Genetic science, like other quickly developing fields of scientific knowledge, has great potential for either serving or degrading humanity. Its proper use requires moral reflection and the establishment of moral limits. “The development of technology and the development of contemporary civilization, which is marked by the ascendancy of technology, demand a proportional development of morals and ethics. For the present, this last development seems unfortunately to be always left behind” (Pope John Paul II, encyclical letter The Redeemer of Man, Redemptor Hominis, 15 ).
Genetic experimentation is of special concern for two reasons.
First, its potential for both benefit and harm transcends that of traditional medicine, because it involves the ability to analyze and alter what are sometimes called the very building blocks of life. Efforts to map the genetic constitution of humankind, as in the U.S. government’s Human Genome Project, could lead to new kinds of control over the physical, mental, and even spiritual abilities of human beings. Recent Popes have compared the destructive potential of such technology with that of nuclear weapons (cf. Pope John Paul II, “Address to Men of Science,” June 2, 1980).
Second, genetics has sometimes been associated with programs of “eugenics” that devalue human beings based on racial or other genetic characteristics (Pontifical Commission “Iustitia et Pax,” The Church and Racism, 6-7 ). Techniques of artificial reproduction and genetic manipulation could become tools of “new and as yet unknown forms of racism,” in which “abusive and irresponsible powers . . . seek to ‘produce’ human beings selected according to racial criteria or any other characteristic” (The Church and Racism, 16). The use of genetic knowledge must be scrutinized to prevent such abuses, which deny the inherent dignity and equality of all human beings.
The Church has welcomed new advances in genetic engineering that promise to improve food production and bring other benefits to humanity (cf. Pope John Paul II, “Biological Research and Human Dignity,” 6 [October 23, 1982]).
Even in experiments on plants and animals, it is important to exercise careful stewardship over God’s creation. Irresponsible efforts to control the natural environment could disrupt the careful balance that makes it a fit habitat for human beings (cf. CCC 2415). Animals in particular “must be treated as creatures of God which are destined to serve man’s good, but not to be abused by him” (“Biological Research and Human Dignity,” 4).
Moreover, the beneficial results of such research should be shared with all, especially with poor nations, so they can enhance the lives of all people and not become the private possession of the wealthy.
Genetic Diagnosis and Screening • Many genetic illnesses and disabilities can now be diagnosed in humans, even before birth. The moral legitimacy of such techniques depends on their risk and the intended use of the results. Such testing “is gravely opposed to the moral law when it is done with the thought of possibly inducing an abortion, depending upon the results.” Parents who request the testing, specialists who perform it with this destructive intention, and relatives or others who advise such a course all share in the moral guilt of eliminating “defective” offspring in this way (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation: Replies to Certain Questions of the Day, Donum Vitae, I.2 ).
Prenatal diagnosis may be morally valid if performed to anticipate the special needs of a child with disabilities and make possible better treatment and care for that child. In such a case, testing may be done with parents’ informed consent “if the methods employed safeguard the life and integrity of the embryo and the mother, without subjecting them to disproportionate risks” (Donum Vitae, I.2).
Tragically, some modern advances in genetic diagnosis are premised on the use of selective abortion in case of a positive diagnosis. For example, “chorionic villi sampling” is now sometimes used to obtain material for prenatal testing in place of the older technique of amniocentesis, even though it poses a higher risk of causing a miscarriage; this is because the newer technique can be used earlier in a pregnancy to facilitate abortion in case a genetic defect is found. The even newer technique of “preimplantation genetic diagnosis” requires the use of in vitro fertilization, which poses moral problems of its own, and currently has no therapeutic application: A living embryo found to have a genetic defect through this technique is simply discarded in the laboratory.
Parents themselves can also be tested for genetic defects that they may transmit to future offspring. They may validly choose, in light of their resources and their responsibilities to each other and any existing children, to use morally acceptable means (i.e., natural family planning) to delay or even forgo conceiving children who may have severe disabilities. This must be a strictly personal decision, and is not to be swayed or imposed by outside authorities. For example, public programs encouraging or requiring sterilization to prevent the conception of handicapped children are to be condemned (Pope Pius XII, “Moral Aspects of Genetics,” September 7, 1953). Parents who make a loving decision to accept children with serious disabilities should receive every support and encouragement; efforts to prevent disabling conditions must never encourage an attitude that people with these conditions are somehow less than fully human (Pope John Paul II, The Gospel of Life, Evangelium Vitae, 63 ).
The use and confidentiality of genetic information about children and adults also present moral problems. Such information should generally be used only to inform the persons tested and assist them and their families in preserving life and health. There is a danger that such information could be used by public authorities or others to classify people by their genetic tendencies and even to discriminate against them. For example, insurance companies might refuse to provide health insurance to people shown to have a higher genetic likelihood of developing various illnesses; people more likely to develop mental illnesses could be excluded from some professions. Such actions would violate people’s privacy and their right to health care, and deny their essential equality in society.
The Church insists that people not be reduced to a genetic or statistical profile but be judged by their inherent dignity and their individual gifts and talents. Pope John Paul II also praised researchers who refuse to allow their discoveries about the human genome to be patented, because such refusal emphasizes that “the human body is not an object that can be disposed of at will” and that human genetic knowledge should not be “the property of a small group” pursuing its own interests (“The Human Person – Beginning and End of Scientific Research,” October 28, 1994).
Human Genetic Therapies • Ensuring good nutrition, especially for pregnant mothers, and reducing pollution from nuclear radiation, pesticides, and industrial waste are often the best ways to prevent genetic defects or ameliorate their effects. In this sense, good public health policy and respect for the environment are good “eugenic” policies.
