Truth and Biotechnology
Earlier this year, in a speech to a group of bioethicists, Pope Francis warned against the dangers of biological and medical technologies being used in ways that offend human dignity. Our Holy Father recognizes that while technology can provide us the ability to do many wonderful things and in many cases has improved the quality of life, at the same time, “our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience” (Laudato Si’, 105).
Technology can be a blessing yet, like all science, it requires ethical reflection on its use if it is to be truly at the service of all of us who struggle in the human condition, that is, if it is to remain authentically human. Technology without ethics can easily become inhuman, particularly biotechnology, treating human beings as a mechanical thing to be manipulated and exploited.
We cannot allow our technology to outstrip our ethical reflection. The two need to move forward together. All our capability to develop and use technology and science must always be done within the context of God’s plan – the natural moral order. It is not enough to ask what can be accomplished, we must ask what we ought to do and how it is done. The ends cannot justify immoral means.
Unfortunately, in our quest to keep biological science and technology human, we are challenged by the reality that many who form the opinions and guide the discussions and debates in our nation on bioethical issues seem intent on limiting the topic to the supposed benefits of these biotechnologies or otherwise manipulating language which clouds the truth. For example, abortion is rebranded as “choice” and physician-assisted suicide is falsely called “compassion” and “death with dignity.”
Here I would like to discuss the truth of a few biotechnologies that people may not be aware of. It is vitally important that people know the truth, particularly when we come to those things that are contrary to the moral order. Thus, it is incumbent upon those who do know the truth to speak out. It is when we remain silent that evil is able to continue.
The issue of embryonic stem cell research is not in the news much these days, but when it was, what people were mostly told were the promises of all kinds of cures and health care advances. What was left unsaid or minimized was the fact that this research involves the intentional destruction of human life at its earliest stages. Hence, a not insignificant number of people who are pro-life were enticed into supporting this immoral practice. Once they learned that innocent human life was being killed, support fell.
Another instance of people of good will being drawn into practices that are against the objective moral order is in the area of assisted reproductive technologies, as I discussed last month. Couples struggling with infertility are told that they can have the baby they long for, but many do not fully realize the ramifications of their decision.
Today, there are thousands upon thousands of human lives who have been consigned to a perpetual frozen existence, presenting the moral dilemma of what to do with these frozen embryos. At this point, it appears that there is no good answer; every option – implant them, thaw them or keep them in place – is morally problematic. As the Instruction Dignitas Personae explains, “All things considered, it needs to be recognized that the thousands of abandoned embryos represent a situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved . . . there seems to be no morally licit solution regarding the human destiny of the thousands and thousands of ‘frozen’ embryos which are and remain the subjects of essential rights and should therefore be protected by law as human persons” (19).
Even if the teaching of the Church on the dignity and worth of every human life and how all technology must be directed to serving human life may not always be appreciated and at times even publically challenged, we have to ask ourselves what would life on this planet be like if there were no objective moral constraints that grow out of the very fact of our human existence. If the worth and value of everything and every person is determined by majority agreement among people, we really face a new moral order that recognizes no limits to its power over human life.
We all long for the cures and therapies that can overcome the limitations of human life. At the same time, people need as well to know the full truth of what is promised. What raises our use of technology to a truly human level is our capacity to consider that truth and reflect on the ethical and moral dimensions of what we ought to do, not simply what we can do.