Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

John Allen, the Biotech Revolution, and the Future Church

According to John Allen, one of the ten trends revolutionizing the Catholic Church is the advance of biotechnology.   Allen’s proposition, as I understand it, is that unprecedented developments in reproductive technologies, genetic engineering, and the like will provoke and, indeed, require fresh thinking when it comes to the Church’s philosophical anthropology, moral theology, and social doctrine.

 Indeed, the resources of the Church’s thought in these areas have already been challenged by biotechnological developments.  Although the application of Christian principles as historically understood by the Church enabled the magisterium fairly easily to decide, for example, that the epigenetic reprogramming of ordinary body cells to make them pluripotent (capable of being morphed into a variety of cell types) is morally acceptable, and that the destruction of human embryos to produce pluripotent cells is not, the Church has not found it so easy to decide whether it is morally acceptable for a woman to “rescue” or “adopt” (by having implanted in her womb) an embryo that will otherwise be left permanently in cryopreservation or destroyed.  Is “embryo adoption” morally like ordinary adoption, and therefore a legitimate and even laudable thing to do, or is it like in vitro fertilization, and therefore morally bad?  As Allen observes, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in its 2008 document on bioethics entitled Dignitas Personae, gave a strong cautionary “yellow light” on embryo adoption, without resolving the question definitively.

Biotechnology will in the years ahead, Allen believes, throw more and more of these difficult questions at us, and the magisterium of the Church will not be able to avoid them.  Allen says:

Even if the Church were not inclined to make the biotech revolution a priority, the surrounding culture won’t let it off the hook.  Few matters are as anguished, and as politically explosive as the questions of when human life begins and ends, and to what extent human life ought to be manipulated at its most basic levels.  The twenty-first century will witness endless upheaval over these points, and the Church, as a microcosm of society, will inevitably reflect those tensions.

Of course, biotechnology will also bring (indeed, it has already brought) many undoubted blessings.  So there is no question of the Church joining the “technophobes” of the left or right who view the entire enterprise of biotechnology with suspicion (at best).  The Church’s opposition to in vitro fertilization, embryo-destructive biomedical research, cloning and a few other practices has led overwrought defenders of those practices to claim that the Church is “anti-science.”  As Allen’s chapter on biotechnology makes clear, however, that is silly.  Despite Allen’s claim that running beneath all biotech debates is “a basic ideological fault line between those who fear where the biotech revolution is headed and those who revel in it,” his own analysis makes it plain that the Church herself does not believe that one must choose between accepting or rejecting biotechnology tout court.  On the contrary. the magisterium has chosen, and will continue to choose, to evaluate each application of biotechnology on its merits to determine whether it can legitimately be employed to promote human health and well-being or whether it must be rejected as contrary to the good of human beings integrally conceived, and thus to the dignity of persons.

Allen’s chapter on biotechnology does not report anything new or break any ground in analyzing or predicting the direction of arguments within the Church about bioethical questions.  Still, Protestant and Jewish readers (and secular readers, too) will likely find one thing about it striking.  The various analyses and competing arguments Allen reports are virtually entirely philosophical.  They do not appeal to scripture or even the authority of sacred tradition, but are framed, rather, in what will certainly seem to non-Catholics to be secular terms.  Of course, it doesn’t seem that way to Catholics, because the Catholic view of the relationship between faith and reason makes us tend to reject the division of moral arguments into “secular” and “religious” (though we do distinguish arguments that appeal to biblical revelation and other forms of religious authority and those that do not).   Arguments that strike our non-Catholic friends as “secular,” we understand as arguments about natural law—arguments that have a legitimate and, indeed, indispensable place in moral theological reflection.  We think and argue about bioethical and other moral questions in the way we do, not because we are pandering to a certain species of contemporary liberal scruple about making “religious” arguments in the public square, but rather because we think that getting to the right answers to moral questions requires us to understand the bearing of competing options for possible choice on the diverse aspects of human well-being and fulfillment that reason grasps as first practical (i.e., action-guiding) principles and basic precepts of natural law.

Consider the question of in vitro fertilization for spouses who cannot conceive a child by sexual intercourse.  In reporting the arguments pro and con on the issue among Catholics, Allen does not quote or even cite scripture or sacred tradition.  That is because Catholics rarely invoke these authorities, or religious authority of any type, in debating the question.  The first argument that Allen reports against in vitro fertilization is that it “separates the act of love-making from procreation, rupturing something meant to be unified.”  The counterargument that Allen reports in reply is that “while IVF separates intercourse from procreation it does so for the purpose of procreation, not contraception.”  Now, just as stated, no one who is undecided about the morality of IVF will be able to resolve the issue by deciding which claim is more credible.  A very great deal needs to be said on the competing sides.  If contraception is wrong because it separates the unitive and generative meanings of marriage, then perhaps the fact that in IVF one is separating these meanings for the sake of procreating, and not because one is trying to prevent conception, is inadequate as a defense of the practice.  Perhaps.  It would depend, in the end, on what it means to separate the unitive and generative and why it is wrong to do so.  My point here, however, is not to explore the question, interesting though it surely is, but only to call attention to one of dozens of examples in Allen’s chapter on biotechnology of arguments that are purely philosophical, making no appeal whatever to biblical revelation.

