Human Dignity in the Biotech Century: A Christian Vision for Public Policy
edited by Chrles W. Colson and Nigel M. De S. Cameron
Intervarsity. 252 pp. $14 paper

In Human Dignity in the Biotech Century: A Christian Vision for Public Policy , some of the most active voices in the American bioethics debate reflect on the promise and perils of biotechnology, but especially the perils. This collection surveys a wide range of novel biological experiments: the creation and destruction of human embryos to procure stem cells, the creation of cloned human children, the genetic engineering of offspring, the merging of human beings with machines. These advances, say the authors, all force us to reflect again on what it means to be human”and especially on what it means to have “dominion” over God’s creation and to be creatures “made in God’s image.”

What binds these errant technologies together is human willfulness gone mad. In trying to extend life using stem cells from embryos, we destroy the weakest and most vulnerable human beings. In trying to improve the genetic quality of our children, we abort the disabled as “life unworthy of life.” In trying to preserve our conscious minds forever, we reduce human beings to “software” and “hardware” that can be mixed, matched, downloaded, and upgraded. “With the latest advances in biotechnology,” writes coeditor Charles Colson, “not only are we taking upon ourselves the god-like prerogative of ending human life as we choose . . . but we are attempting to appropriate the god-like prerogative of making human life as we choose.”

While some scientists may see themselves as persecuted Galileos and some religious believers may worry about “man playing God,” the bioethics debate is not best seen as a clash between religion and science. Most orthodox Christians are friends of biomedical research; they see biotechnology as a moral enterprise so long as it observes moral limits. And many scientists have made biotechnology a religion, seeing stem-cell research as a form of salvation for those burdened by nature’s imperfections, and envisioning biotech advances as the pathway to immortality for Pro-methean mortals.

But in America, the bioethics debate does often pit conservative Christians against eminent scientists and patient-group advocates, with both sides appealing to human love to make their case. Christians assert our solemn duty to love all human beings equally and the grave evil of using some lives as raw materials to help others. Scientists and advocates for patients appeal to our love for those who suffer from terrible diseases, and to the American love of progress itself.

We Americans experience these uncorrected loves as a tension. When it comes to embryo research, we confront the tension between familial love and neighborly love, between our hunger to save those we know best and our obligation to protect those we can barely see. When it comes to the new reproductive technologies, we confront the tension between the love that makes parents hunger for “better children” and the love that welcomes children as they are, however “imperfect.” Not surprisingly, we do not always speak of love by name in the public square. We talk about rights and equality and compassion. But it is love, in the deepest sense, that we are really debating.

And real love requires confronting hard truths, which many biotech enthusiasts seem unwilling to do. Human Dignity in the Biotech Century offers a powerful indictment of many scientists and policymakers for trying to hide the moral problems raised by embryo research and human cloning, a deception these advocates justify because they believe it serves the compassionate end of advancing medicine. In two useful essays, William Saunders and Wesley Smith describe how scientists in the 1980s invented the term “pre-embryo” to redescribe the earliest stage of human life, a biological falsehood meant to dehumanize the living embryos they seek to destroy. And when it became feasible to think of harvesting cloned human embryos solely for research and destruction, scientists and advocates invented the term “therapeutic cloning,” hoping that the public’s fears about cloning would be ameliorated by their desire for therapies.

“Therapeutic cloning,” of course, is not therapeutic at all; there are no cures and no patients, merely research involving the creation and destruction of human embryos as experimental tools, and the perfection of the techniques necessary to produce cloned babies. When this semantic tactic backfired, advocates began claiming that cloning is not really cloning at all, and that the organism created by cloning is not really an embryo but an “unfertilized egg.” They started using the technical name”“somatic cell nuclear transfer””to hide the underlying human reality.

Scientific prestige, Orwellian euphemism, and emotional appeals from celebrities with illnesses have combined to give embryonic stem-cell research national momentum. And yet, as various contributors here note, the greatest harm committed by promoters of such stem-cell research is often to the patients themselves, by promising cures that are not near and may never come. Opponents of embryo destruction cannot deny the genuine medical promise of embryonic stem-cell research; indeed, they must be careful that they do not exaggerate the therapeutic potential of adult stem cells in their effort to offer the public an ethical research alternative. But embryo research advocates have shamelessly presented embryonic stem cells as a cure-all for virtually every human disease and have portrayed the Bush administration’s policy of limiting federal funding as the only barrier to miraculous therapies.

For wealthy celebrities who are sick, the promotion of research becomes a reason to live, a cause that gives their hard lives a seemingly noble purpose. But for most people who are gravely ill, disabled, or dying, the great human challenge is learning to accept one’s own limitations, and learning to live a meaningful life in spite of them. It does not serve the newly paralyzed teenager to promise, as John Edwards did in the recent presidential campaign, that if Democrats were elected the paralyzed were “going to walk, get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.” Perhaps we will find cures for paralysis and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s in the future. But such declarative promises turn compassion into exploitation. They misrepresent scientific facts in the cause of politics.

One of the central themes of the book is the relationship between the bioethics debate and the abortion debate. Clearly, there is significant ethical and political overlap with both issues concerning the moral standing of developing human life, the meaning of procreation and parenthood, and the cultural divide in America over the meaning of “rights.” But as the various authors make clear, the bioethics debate is not simply the abortion fight in a new guise; it raises questions and challenges that are truly novel and that need to be understood on their own terms.

