The control of life

From time to time I describe in this column some new discoveries related to human life. They are often techniques that raise significant moral questions, and which have potential good and bad outcomes. I think it is important for Catholics to be aware of the broad picture and to be able to respond intelligently if they are raised in conversation.

I start with three-parent babies. This is a potential solution to the presence of faulty or damaged mitochondrial DNA in the conceptus. This DNA does not carry the personal characteristics of the parent but provides most of the cells’ energy. On paper, at least, introducing it can rescue the forthcoming child from a range of serious potential disorders. Fortunately cases are rare, and the arguments about the best methodology continue. We might argue that altering the genes (which would, incidentally, be passed on to new offspring) in this way is quite unacceptable. But we can understand why some say that the intention is simply therapeutic and would actually save lives.

This brings us to the in vitro issue: conception in the test tube. While this may be intended for medical reasons, the most frequent use would be for parents who cannot conceive any other way. I have a close friend who used it. It is a trying and difficult process for the mother. But my Catholic knowledge of the safe period enabled me to support her over several cycles. The father may be the husband or another donor – raising another moral point. Our immediate reaction might be to assume that such a step (involving the husband of course) was virtuous since it uses the nearest technical method available. But the Church’s understanding is different.

So what do you think? Certainly the methodology can be abused but the fundamental moral issue is whether it can ever be right to separate the sexual embrace from conception if this is contrary to the natural law as God provided.

A very active area of development is Crispr. This is the sophisticated technique used for identifying and altering chosen genes. It is easy to see its value for removing or changing the genes which are faulty in order to correct serious disabilities. But of course the same methodology can be used to tailor-make desirable characteristics of many different kinds. Would you like your child to have blue eyes, for instance? Since many scientists in different parts of the world are working energetically to patent their own developments in this field, there appears to be no easy way to control this.

Of course abortion belongs to this list but I restrict myself here to noting that various movements are having considerable success in making abortion respectable. The recent Irish referendum is a dramatic example. I detect a growing public feeling that Catholic absolutism on this question is some form of religious crankiness. We must draw hope from the fact that otherwise good and respectable people (including a pope and several bishops) supported the slave trade in its time. One day, perhaps, civilised societies will look back and regret.

But abortion raises the question of what constitutes a person. I have listened to several learned discussions on this. Typical issues are the absence of faculties in the early embryo, and these are answered by showing similar absences in those we accept as persons. I have concluded that our definition of person is formed according to the argument we happen to be defending. But one theory, albeit controversial, may have strength. In the very early days, it is argued, the conceptus does not yet constitute an individual. At that stage it can still develop into two individuals, who would be identical twins. If so, the moral issues concerning methods of preventing womb implantation would be different.

What is coming next? Scientists already know how to take, say, human skin cells, and transform them into artificial sperm and eggs. While current protocols prevent this being taken to further stages in humans, it is reported that artificial mouse gametes, using in vitro fertilisation techniques, have produced healthy young. Again, one ethical argument is that the methodology would enable human parents, who could not otherwise do so, to produce their own genetic children.


About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment, Quentin queries. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to The control of life

  1. Nektarios says:

    It would be great to hear what the female contributors have to say on this, for once!

  2. John Thomas says:

    Of course, as usual, you raise many things here, Quentin (and NO, people who believe in the value of human life – which includes some atheists – are not cranky, and time will vindicate us; those who support the pro-death movements will one day be spoken of like Eichmann and Mengele). It must be realised that one clear fact that comes out of the desperate need to have children, and to devise technologies which allow this, is that ultimately it is the idea that everybody can have, and is entitled to have, everything; in the past, it was fully acknowledged, and realised, that everyone could not have everything (which might just include babies); I realise that suggesting this, as I have, will not make me popular, but needs to be known and acknowledged IF we are to understand the modern (materialist) world, its nature and motivations.
    And … conception technologies and abortion. I have recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer, but, I’m told, the prognosis is good, and I may have another ten years. But … suppose the treatments/drugs I will get have been developed by research which used ‘products’ from the abortion industry (such a – horrific – situation was revealed, recently, in the US): would I want to live ANY more years knowing this fact? Certainly not!
    And … conceptions and Christian understandings of ‘personhood’. I read, a while ago, the book of a Christian embryologist (pro-abortionist) who argued everything on when/if an embryo/person “bears the image of God”, or does not. He was able (a bit casuistically, I thought) to argue that when an embryo was only a [scientific term here] it did not, but when it became [another such term] then he/she did. Does bearing the image of God, or not, define ‘personhood’, for Christians? There’s a question …

