Human life from the lab: Why not?

This article was published in the opinion page of the Chicago Tribune in 1999 in observance of the twentieth anniversary of the birth on July 25, 1978 of the first "test tube" baby, a British woman, Louise Brown. Notice that the date is ten years to the day after the promulgation of Humanae vitae, a document which clarifies the Catholic Church's teaching on the ethics of human reproduction.
Twenty years ago, Louise Brown made medical history as the first person born after in vitro fertilization. Since then, the lab techniques used to assist reproduction, initially developed by British doctors Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards, have been refined considerably. Scientists today have an extraordinary ability to control the physical processes of human reproduction and early human development. It’s no longer inconceivable, so to speak, for doctors to predetermine the normal and pathological attributes of a particular human being from the earliest stages of development, and the very specific circumstances of his or her birth. Surrogate mothers and sperm vendors, test tube fertilization and a variety of more or less complicated procedures to replace conception are now widely available.

These methods all involve the melding of male and female reproductive cells, sperm and egg, with greater or lesser encouragement from the doctor involved.
Unlike the methods of assisted reproduction, human cloning does not involve the union of distinct and complementary male and female DNA. In cloning, the normal female dose of DNA is removed from the egg, and a microscopic needle -- rather than a sperm cell -- is used to inject a full dose -- rather than the male dose -- of DNA into it. Theoretically, this full dose of DNA could be obtained from any cell – from the skin, blood or breast tissue, for example -- of a fully developed individual. The reproductive machinery of the egg is, in effect, fooled into “conception”, and development of the “clone”, genetically identical to its single parent, proceeds as planned. While not yet achieved, human cloning appears to be technically feasible, and is the discretely stated objective of several research groups around the world.

These techniques are promoted by some as potential solutions for a wide variety of maladies affecting humanity. But they are themselves symptoms of a serious illness, far more threatening to mankind than any of the physical ailments they hope to remedy. They point to a serious pathology in our understanding of the human person.

A person is a human being of moral worth, and thus granted full rights under the law. At the moment of conception, when sperm and egg come together, a completely distinct member of the human species is formed, at first as a single cell. That one cell contains all the genetic information needed for the development of a complete human being.
The new organism is unique, different from its parents and from every other human being that has or will ever exist. We can identify its sex, eye and hair color, even diseases that may affect it in the future. The specific features which make this organism uniquely human are present and measurable from the moment of conception. Just like you and me, all that this new human being needs to grow is nourishment. Nothing else needs to be added to it. Its subsequent development is simply an unfolding of structures and functions, a process that normally begins in the womb and continues throughout life. That the newly conceived organism is genetically human, biologically human and a distinct member of the human species is an undisputed scientific fact.

For advocates of artificial reproduction, this fact is morally irrelevant. For them – either implicitly or explicitly -- a “human being” is not a “human person”, and therefore has no rights. Rather than an unfolding of traits, they understand human development to be more akin to an assembly line: the addition of increasingly complex parts to an organism that may eventually be a person, if certain standards are fulfilled. They offer a variety of criteria to define “personhood”: “viability”, the ability of the organism to survive outside the womb; self-awareness; the ability to reason or communicate; the capacity for self-directed action. The common denominator here is that “functioning” as a human rather than being human is what matters.

The value of a “thing” may well be defined by how well it fulfills the functions proper to it. For example, most would agree that a flat tire is a bad tire because it won’t roll smoothly, but a full tire has value because it does. But persons are not just things. Persons possess moral value because of who they are, not what they do or how well they do it. Human rights are not “earned” or “acquired”: they do not depend on the possession of certain qualities or physical perfections such as freedom from illness or the ability to reason or communicate. A human being, throughout the course of his or her existence, is worthy of our esteem and consideration -- and the full protection of the law -- because by nature human beings are human persons.

Persons are not property. No one has the right to own or to possess another person. Even parents do not have a right to “have” children. They have a right – which they bestow on one another when they marry – only to share the physical actions that express the loving gift of themselves to one another, and that are naturally ordered to the generation of new human life. To conceive a child in a test tube is to conceive a person as a “thing”, an object to be manipulated and disposed of at will. From the moment of conception, a unique and unrepeatable human being comes into existence. Like all of us, this new person lives to love and be loved, so it’s only fitting to begin life from the first instant as the fruitful expression of the love of two persons, not as a dour statistic in a laboratory of strangers.

True science must submit to the dignity of each and every human being without exception. When it does not, its purpose is corrupted and it quickly becomes a tool for the manipulation of one human being by another.
Consequently, the broader effects of the use of in vitro fertilization and – in time perhaps -- human cloning are not difficult to predict: the lives of the powerless will become “currency” to purchase the health of the strong.

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