Allen usefully reminds readers that technology is creating significant issues not only at the beginning of life, but at its end.  The Church has always permitted people in extremis to hope and even pray for death to end their suffering, but it has always firmly held that it is wrong to will one’s death (or the death of any person, apart from the just imposition of a capital sentence).  No act or omission to act whose point (object, goal, end) is to cause or hasten death can be regarded as morally legitimate.  However, as technology has enabled us to preserve the lives of seriously debilitated and sometimes suffering people for lengthy periods of time, the question arises as to when it is permissible to forego or remove life-preserving technology.  In the 20th century, the magisterium attempted to handle the problem by distinguishing “ordinary” from “extraordinary” means.  Technology constituting ordinary means may never be foregone or removed;   technology that counts as extraordinary means often may be.  The trouble, of course, is coming up with clear criteria for deciding what counts as ordinary and what counts as extraordinary.  A particular issue Allen addresses is the provision of nutrition and hydration by means other than mouth feeding.  Is this always “ordinary”?  As Allen points out, “Pope John Paul II . . . said that the provision of food and water for patients in a persistent vegetative state is always an ‘ordinary’ means and therefore obligatory.”  But what if the question is not food and water, but expensive pharmaceutical products?  What if it is a technology that is capable of leaving a person suspended between life and death for an indefinite period of time?   What if that technology itself were not especially burdensome or even expensive and could easily be made routine?   Would it be “ordinary” or “extraordinary”?   Allen doesn’t say so explicitly, but it is increasingly clear that Catholic moral theology will either have to identify more rigorous criteria for distinguishing “ordinary” from “extraordinary” or abandon these terms and the mode of moral analysis in which they figure so centrally in favor of a different way of resolving hard cases in end-of-life care.

Allen’s chapter contains a short, but interesting, treatment of issues arising as a result of technological developments enabling scientists to create genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for use in agriculture.  Most Americans do not object to GMO technologies, but many Europeans (especially those on the secular left) do.  As Allen remarks, “[t]o date, the Vatican has been more receptive to the pro-GMO argument.”  But as bishops from the global South grow more influential in the Church, that could change.  Despite the fact that many people (I am one) see GMO technologies as providing abundant and nutritious food for people across the globe, important voices in the South have expressed grave objections to these technologies on health, environmental, and economic grounds.  They see the technologies more as threats to people in the developing world than as means of feeding them and strengthening their economies.

Among the “near certain” consequences Allen envisages as a result of the biotech revolution are a boom in Christian anthropology; the rise of the theologian-biologist; and a revival of natural law.  I agree on all three of these counts.  Philosophy and theology have wrestled from the beginning with the great question of what it means to be a human being.  Biotechnology now forces us to ask whether or not certain entities are indeed human beings.  However convenient it is for some advocates of abortion and embryo-destructive research to deny it, a human embryo is, as a matter of biological fact, a human being.  That’s easy.  But what about a “chimera” produced in a laboratory by mixing human genes with the genes of non-human animals?  What about an entity produced by “altered nuclear transfer,” a technology designed to yield a non-embryonic  entity whose cells are identical to those taken from embryos to produce pluripotent stem cells?  (Full disclosure:  I am an enthusiastic supporter of experiments in non-human animals to determine whether altered nuclear transfer technology of one type or another might be used reliably to produce non-embryonic entities (akin to teratomas and complete hydatidiform moles) that could be a source of cells that mimic the scientifically desirable qualities of cells produced by destroying embryos.)

A final point:  Allen rightly points out that Catholic moral teaching does not in principle reject all genetic intervention.  Pope John Paul II made this clear in an address to the World Medical Association more than twenty-five years ago:  “A strictly therapeutic intervention whose explicit objective is healing . . . will, in principle, be considered desirable.”  The key things, from the Church’s point of view, are (a) to avoid the temptation to eliminate the disease or disability by eliminating (or sterilizing) the person afflicted with the disease or disability, and (b) to resist using genetic technology to engineer a superior (stronger, smarter, prettier, etc.) human.   As Allen puts it, “Catholic teaching seems to be striving for a middle position,” albeit (I would add) a principled one that welcomes truly therapeutic genetic technology but firmly rejects eugenics.


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