  3. Iona says:

    What was the difference (John Thomas) in the embryo as it moved from being described by one scientific term to the other?
    For anyone who thinks that abortion is acceptable up to a certain point in development, and not acceptable thereafter, they need to explain what change takes place in the interval between the non-human status of the embryo/foetus and its subsequent human status. It seems to me that throughout the whole of development there is no change so dramatic as the change between two separate gametes and a single conceptus. I take Quentin’s point about the very early stage before which the conceptus might develop into one foetus or two genetically identical ones, but we still can’t be certain that it is not human before that stage. Could be two people bound into one envelope.

    • John Thomas says:

      I was, Iona, trying to remember a book (written by an Australian scientist) I read some years ago, and don’t remember the details (not that, being a layman, I fully understood at the time), but the suggestion was that there was a stage after conception but before some other stages when (he alleged) ‘personhood’ began (I didn’t believe it, of course).

      • Alan says:

        Quentin – “The argument is that the zygote’s potential to produce two individual human beings prevents it from being an individual human being itself.”

        You suggested above that there is some controversy over this particular point. Is there an argument that it is an individual human that later becomes two individuals?

      • Quentin says:

        John, the book you have in mind is ‘When did I begin’ by Norman Ford. He was Master of the Catholic Theological College, Melbourne.

    • Quentin says:

      Iona, the process is, in principle, straightforward. The zygote (fertilised egg) is necessarily alive and human. The question is whether it is a human individual. It splits into two, genetically similar cells. Normally, the cells continue to increase, forming the human individual. But in a few cases the first two cells develop independently, thus producing two individuals. The argument is that the zygote’s potential to produce two individual human beings prevents it from being an individual human being itself.

      • G.D says:

        Straightforward it may be, but i’m confused. Does that not mean the zygote is in the form of either one or two individuals? Either way at least one alive and human individual is present. Is it not that the cell increases … and ‘develops’ grows as the one or two (or three or four?) individuals present already?

      • Quentin says:

        As I understand the argument, each of us is a unique human being. While we can trace our development from the zygote, so could our identical twin — if we had one. But the distinction between us is not to be found in the zygote: that takes place in the next process when the cell development results either in two individuals or in one. So the conceptus, while clearly human life, cannot in itself be regarded as an individual human being..

  4. G.D says:

    Once a process (with no intermittent breaks) is in process for it to change from A to B it has to have an extra added. I don’t see that happening with a deverloping feotus. Animal or human. It is what it is from conception …

  5. ignatius says:

    “Personhood” is a term coined to stake a claim that a human person is defined by interactions with others in the social world. Therefore a human being is not truly human until birth -even further if you want to push the theory out a bit. Of course it is tosh to us given that the interaction begins long before conception takes place. However, if you are keen on abortion and euthanasia… for all the “right reasons” in your own mind…then the theory sounds pretty promising.

  6. Iona says:

    Tosh indeed. Mothers (and often fathers and siblings too) interact with their unborn babies from very early on; talk to them, sing to them, remonstrate with them; and the unborn baby responds. I hadn’t realised “personhood” had a definition relating to social interaction.

  7. Alan says:

    There have been some recent developments in identifying consciousness in people who are in a coma or thought to have been in a persistent vegetative state. Those cases aside, there are people who show no brain activity whatsoever, even brain stem activity, who could be kept “alive” for a very long time with sufficient intervention. How would those people be thought of in terms of being “a human individual”?

    • ignatius says:

      They would be human on account of their past identity. They may be described as brain dead and hence liable to be switched off for other reasons..’.kindness’ being one, cost being another.

    • G.D says:

      Yes, the ‘New Science’ has done plenty of scientific studies on an individual’s consciousness existing independent of physical form. And deposits a theory of an ‘individual consciousness’ (soul) as being a part of ‘Consciousness’ (image and likeness of God). A lot of serious scientists are convinced about it, (not naming it as ‘God’ though). Ties in with aspects of quantum physics too. (Wave/particle conundrum for one).
      Religion and the new science are starting to overlap (at present) in inexplicable ways.

      the old Chicken and egg question really – does consciousness enable the physical form, or does the physical form enable consciousness?
      If the latter then the mechanistic universe would seem to be ‘responsible’ for existence with no need of references to ‘soul’ or ‘God’. All hail the big bang! If the prior …. ?

