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Protecting the Embryonic Child from Biotech
Joe Kral, M.A. | 18 December 2019
The following warning was published in 1990 by Michael Crichton, “Third, the work [biotechnology] is uncontrolled. No-one supervises it. No federal laws regulate it. There is no coherent government policy, in America or anywhere else in the world.”[i] These prophetic words, in many ways, still ring true 29 years later. Biotechnology is largely unregulated within the United States. Human cloning is still technically legal in the vast majority of the states, even though mammalian cloning was revealed to be a reality in 1997. The United States still has done basically nothing at both the federal and state levels when it was announced that some in the fertility industry were going to proceed with the creation of three genetic parent human embryos. Unfortunately, when it comes to what biotechnology cannot do there is largely silence from lawmakers.
As a result, with the advent of gene editing, and in particular the gene-editing of human embryos, there seems to be very little moral uproar from legislators about the various unethical problems that can arise from it. But, if anything, evil tends to be forgetful, and as George Santayana famously put it, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”[ii] Recently, Japan’s health ministry has offered legislation that would regulate the use of human embryonic gene editing.[iii] The goal is to prevent the birth of so-called “designer babies”, but if one looks at the proposal closely, one will see serious ethical problems with respect to human life. In particular is the concern that the proposal would allow for the gene-editing of human embryonic children, but would prevent the implantation of those embryonic children. This one provision smacks of what was and still is seen in the human cloning legislative debates, the idea of using cloning methods to create a supply of human embryos for destructive research while calling it a “ban” on human cloning.
Researchers who favored this sort of lethal research cleverly confused legislators by doing a couple of things. Firstly, they tried to make a distinction between “therapeutic cloning” and “reproductive cloning”. Secondly, they confused legislators by using scientific terms that the legislators were not familiar with. It certainly seems reasonable, that biotech industry researchers will be doing something quite similar to this topic as well. Nearly twenty years ago, cloning researchers tried to make the case that “therapeutic cloning” was needed in order to research, usually by creating and then destroying an embryonic child for its embryonic stem cells, for possible therapies that could be used to help other people suffering from either a physical disability or disease. It seems that this may be a future tactic of biotech. That is, to make a false distinction between “therapeutic gene editing” and “reproductive gene editing.” Just as researchers tried to make a distinction between “therapeutic cloning”, that is the creation of human embryonic children using the cloning method for research purposes, and “reproductive cloning”, that is cloning for the purposes of carrying a child that will be birthed, it is likely that today’s biotech industry will be trying to draw another false line. However, this utilitarian ethic is highly problematic and the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith spells out why it is problematic from an ethical point of view:
From the ethical point of view, so-called therapeutic cloning is even more serious. To create embryos with the intention of destroying them, even with the intention of helping the sick, is completely incompatible with human dignity, because it makes the existence of a human being at the embryonic stage nothing more than a means to be used and destroyed. It is gravely immoral to sacrifice a human life for therapeutic ends.[iv]
Yet, this is exactly what the Japanese proposal does; it would allow for the creation of human embryos for research to help discover how to prevent hereditary diseases. Basically, this proposal, if enacted, would allow for human embryos to be created for being used as a means to an end. These embryonic children, in other words, become lab rats, for the advancement of science without any regard to their human dignity that is owed to them.
Furthermore, it is likely that those who wish to conduct human embryonic gene editing will engage in dehumanizing language that was seen in the human cloning debates. While researchers in the cloning debate used terms such as “unfertilized blastocyst” to describe an early stage embryonic child that was created through cloning (blastocysts normally come about due to fertilization), it is probable that gene-editing researchers will use terms that are typically used in the IVF industry to dehumanize the embryonic child. Terms like “pre-embryo” are potentially going to be used. This is a non-scientific term that is meant to degrade the reality of what the embryonic child actually is. Scientific terms such as zygote and blastocyst describe the embryo in its earliest stages of life, yet the IVF industry does not want anyone identifying the embryonic child as a child or with human life hence the prefix “pre”. With this prefix, it gives the impression that the embryonic child is “before child” or “before life” which is scientifically inaccurate. This dehumanizing language is critical for them, for it is this language that helps them confuse legislators and helps them draw the false distinction. It is likely that pro-life organizations and legislators will hear the term “pre-embryo” in regards to those embryos that those researchers want to use in order to conduct the lethal research. These researchers want to give the impression that these embryonic children are not alive and are not human beings in their earliest stages of life.
Finally, it is important to understand that history has taught the pro-life movement another important lesson; human cloning proponents also tried to set an arbitrary date as to how long they could use the embryonic child for their destructive research purposes. Many anti-life bills, which were referred to as “clone and kill” bills, allowed for cloning, but prohibited the human clones from being implanted and prohibited them to grow beyond 14 days. It is probable that the biotech industry will be advocating for legislation that will try to do the same. By setting this standard it is clear that the embryos will to face one of two prospects. They will either be perpetually frozen, which is contrary to justice since justice demands that they are owed the ability to continue in their development, or be destroyed, which is also contrary to justice since they have the right to life based on the moral fact that all others have the moral duty to let them live.
It is likely pro-life organizations will be facing this debate, especially in those states where medical research is abundantly present. And it is prudent that they prepare themselves and legislators on this topic. Pro-Life legislative organizations will need to be careful and watch for these red flags within legislation and alert legislators when the danger arises. But most of all, pro-life organizations can no longer be silent on this issue of biotechnology. As the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith states, “The fulfillment of this duty implies courageous opposition to all those practices which result in grave and unjust discrimination against unborn human beings, who have the dignity of a person, created like others in the image of God. Behind every “no” in the difficult task of discerning between good and evil, there shines a great “yes” to the recognition of the dignity and inalienable value of every single and unique human being called into existence.”[v]
[i] Crichton, Michael, Jurassic Park, Introduction, page X, Ballantine, 1990.
[ii] Santayana, George, The Life of Reason: The Phases of Human Progress, Vol. 1.
[iii] See https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-7761711/Japans-health-ministry-recommends-ban-implanting-human-gene-edited-human-embryoes.html.
[iv] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dignitas Personae, no. 30
[v] Ibid, no. 37.
Joe Kral, M.A., President of the Society of St. Sebastian and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Bioethics in Law & Culture Quarterly.