Some uses of genetic engineering in humans involve “somatic cell” therapy. A genetically determined malfunction in a particular kind of human body cell is corrected, using genetically altered cells from that same individual, another human being, or even another species. Such therapies affect only particular cells in a developed human body, and do not change the genetic code that the patient will pass on to future generations.
In principle, experimental therapies of this kind are similar to other treatments that change one cell or organ to benefit the whole human person (Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers, Charter for Health Care Workers, 66 ). They should respect the same moral norms as human experimentation generally: They must have the goal of serving human life and human dignity; the subjects must give their consent after being fully informed of possible risks; a child or other human being incapable of giving such consent should not be subjected to an experiment unless he or she can benefit directly from it; and any risks must be minimized, and be reasonable in comparison to the expected benefits.
Even the use of cells from other species may be justified if this is medically beneficial and does not compromise the human identity of the person and of his or her future offspring (Charter for Health Care Workers, 88-89).
Far more problematic is “germ-line” therapy, which would alter the basic genetic constitution of an individual and of all his or her future offspring.
At present, in order to affect the genetic code in every cell of a person’s body, such therapies must be performed on early human embryos. In the present state of technology, this requires using reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilization to produce embryos in the laboratory, outside the mother’s body, where they can be observed and manipulated.
Use of such technologies to produce human beings is morally wrong, because the technologies divorce the creation of a new human person from its only worthy human context: the loving conjugal union between husband and wife (Donum Vitae, II.B). By treating the new embryo as the product of a manufacturing process, techniques like in vitro fertilization establish researchers in a “relationship of domination” over their embryonic subjects that “is in itself contrary to the dignity and equality that must be common to parents and children” (Donum Vitae, II.B). Such techniques therefore “open the door to new threats against life” that treat human embryos as mere objects: selection and discarding of “imperfect” embryos, the creation of “spare” embryos for destructive experiments, and so on (Evangelium Vitae, 14). Also morally wrong are efforts to produce human embryos without the union of sperm and egg (e.g., parthenogenesis) or to produce genetic “copies” of embryos by cloning (Donum Vitae, I.6).
Even experimental therapies to correct genetic defects in human embryos would first be used on embryos that will be discarded afterward, in order to assess harmful side effects of the experiment and forestall these from occurring in the case of children intended for live birth. In practice, then, any current genetic experimentation on human embryos would involve gravely wrong practices.
Assuming that such moral problems could someday be resolved, the basic idea of “curing” a serious genetic defect such as Down syndrome in an individual as well as all his or her descendants is not inherently wrong and may be very beneficial: “By acting on the subject’s unhealthy genes, it will . . . be possible to prevent the recurrence of genetic diseases and their transmission” (“The Human Person – Beginning and End of Scientific Research”). Such efforts must be “directed to the true promotion of the personal well-being of the individual without doing harm to his integrity or worsening his conditions of life” (Donum Vitae, I.3). These cautions should be taken seriously indeed, when we know so little about the side effects of altering even a single human gene.
Positive Eugenics • By contrast with such attempts at “negative eugenics” (the cure of a disease or correction of a serious defect), the Church has raised grave objections to interventions in the human genetic heritage for “positive eugenics” (the production of desired traits or supposed improvements in the human species). Such nontherapeutic experiments, “aimed at producing human beings selected according to sex or other predetermined qualities,” are “contrary to the personal dignity of the human being and his or her integrity and identity.” Therefore, they cannot be justified on the grounds of “possible beneficial consequences for future humanity” (Donum Vitae, I.6). In this context, the Church condemns “experimental manipulations of the human embryo, since the human being, from conception to death, cannot be exploited for any purpose whatsoever” (“Biological Research and Human Dignity”).
Here, instead of correcting a specific defect to avert serious harm to the whole person, scientists would alter the person’s natural physical or mental endowment to suit their own ideas of a better or more socially desirable human being. Thus human beings would be exploited to produce characteristics that: are merely expressions of human whim (e.g., a child of the desired sex or with enhanced physical strength); risk depriving humans of their intelligence, free will, or psychological health (e.g., efforts to produce super-geniuses or unintelligent workers); or even deprive people of their common membership in the human species (e.g., efforts to create human-animal hybrids or various kinds of “superman”).
It is noteworthy that scientists seldom speak of producing a human who would truly be more human in the Christian sense – that is, “more mature spiritually, more aware of the dignity of his humanity, more responsible, more open to others, especially the neediest and the weakest, and readier to give and to aid all” (Redemptor Hominis, 15). Evangelization and education, not genetic manipulation, are the appropriate means for improving human consciences in these ways.
In short, the
Church has voiced serious cautions about human germ-line
experimentation, and insists that in any event “its finality must be the
natural development of the human being” (Charter for Health Care
Workers, 13). Clarifying the fine line between negative and positive
eugenics, and many other moral issues raised by the new genetics, will
be matters for further reflection in decades to come.
See: Abortion; Animals; Body and Soul; Environment; Human Experimentation; Human Life, Dignity and Sanctity of; Human Person; Racism; Reproductive Technologies; Science and the Church.
Suggested Readings: CCC 2274-2275, 2295, 2414-2418. John Paul II, addresses “Biological Research and Human Dignity” (October 23, 1982), “The Ethics of Genetic Manipulation” (October 29, 1983), “The Human Person – Beginning and End of Scientific Research” (October 28, 1994). Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation: Replies to Certain Questions of the Day, Donum Vitae (1987). Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers, Charter for Health Care Workers (1995). A. Moraczewski, O.P., ed., Genetic Medicine and Engineering: Ethical and Social Dimensions.