First, as Nathan A. Adams correctly observes in his essay, when it comes to embryo research and human cloning, we are still, so to speak, in a pre“ Roe v. Wade moment”that is to say, legislators can still govern, both in Congress and in the states. And for conservatives, this is both an opportunity and a problem. It is an opportunity because we can set moral limits on the most dehumanizing forms of research, which a few states have done. It is a problem because the people’s representatives in Congress and in most states do not wish to set any limits at all, and often seek to promote what they see as medically and economically promising research. The three-billion-dollar bond initiative to fund embryo research and research cloning in California, passed by voters by a large margin in November 2004, is only the most shameful example. As we debate these issues, therefore, we will squarely confront the condition of the culture, since the argument that the court is imposing indignities on us rather than our choosing indignities for ourselves is now much less relevant.

Second, for the very reason that the culture may be moving gradually in a pro-life direction when it comes to abortion, we may never move in that direction when it comes to embryo research. As new imaging technologies offer us graphic evidence of the visible humanity of the growing fetus, our moral sentiments may be powerfully awakened or reawakened. But the early embryo does not look human; it does not, by its appearance alone, awaken our moral sentiments at all. And because the primary goal of embryo research is the noble one of healing the sick, not ending a pregnancy, we might find ourselves embracing embryo research (if it works) even as we increasingly reject abortion. When our closest neighbors are suffering, it will be hard for many of us to see microscopic embryos as our neighbors.

Finally, as several of the essayists point out, biotech is not simply about the rejection of new life but is rather about the tempting possibilities of control of new life. Abortion is fundamentally anti-child; genetic control is “pro-child” in a perverse way. The two attitudes are obviously related, since both make entrance into the world conditional on parental will. But they are also distinct, certainly in their social effect and in the public imagination.

Having said all that, we are not on the brink of designing future Einsteins, Mozarts, or Michael Jordans. Such possibilities are no more scientifically imminent than the possibility of curing every known disease with embryonic stem cells. But what may be closer to reality is the prospect of cloning a child, which would involve mostly infertile couples cloning themselves, or bereaved parents cloning a dead son or daughter. And what we already have is a battery of genetic litmus tests used to determine which embryos and fetuses are worthy of life and which are not. These tests are increasingly going beyond the prenatal diagnosis of fatal diseases (like Tay-Sachs) and present disabilities (like Down’s syndrome) to screen for the probability of future disease (like Alzheimer’s) and for genetic correlations with certain desirable traits (like height). In other words, we are moving from “weeding out” the sick to “selecting in” those with a chance to be “better than well.”

This genetic selection is not the same as genetic design. We are screening nature’s creations, not making creations of our own. We are not, in the favored phrase of some advanced thinkers, becoming “post-human”; we are, rather, acting inhumanly. And it is on this ground that opponents of errant biotechnology should make their case.

The final theme of the book worth noting is the desire to create a grand new coalition between pro-life Christians and pro-choice leftists in opposition to the Brave New World. This is the focus of coeditor Nigel Cameron’s work in bioethics, both in this book and in the various organizations that he heads. It is a noble effort but one that will prove mostly fruitless, for it confuses the American debate with the European one.

In Europe and Canada, there is a secular idea of human dignity and a deeper skepticism about the unequivocal goodness of technological progress. There is a Green left with genuine political power. But the American left is not Green, certainly not when it comes to human biotechnology. And the American left is fundamentally antireligious and antidignity, seeking to oppose whatever the “religious right” is for and to promote whatever the “religious right” is against. This is why embryo research and research cloning have become articles of faith for American liberalism. There are, of course, some impressive and courageous exceptions at tiny leftist think tanks on the secular coasts. But they are exceptions, and they have virtually no political power, certainly not in the Senate, where there is not a single leftist vote in favor of the ban on all human cloning.

The political and cultural reality is that nearly all American opponents of embryo research and research cloning believe in God, even if they do not rely on God’s word alone to make their public case for ethical limits. More particularly, they nearly all believe in the Christian God”a God who stands with the weak and vulnerable, who redeems man’s sinful nature with His own sacrificial suffering, who affirms life at the cost of death on the cross. This does not mean that one needs to be Christian or even religious to oppose embryo research or research cloning. I oppose both; I am not a Christian. And it is indeed true that in Europe and Canada, many secular people oppose these activities, and many nations far less religious than America have laws against them. But American scientists, who are probably no more secular than their European and Canadian counterparts, are much less willing to accept any limits at all on their research. They see all limits as inherently religious in nature and therefore illegitimate in a liberal democracy.

This is, one might say, the American difference, both for better and for worse. We are anxiously concerned with immortality”whether in this life through science or in the next life by divine love. Europe is not interested in immortality at all. The American contest is largely a struggle to persuade the bourgeois middle that one idea of immortality rather than the other deserves their deepest devotion. And the American middle, as always, will try to have it both ways. In the meantime, biotechnology will proceed apace with few political limits, halted only by the inability of even the greatest scientists to make good on their grandest promises.

Eric Cohen is editor of the New Atlantis and a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.