Boundary that cannot be crossed
Urszula Buglewicz talks to Rev. Professor Andrzej Szostek, Director of the Chair of Ethics at the Faculty of Philosophy of the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority allowed researchers to attempt to create cytoplasmic hybrids embryos for research purposes. The Church decisively opposes such a kind of research. Bishop Elio Sgreccia, President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, called the creation of such hybrids ‘an act against human dignity that cannot be justified.’
Urszula Buglewicz: - The news about creating hybrids for the purpose of using them in our fight against cancer has provoked numerous discussions. What do general ethics and Christian ethics tell us about that?
Reverend Professor Andrzej Szostek: - There are many trends in general ethics and this causes different evaluation of particular behaviour. But even within the framework of general normative ethics, i.e. ethics that attempts to establish what we should do and not only that what people regard as morally good and evil (which constitutes the subject matter of descriptive ethics), one seeks a moral criterion to evaluate human deeds. The most important criterion is the good of man: what protects his life and helps him achieve his proper development. In this context, even on the level of general ethics all experiments concerning man cause deep anxiety or at least make one reflect on that. Recognising that the good of man should constitute the dominant norm and fundamental criterion to evaluate human deeds means that man deserves an ‘autotelic value’, i.e. that man should be respected just the way he is and not be treated in an instrumental way, submitting him to some aims that do not take into account his good, his rational and free choice. Therefore, all attempts to manipulate man, to steer him, to control him and create him reduce him to the level of someone’s useful good, to some ‘thing’. Therefore, we oppose various forms of man’s manipulation in a rather common and spontaneous way. An example of such a manipulation is the indoctrination that gives false information or limits access to it in order to evoke desirable opinions and decisions. This is what the totalitarian rulers do, and that’s why they attach great significance to the monopoly of information and to censorship. They are willing to ‘play on emotions’, use persuasion and demagogy to make it difficult for man to get to know the truth, which is not easy at all, and to apply the truth in his life in a sincere way.
Earlier the manipulations concerning human life were not especially considered by ethicists because they were simply impossible. But the scientific-technological progress has changed a lot in this field. Today we can fertilise in vitro, one cannot exclude the possibility to clone people, we can also genetically modify human foetus to meet our expectations - this is the so-called positive eugenics, i.e. the aim of which is not to remove genetic diseases but to project ‘improved’ human beings. If we are worried, or even outraged, by the manipulations on the level of human intellect and will, we are more worried by the manipulations concerning the fundamental ‘code’ of man, so to say, his bio-spiritual nature. This is a fascinating perspective for many contemporary people. One tries to justify the right to make such operations saying that a researcher has as if the right to selfless but also unlimited cognition of the truth. But one must clearly say that a researcher does not have such a right. If getting to know certain truth about man requires activities that destroy man such a way of cognition should be given up. A psychologist cannot inflict acute pain on people, cannot make them experience horrible fears or put through unbearable stresses only to get to know how these experiences influence their personalities as well as physical and psychological health. Dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki met moral protest because, according to many people, it was not justified by military reasons (which are also worthy of moral reflection) but rather by the desire to know the power of the bomb and the effects it would evoke. Science is to serve people, so one cannot justify scientists’ activities that are made at other people’s expense.
- So should a scientist stop conducting his research and if yes, when?
- Sometimes he should stop conducting research. Naturally, when scientific inquisitiveness does not injure man, does not destroy man and put him to danger, it does not evoke reservations but on the contrary it deserves respect and all support. Getting to know the world and man is a fascinating adventure, testifying to the greatness of human mind. And the achievements of science and technology that serve man, support his fight with illnesses, expand his ability to control the world, evoke greater recognition. The Church has stressed the high rank of scientific research and the types of technological achievements many times. But the case in question, although it has been therapeutically justified (new possibilities to treat Parkinson or Alzheimer diseases) is different. The British researchers, now with the ‘blessing of an appropriate commission, want to create cytoplasmic hybrids: human cell engraftment into an animal female cell to construct a new living being, which would be used for therapeutic purposes.
