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.