TAG | Bio-ethics
Comments off · Posted by Andrew Stuttaford in Science & Faith
Via Andrew Sullivan we have this piece by William B. Hurlbut, Consulting Professor in the Department of Neurobiology, Stanford University Medical Center, a man of science, who is, it turns out, also a fan of the benevolently deranged Francis of Assisi.
There’s plenty in the article for those with an interest in Francis himself, but I was more interested in this:
The traditional role of medicine, for example, has been to cure disease and alleviate suffering, to restore and sustain the patient to a natural level of functioning and wellbeing. The medical arts were in the service of a wider reverence and respect for the order of the created world: “the physician is only nature’s assistant,” as the Roman healer Galen explained.
But now, armed with the powers of biotechnology, medicine has found a new paradigm, one of liberation: technological transformation in the quest for happiness and human perfection. Slowly but steadily the role of medicine has been extended, driven by our appetites and ambitions, to encompass dimensions of life not previously considered matters of health, with the effect of altering and revising the very frame of nature. Increasingly, we expect from medicine not just freedom from disease but freedom from all that is unattractive, imperfect, or just inconvenient. More recent proposals, of a still more ambitious scope, include projects for the conquest of aging, neurological fusion of humans and machines, and fundamental genetic revision and guided evolution — for transhumans, posthumans, and technosapiens.
The danger is immediately evident…
It is? Danger? This all sounds splendid, although count me skeptical as to how far we will get any time soon towards, uh, transhumans, posthumans, and technosapiens. I’m still waiting for flying cars and Moonbase Alpha (which was due sometime before 1999).
In the absence of any concept of cosmic order, where the material and the moral flow forth from a single creative source, all of living nature becomes mere matter and information to be reshuffled and reassigned for projects of the human will.
Well, that absence is what it is. Hurlbut may be uncomfortable with the consequences, but they are what they are—and they need to be faced. He may wish to believe in a “cosmic order” (a fantasy that takes many forms, in any event), but he ought not to be surprised that there are those that disagree that such a thing exists and are thus reluctant to comply with its supposed rules. But that is not necessarily cause for despair. Experience shows that humility and caution in matters of this type are a matter of commonsense, and commonsense has a way, quite often, of winning out. As, if less frequently, does kindness:
Genetically engineered featherless chickens for cheaper pot pies and leaner pigs with severe arthritis are a violation of basic kindness and courtesy.
There’s a great deal more from Hurlbut, and, much of it like the writings of Leon Kass, is, in its glorification or, at least, inshallah acceptance of suffering, as morbid, and, in its implications, as revolting as some of the more lurid iconography of Christian martyrdom. It’s sad to see such words flowing from the pen or keyboard of a doctor who will in his own career surely have done a great deal to alleviate the suffering of others. Such are the contradictions of religious faith.
And then there’s this:
[O]ne can sense a wisdom in the severity and self-denial that were, for Francis, inseparable from the source of his joy. He had rediscovered an ancient truth in the inversion of desire, not as a negation of being but as a positive passion. In the image of the Lord, he emptied himself and received all things back renewed, purified, and restored in their divine glory.
When I read that, I see only an expression of a millennial asceticism that in our modern era has found expression not in the kindly ramblings of an oddball hippy saint, but in revolution, gulag, and the emptied streets of Phnom Penh.
Compared with that, biotechnological advance is relatively risk-free…
The Wall Street Journal has interviewed “eminent bioethicist” (itself a contradiction in terms) Leon Kass. The trigger was the Gosnell trial, but it was this aspect of Kass’s remarks that drew my attention:
Dr. Kass sometimes finds himself at odds with [anti-abortion] advocates. The movement’s narrow focus on nascent life, he worries, blinds it to the fact that “abortion is connected to lots of other things that are threats to human dignity in its fullness.”
“Pursuing perfect babies, ageless bodies and happy souls with the aid of cloning, genetic engineering and psychopharmacology,” he thinks, are among the most significant of those threats.
Not that, again. Of course, we need never to forget the terrible lessons of early twentieth century eugenics, but re-read those comments and what you see emerging beneath those soothing words about “dignity” is a morbid and sentimental attachment to suffering, and a profound contempt for the human mind:
“Killing the creature made in God’s image is an old story,” he says. “I deplore it. But the new threat is the ability to transform that creature into images of our own choosing, without regard to whether the new creature is going to be an improvement, or whether these so-called improvements are going to sap all of the energies of the soul that make for human aspirations, art, science and care for the less fortunate. All of these things have wellsprings in the human soul, and they are at risk in efforts to redesign us and move us to the posthuman future.”
