson only recently, from the standpoint of the environment,
that we cannot inflict violence upon nature without being punished, we
are becoming more sensitive and responsible concerning the fundamental
laws of the world around us and in ourselves. The possibility of manipulating
the biological foundations of living beings poses profound philosophical
and theological questions of moral order. It is not the task of ethics
and morals to establish the scientific and technical criteria of research.
The duty of ethics and morals is to remind us of the limits within which
human activity is for man's good, and outside of which it is for evil.
TYPES OF GENETICS
Considering the very nature and division of genetics - positive and negative
- we can differentiate two types of moral approach and evaluation. The
dangers lurking in this area are actual and serious.
1. Positive genetics has the goal of promoting the qualities, gifts and
characteristics of the individual. It does not pose moral dilemmas unless
otherwise morally unacceptable methods or means are used to achieve this
2. When negative eugenics is in question, moral evaluations are entirely
different. The goal of negative genetics is to eliminate genetically damaged
or undesirable individuals. In order to implement racial "hygiene,"
only a genetically pure race would have the right to exist and reproduce.
(Note: If we strictly adhere to the definition of health as provided by
the World Health Organization, hardly any of us would be able to avoid
negative genetics!) The methods for realizing this goal can be Draconian,
as in the following examples: restrictions on the right to marry, sterilization,
abortion, euthanasia etc. Experience teaches that neither authentic intellectuals
nor researchers, subjected to the demands and pressures of daily utilitarian
propaganda, are always capable of thinking and making evaluations coolly,
objectively, frankly and consistently, with intellectual and ethical honesty.
No profession - neither mine nor yours - is exempt from moral degradation.
Historia magistra vitae.
TYPES OF INTERVENTION
First, we must differentiate two basic types of intervention in the biological
structure of living beings, especially the biological structure of a person.
Whether we call such intervention genetic engineering, gene manipulation,
bioengineering or biotechnology is secondary.
Interventions of a therapeutic nature
All experience, tradition and the wisdom of common sense affirm the justification
and even desirability of procedures that are diagnostic-therapeutic in
nature. The first task of medicine is to treat and cure, and increasingly
to prevent disease. The more sensitive the area, the more necessary it
is to weigh the ratio between the risk and the intended benefits. What
goal will be achieved, at what price and at what risk? In procedures of
a therapeutic nature, we also entertain the possibility of improving some
existing human abilities, such as memory...
Therapeutic interventions in the human organism can be carried out on
two levels. One type is on the level of the somatic cells, i.e. those
that form the organs of a future organism. Any changes, if successful,
remain within the subject. They do not pose moral dilemmas. The second
type of intervention is on the level of the germinal cells that form gametes,
i.e. reproductive cells: spermatozoa and oocytes. The consequences of
such risks must be considered in the light of their direct effect on the
subject as well as his descendants and the environment. This involves
high risk due to the unforeseeable consequences. Regarding the embryo,
his identity and dignity are called into question and his very life is
exposed to risk. Such a procedure - when and if it will be feasible -
raises significant moral dilemmas because it endangers the subject himself
and the consequences are transferred to new subjects, descendants. For
example, the child would be different from his parents, raising numerous
questions of a psychological nature. This raises further questions regarding
the alteration or amelioration of other, future subjects.
Interventions producing alteration or so-called amelioration
This type of intervention sacrifices an already existing individual person
to produce an allegedly better quality individual. This intervention changes
the identity of the individual. It is a question whether this method can
be separated from the desire some have to manufacture others for their
own uses and desires. A question is posed concerning justice and equity
among human individuals, as well as intergenerational equity.10
If we intend to change a person, his identity, intervening in his biological
foundations, we would have to ask at least some of the following questions:
· In whose image would the new, imagined and desired human genome, the
new person, be fabricated?
· Would the criteria for the selection of a new type of person, his desirable
characteristics, be taken from the past, present or an imagined future?
· Are we permitted, unbidden, to afflict future generations with values
that we currently esteem, with our understanding of worth?
· Who will make the selections and choices: individual researchers, interested
customers, special agencies, governments?