      Or, a third possibility ‘reality’ is a continuum without beginning or end. Consciousness (God) IS and creates (loves?) of/from ‘Itself’ individual consciousness (soul) to develop and reciprocate that creating; ‘they’ are ‘incarnate’ in some ‘form’ until they evolve (learn) how to do that.
      Add that into the zygote and …. well the (my) mind boggles. … I know which theory makes sense to me, and i choose as a foundation for life though.

    • Quentin says:

      ‘human individual being’ is intended as precise. No one doubts ‘human’, nor that it exists – thus ‘being’. ‘individual’ relates to specific identity. I do not doubt that I have the same identity as I did when I was five, or when I was an embryo – even if every cell in my body has changed. ‘personal’ can be used with different meanings so it is not useful for debate unless the debater declares what is meant by the adjective.

  8. milliganp says:

    Every single person born (including identical twins) is an individual – it’s almost incomprehensible; everybody grows up to be different to everybody else, even when there are over 7 billion of us. The sheer diversity of humanity is a wonder in its own right.
    When a pregnancy is terminated, what is destroyed can never be remade. A woman who has had a termination might have another child later, when circumstances are more favourable, but this child will never be a true substitute for the unborn child.
    I have a collection of ‘first drawings’ done by my grand-children; they are precious to me. One of my grandchildren, a twin, died 20 mins after being born, I feel the loss of his first drawing, the loss of seeing his personality develop, the wonder of what sort of man he might have become. It is not maudlin sentimentality, just a sober refection on the nature of individuality and the wonder of the human person.

  9. Iona says:

    Just tracked down some more information about identical twins, on this website:
    (Not that it has any direct bearing on the subject under discussion, but is interesting in its own right, as showing that the origin of identical twins can be more complex than separation at the 2-cell stage). I will quote, but in a separate post as I know Quentin likes a limit on length of posts.

  10. Iona says:

    Though all identical twins are formed very early in pregnancy, there is some variation in exactly how early the fertilised egg splits into two. This can happen at the two cell stage on Day 2, the early blastocyst stage on Day 4, or in the late blastocyst stage on Day 6. The stage when the egg splits into two will determine where the fertilised eggs will implant in the uterine wall. Once the embryo gets to the 8 cells stage the foetal DNA takes over.

    The stage at which the egg splits will also determine if the babies have their own amniotic membranes and placenta or if they share. Essentially, the earlier the egg splits, the more independent each twin will be by having their own amnion, chorion and placenta.

    Early splitting also means that the twins are perhaps less identical than those who separate at the late blastocyst stage. Around a quarter of all identical twins are said to be mirror images of each other. This means that the left side of one twin exactly matches the right side of the other. How amazing is that!

  11. Nigel says:

    The single word ‘God’ does not explain God, and single words like ‘gamete’ similarly do not satisfactorily explain the subject matter. In fact, by trying to explicitly define a process, we push ourselves further from the truth. The truth is in fact knowable by children; “Unless you become like little children, you shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” The truth is that human life is uniquely precious. Human life is uniquely precious because it is of divine origin. Fertilisation results in a new life of the species. Human fertilisation results in a new life in the image of God. What is done to mice, ethical or not, should never be done to humans. At whatever stage of its existence, whatever its perceived quality, that human offspring will exist in the image of God. As Jesus did for the sick, whether in body, mind or spirit, we must do all in our power to remedy ills, without violating the integrity of divine life. The swine, Jesus allowed to go over the cliff; the lost sheep He would lose His life to retrieve. To conjure up any life, let alone human life, outside of certain parameters, and to choose to destroy life for any arbitrary reason, is violation of that integrity. For Christians, the parameters are determined from Christ’s teaching, the scriptures and for Catholics in particular, Tradition and the Magesterium. The parameters of love, law, sacrifice and obedience should, taken together, begin to filter out what is ill-advised, unacceptable, harmful and merely selfish, leaving best practice in the eyes of God.

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