And the corollary of this paranoid, mystical nonsense about a “new threat” is that the state, aided and abetted doubtless by a self-appointed (and sometimes taxpayer-funded) coterie of wise men, will decide that they know best where scientific inquiry should go.
Galileo, phone your lawyer.
Should people be allowed to see details of their own genetic information?
The public discussion about DNA testing tends to focus on ethical dilemmas: What if doctors find that a person’s father isn’t really? Should they tell a patient about a DNA glitch if it’s only occasionally linked to disease? What if, while looking for mutations that could explain a known sickness, they stumble on others that might predict late-life dementia or indicate the presence of HIV? Would adding this data to someone’s medical record affect health insurance rates? What if—gasp—we end up with a real-life Gattaca?
These questions are worth talking about. But the genetics community and popular press spend too much time debating when and how the medical establishment should “protect” people from their children’s or their own DNA.
For example, many bioethicists argue that DNA glitches shouldn’t be disclosed if they’re ambiguous or linked to untreatable conditions. Doing so “may create unwanted psychosocial burdens on parents,” according to a commentary on newborn sequencing in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Ah yes, bioethicists.
They really are a useless, worthless bunch, philosopher-princelings and wannabe clergymen who hawk their insulting and condescending babble to a political class always looking for new reasons to tell people what not to do.
It is way past time for 25 or so states that have restricted the right of citizens to obtain their genetic information from direct-to-consumer companies to lift their bans.
Indeed it is.
I’m not going to comment (well, overmuch anyway) on this moving, thought-provoking and beautifully-written piece by Michael Wolff, described by New York magazine in these terms:
The era of medical miracles has created a new phase of aging, as far from living as it is from dying. A son’s plea to let his mother go.
It is a must-read but it should not be used to give any support to the rather disgusting opinions of the likes of “bio-ethicists” such as Leon Kass:
For Kass, to argue that life is better without death is to argue “that human life would be better being something other than human.”
In numerous presentations and papers throughout the years, Kass has argued for what he calls the “virtues of mortality.” First among them is the effect mortality has on our interest in and engagement with life. To number our days, Kass contends, “is the condition for making them count and for treasuring and appreciating all that life brings.”
Kass also believes that the process of aging itself is important because it helps us make sense of our lives.
A 2003 staff working paper drawn up by the U.S. President’s Council of Bioethics — then headed by Kass — states: “The very experience of spending a life, and of becoming spent in doing so, contributes to our sense of accomplishment and commitment, and to our sense of the meaningfulness of the passage of time, and of our passage through it.”
Technology that retards aging, the report argues, would “sever age from the moorings of nature, time and maturity.
Do note, incidentally, that this death-cultist was given the job of running a taxpayer-funded boondoggle (the US President’s Council of Bioethics indeed) by George W. Bush, President “Compassionate” himself.
Obviously (yes, obviously), the further we are able to extend life, the better. The key, however, is extending the quality of life, and there technology, tragically, moves at an uneven pace. At the core of Mr. Wollf’s piece is the fact that our ability to stretch out the life of the body appears at the moment to be running ahead of our ability to preserve the life of the mind, a mismatch that can cause terrible suffering. But the crucial words are “at the moment”. Stories like these are no reason to slow the science down.
Anyway, check out the piece, and see what you think. It’s sometimes painful reading, but it’s worth the time.
Wolff concludes like this:
Anyway, after due consideration, I decided on my own that I plainly would never want what LTC insurance buys, and, too, that this would be a bad deal. My bet is that, even in America, even as screwed up as our health care is, we baby-boomers watching our parents’ long and agonizing deaths won’t do this to ourselves. We will surely, we must surely, find a better, cheaper, quicker, kinder way out.
Meanwhile, since, like my mother, I can’t count on someone putting a pillow over my head, I’ll be trying to work out the timing and details of a do-it-yourself exit strategy. As should we all.
In Brave New World, as I recall, everyone lives into their early sixties, then swiftly declines and dies. That seems to me ideal if the necessary genomic tinkering can be done.
Until it is, sauve qui peut. I have a good selection of guns and have made up my mind that if it comes to diapers, I shall see myself out with a gun. I will not wear diapers—that’s the end point for me, the milestone I am determined not to pass.
I promise not to make too much of a mess. Heart, not head—like Flory in Burmese Days—and outdoors if I can make it: ideally a nice hillside in the Poconos, watching the sun go down, with a good cigar and some decent bourbon for company. But I will not wear diapers.