· There will certainly be errors resulting in malformed and otherwise
afflicted individuals. What will be their fate?
· If new individuals were to be cloned, to what psychological risks would
copies of identical human genomes be exposed, whether they are cloned
at the same time or successively over a long period of time?
· Would these interventions have a negative impact on the human genetic
heritage? Would the exclusion and selection of certain traits upset the
necessary natural equilibrium, as has already happened in the plant and
· Would Homo futurus, the superman, be a harmonious figure of a man with
a personal identity, or would he be a collection of prostheses?
· Would homo futurus be more in the image of God? The first temptation
of fundamental automanipulation incorporates the serpent's promise: "You
shall be like gods!" (Gen 3:5) The results are quite well known:
irreversible consequences, the inauguration of a process from which mankind
cannot retreat and which cannot be revised.11
a curiosity, I mention the following instructive case. In the city of
Zagreb, a girl sought and received an abortion at a health institution.
It was later determined that the abortion had been unsuccessful. Because
the pregnancy had reached the late stage, she had to bear the child. Now
she is suing the institution which violated her "rights" by
not successfully completing the abortion because her baby was not deprived
of life, as she, the mother, had intended. There is more. Her daughter
is suing the same institution because she now must live, which otherwise
she would not have had to do, because her life was illegally imposed on
her and should have been terminated, according to the law. This would
be black humor if it were not so serious. Consider the possibilities,
types of reasoning and argumentation among our human species, which we
otherwise proudly call homo sapiens.
Similarly, in our case, if fabricated individuals are dissatisfied with
their quality, their level of amelioration, if the results make them unhappy,
will the designed have the right to sue their designers-creators? If so,
which ones: only the scientists or perhaps the customers, ethicists, theologians,
The Judeo-Christian culture and civilization affirm the inalienable sacredness
of life and the uniqueness of all the aspects of the individual, such
as gender, race etc. However, these are all characteristics that the design
and manufacture of new people by genetic engineering call into question.
Are we consistent or contradictory? Truthful or pragmatic? I am acquainted
with a true and sad observation: "That ethical trends occasionally
depend more upon tactics than ethics is nothing unusual."12 Do we
really live in such a moral atmosphere? Must we simply become resigned
to the fact that pragmatics trumps ethics, accepting this as inevitable
Experiments as a necessary evil.
In this field, there are generally accepted rigorous scientific and ethical
criteria, including public disclosure, respect for the integrity and existence
of the individual, and where necessary and possible, mandatory informed
consent and freedom before and during the experiment.
In experiments on a person, those of a therapeutic nature are allowable,
moreover desirable. Experimenting with a person, albeit with potential
value to the advancement of science but not to the benefit or even to
the detriment of the subject in question, is unacceptable. Particularly
sensitive is the question of experiments and procedures on subjects who
are still incapable or no longer capable of providing valid consent. Such
consent would reasonably only be given for something to their benefit.13
When we say subject, we think of the individual person in his bodily and
spiritual totality, including his biological integrity, from the beginning
to the end of life, i.e. from conception to natural death. Being acquainted
with debates on the very beginning of an individual human life and doubts
raised concerning early embryonic development,14 I maintain that there
can be doubts but never certainty. It is unfortunate when initial doubts
as to whether the embryo is an individual human being change to absolute
certainty that it is not, moreover, that it cannot be. After this first,
decisive and obviously false step, it becomes easy, though unjustifiable,
to conclude that it is permissible to use an embryo for scientific and
other purposes in the early stages.
Pope John Paul II has been clear and decisive in presenting the Catholic
moral standpoint in this matter. Participants in the Working Group on
the Human Genome, organized by the Papal Academy of Science, have reiterated
the Church doctrine.15 The Pope said the following to them: "To use
the embryo as a pure object for analysis or experimentation is an attack
upon the dignity of the person and the human race (...) At every moment
of his growth, the embryo must not be a subject for tests that will not
be for his benefit (...) The embryo must be recognized as a legal subject
according to the laws of nations..."16
We justifiably admire man's stature, dignity, mission, role and achievements
in the world. We ask ourselves what it is all for? All our human activity
in this world and the cosmos, and that directly concerned with mankind,
has the goal or at least should have the goal of the good and ultimate
happiness of the individual and mankind.