I think that the temptation is based on the conviction that at such an early stage of development of human being we cannot speak about a human being in the full sense of the word, i.e. the conviction that human being is entitled to fundamental rights, with the right to life as the main one. Those who accept this procedure (creating hybrids) would surely protest against similar treatment of ‘adult’ human beings; they would not agree to kill one human being so that another one could use his healthy heart, liver or another organ. Thus the subject, which we have already devoted much attention to, is returning: this is the matter of human dignity from the moment of conception. It would be hard to relate the whole discussion that was in Poland and which concerned the legal protection of the unborn children. I would only like to remind you that even a lack of certainty (which some people have) whether an unborn person is a human being - although it is hard to justify this lack of certainty - is sufficient to respect his rights. The lawyers say that ‘in dubio pro re’ - in cases of doubt, decide in favour of the accused. Therefore, for example a hunter must not shoot an animal that is hidden in bushes because there might not be an animal there but a man (referring to the example quoted in old textbooks of moral theology). Speaking most subtly, there are serious reasons to suppose that from the conception we deal with human being and this is sufficient to acknowledge that all actions that treat man in a purely instrumental way are morally impermissible. Therefore, the Church categorically opposes all manipulations, the subject of which is human being, even constructed as a cytoplasmic hybrid. Let us emphasize once again: the issue of obtaining cells from human organs for treatment (e.g. skin transplants are the methods of treatment, which have been known for long) is different, kidney transplantation (as a certain organ or particle to save human body) is different from creating human beings and using living beings for this purpose. Here we can see the boundary between the usage of organs to treat the same man or other beings. The Church allows, and even encourages, the possibility to use human organs after man’s death if they can save someone’s life. This does not apply only after death: we give blood for transfusion, sometimes we give a kidney for transplantation, and these actions should be often regarded as worthy of our praise and support. But one cannot agree to reduce living human beings to the category of organ bank for transplantation. We deal with human beings. Genetic combinations can also concern other living creatures; at least from the times of Michurin such experiments are known and do not evoke such moral reservations. Here we have an essential difference between a person, who is rational and free, called to eternal life and other living creatures that, although they deserve respect, do not represent such dignity.
- Who is responsible for crossing the boundary: scientists or the commission?
- Everyone is responsible within his/her competencies. No commission can justify researcher’s activities; he himself, in his conscience, is responsible for what he does with human cells, how he treats the new beings that are called to life. But the members of the commission are responsible for what becomes, by the power of their decision, permitted. The aim of commissions is to make deeper ethical reflection; in order to go beyond sometimes narrowed axiological perspective, in the framework of which researchers think and act.
- What should an ordinary person, bombarded with various types of information, think in this situation?
- He must think himself and must not follow the opinions he has heard. Over 700 years ago St Thomas Aquinas said that an argument from authority is the weakest of all arguments. It is true that it has its own power: we all are fallible and if many distinguished people hold views that seem not right to me I should look at their arguments with special attention and do not look at the number of those who promote these opinions. Perhaps it is good that these opinions vary; this may stimulate people to think about many matters, that is why God gave us intellect. By the way, I suspect that we will forget these problems soon; we have an irresistible tendency to deal first of all with daily ordinary matters. Perhaps one benefit of publicizing such sensational news, which is otherwise sad, is that the news inclines us to make somewhat deeper reflection on who man is, where his dignity comes from and how our behaviour can be affected by that.
- What is your opinion: will opposition to these kinds of research be effective?
- It depends a little on one’s understanding of this effectiveness. I am afraid that the human embryo research, which the British statutory body gave a green light for, will be continued in spite of the protest of the Church and other institutions and environments. But we must present our stand - and sometimes protest - when the fundamental moral principles are violated regardless of the fact whether they will be effective. One should say ‘no’ to all cases in which the good of man is violated, even when my ‘no’ will not change the course of events. Naturally, we should do our best to make our efforts effective. However, our testimony itself, the reminder of the fundamental moral principles, is necessary. The basic effect that we want to reach by making these appeals is above all an honest reflection on who man is (who I am) and what should result from that in life (in my life). One cannot predict this effectiveness and it is better not to worry about it too much. It is more important to do your best to remind people of the fundamental, important in this context, truths and to reflect on them. And one should do that even when we have grounds for fears that our voice will be a voice of one crying out in the desert.