John, I’ll pass on the (negative) genomic tinkering, thank you very much (but I’ll take any good genomic tinkering, I have always wanted to score a century, at least). That said, I agree with you and Wolff that, in the absence of intervening catastrophe, planning one’s own exit is the way to go, and, I might add, as selflessly as possible. If you’re able to do it yourself, don’t drag others into your decision-making. That’ll only hurt them. Do all the paperwork. Leave everything in order. And then, I think, an overdose of something soothing. I’m no Bradlaugh or Gunther Sachs. I’m not tough enough to pull that trigger. The Poconos? No. Too much of a shock for an unwary hitchiker,and too much of a treat for passing wildlife.Sky-burial is not for me. A hotel room in a favorite place (somewhere in the southwest, perhaps), would do nicely. There would be a large donation on the side-table for the unfortunate who discovered my corpse.
But would I ever be able to decide that now was the time “not to be”? Now that is the question.
“It’s always in bioethicists’ professional interest to suggest that a new technology raises troubling moral issues that require deep (funded) thought and extensive (lucrative) conferences.”
Of all the useless ‘disciplines’ that have come along in recent years one of the more irritating is bioethics (typified perhaps best by the waste of taxpayer dollars that was George W. Bush’s fatuous “Council on Bioethics”). Writing on Reason‘s blog, here’s Ron Bailey with another example of bioethicists at work:
The Washington Post is reporting that privately funded researchers have now managed to use human eggs to produce lines of stem cells for the first time. To achieve this, the researchers installed the nuclei of skin cells in unfertilized human eggs. However, this means that the cells so produced contain three sets of chromosomes. The goal of a lot of embryonic stem cell research is to create tissues that are suitable for transplant by being genetlcally matched to specific patients. This technique does not do this, but may be a step in that direction. Of course, this new research is once again stirring ethical debate, and the Post reports one of the sillier comments:
“They have created human embryos. They are abnormal, but they are still human embryos,” said Daniel P. Sulmasy, a professor of medicine and ethics at the University of Chicago. “Anyone who is opposed to the deliberate creation and destruction of human embryos, as I am, would be opposed to this research.”
Since there is no way that these triploid “embryos” could develop into babies, one is left to wonder on which chromosome Sulmasy thinks the gene allowing for the installation of a human soul must reside?
“Bioethics” is simply someone’s opinion draped in fancy language. And it’s frequently not that well-informed. To the scrap heap with it.
Craig Venter and Hamilton Smith, the two American biologists who unravelled the first DNA sequence of a living organism (a bacterium) in 1995, have made a bacterium that has an artificial genome—creating a living creature with no ancestor… Pedants may quibble that only the DNA of the new beast was actually manufactured in a laboratory; the researchers had to use the shell of an existing bug to get that DNA to do its stuff. Nevertheless, a Rubicon has been crossed. It is now possible to conceive of a world in which new bacteria (and eventually, new animals and plants) are designed on a computer and then grown to order.
The usual suspects will doubtless grumble, but, writing in the Guardian, a slightly over-enthusiastic Ken Macleod gets in his response first:
It’s a tremendous achievement of human ingenuity and skill. And there’s something wonderfully confirmatory of mechanistic materialism in the building of a genome from chemically synthesised molecules, that genome running a cell, and that cell replicating to a point where no trace of the original cell’s cytoplasm is left in its descendants. This lays to rest, with a satisfying finality, the ghost of vitalism – the spooky, whiffy doctrine that there is some essence of life not captured by “reductionist” biochemistry.
He notes that we can expect the “usual TV studio parade of clergy” giving their opinions. Well, why not? Macleod’s “why them?” is a cheap shot, but he redeems himself by adding:
More significant than the clerics are their secular successors, the ethicists – paid to worry so we don’t have to. They’re already on the case.
“Ethicists” are a modern curse, typified best by that waste of taxpayer dollars, the “President’s Council on Bioethics” set up by George W. Bush, and its successor, Obama’s “Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.” Needless to say, the busybody-in-chief has asked the commission to investigate the “implications” of Venter and Smith’s work:
I ask that the Commission complete its study within six months and provide me with a report with its findings, as well as any recommendations and suggestions for future study that the Commission deems appropriate. Given the importance of this issue, I request that the Commission consult with a range of constituencies, including scientific and medical communities, faith communities, and business and nonprofit organizations.
It is vital that we as a society consider, in a thoughtful manner, the significance ofthis kind of scientific development. With the Commission’s collective expertise in the areas of science, policy, and ethical and religious values, I am confident that it will carry out this responsibility with the care and attention it deserves.
Oh, good grief.