The first ethical, moral criterion that should guide us in all our undertakings
must be respect for the inviolability of the human person in its bodily
and spiritual totality, at all levels of development.
This first principle determines which paths are moral and humane, and
which are immoral and inhumane. A person's activity must not be arbitrary,
subject to manipulation. It should be governed by wise stewardship. Interventions
must fully respect the inviolability of the individual and the wholeness
of the world.
A happier person in a better environment is our desire and yearning. Surely,
a happier and better person is not only one with enhanced powers of intellect
and will, one with greater material, technical and cultural achievements.
I trust that some of you will recognize the following: "What does
a man gain by winning the whole world at the cost of his true self?"
The Biblical anthropological point of view does not see the humanization
of the world and man as primarily dependent on technical progress. The
Biblical person discovers his genetic code with all his horizons and still
unrealized possibilities, as well as limitations, which he accepts without
trauma. The Promethean type of man foolishly engages in inauthentic projects,
exposing himself to eternal frustration, failure and finally despair.
Only a wise person will know how to discover, respect and authentically
live according to a holistic and integral vision of a person and his world.
Allow me to quote a document from the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic
Church, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World:
"The intellectual nature of man finds at last its perfection, as
it should, in wisdom, which gently draws the human mind to look for and
to love what is true good. Filled with wisdom, man is led through visible
realities to those which cannot be seen. Our age, more than any of the
past, needs such wisdom if all that man discovers is to be ennobled through
human effort. Indeed, the future of the world is in danger unless provision
is made for men of greater wisdom."17
A. SERRA, La "nuova genetica." Attualitá, Prospettive, Problemi,
in: AA.VV., Medicina e genetica verso il futuro, Japadre, L'Aquila 1986,
Cf.: THE DANISH COUNCIL OF ETHICS, Patenting Human Genes, The Danish Council
of Ethics, Copenhagen 1994, pp. 27-34.
I. SUPEK, Znanost i etika, JAZU, Predavanja vol. 53, Zagreb 1985, p. 17.
J. GOODFIELD, Playing God. Genetic Engineering and the Manipulation of
Life, Random House, New York 1977, p. 5.
P. RAMSEY, Fabricated Man. The Ethics of Genetic Control, Yale University
Press, New Haven - London 1970, p. 151.
Cf.: Newsweek, November 8, 1993, pp. 44-49; Ž.K., Stravični pokušaji proizvodnje
dvojnika, u: Glas Koncila No. 46, October 14,1993, p.4.
R. DULBECCO - R. CHIABERGE, Ingegneri della vita, Sperling & Kupfer,
Milano 1988, p. 7.
PIO XII, Discorso ai partecipanti al Primo Simposio Internazionale di
Genetica Medica (7.IX.1953.), in: AAS 45 (1953) p. 607.
J.G. ZIEGLER, Extrakorporale Zeugung in moraltheologischer Sicht, Trierer
Theologische Zeitschrift 94 (1985) p. 37.
E.B. WEISS, In Fairness to Future Generations: International Law, Common
Patrimony, and Intergenerational Equity, The UN University, Tokyo and
Transnational Publishers, Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. 1989, p. 2; from: A. MAURON,
La genetique humaine et le souci des generations futures, Folia Bioethica
14, SSEB-SGB, Geneve 1993, p.2
Cf.: K. RAHNER, Experiment Mensch, Siebenstern Taschenbuch, Hamburg 1973,
M. CHRISTIAENS, Großbritanien will Experimente mit Embryos gesetzlich
regeln, in: Notabenemedici. Journal für Ärzte 2 (1989) p. 61.
Cf.: CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Donum vitae (Instruction
on respect for human life in its origin and on the dignity of procreation),
Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City 1987, No. I, 4, 5, 6.
Cf.: V. POZAIĆ, Život prije rođenja. Etičko-moralni vidici, FTI, Zagreb