A pipe-smoking, tweed-jacketed Oxford don saw it all coming more than 50 years ago: Scientists and politicians debating human cloning, gene manipulation, controlling our progeny—all in the name of humanity, of course.
"If any one age really attains, by eugenics and scientific education, the power to make its descendants what it pleases," C.S. Lewis prophetically warned, "all men who live after are the patients of that power." They will be slaves to the "dead hand of the great planners and conditioners."
This is ultimately the issue facing us in today's intense debates over embryonic stem-cell research, so-called therapeutic cloning, and the like. Beyond the questions argued in Congress as I write—whether embryos are humans or merely, as The New York Times puts it, "a ball of cells"—lurks the largely ignored question Lewis posed: What becomes of humanity if we become the controllers?
The biotech revolution has surged forward as the defining issue of this new century. On the one hand, it holds out great promise for medical advances enhancing life and health for all humankind. On the other, it raises unprecedented ethical issues.
Christians are not Luddites; we simply insist that science remain tethered to moral truth. But the biotech revolution is moving like a steamroller, fueled by huge potential profits, crushing everything—including moral restraint—in its path. Secular ethics, in this relativistic age, have been drained of moral content; they can be based only on utilitarianism (doing the greatest good for the greatest number) or pragmatism (doing whatever works). Thus Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer advocates infanticide for defective babies and Dutch-style euthanasia of the most infirm elderly.
Admittedly, in the political debate, the utilitarians apparently have seized the moral high ground with powerful humanitarian appeals. They offer dazzling predictions that embryonic stem-cell research will lead to cures for Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and other diseases. Not incidentally, they appeal to self-interest as well. Who doesn't have a relative so afflicted (and who doesn't fear such affliction for oneself)? Unused embryos are going to be destroyed anyway, they argue—so using them to help the desperately sick is the truly "prolife" position.
Some 65 years ago, German doctors made similar arguments, justifying the killing of the physically and mentally retarded, whom they described as Lebens unswertes Leben—"life unworthy of life."
We need to challenge the premises of the utilitarians' case. For example, predictions of what cloning and embryo stem-cell research may accomplish have been grossly overstated, and experiments have led to some grotesque results. Nor have proponents established that only embryonic stem cells can meet the research needs; promising results have been achieved from easily harvested placental and adult stem cells—the use of which presents no ethical dilemmas.
And what about those "leftover" embryos that are just going to be destroyed? Couples who have adopted them ought to show off their beautiful "post embryos," now healthy children.
Finally, we should point out that many of the scientists involved in embryonic stem-cell research (and the so-called ethicists hired by biotech industries) are poised to make huge profits from their deadly studies. This goes largely unreported.
But our greatest service as Christians is to do what we best do, that is, raise transcendent moral arguments. To sacrifice one person for the good of many can never be justified. Evil often masquerades as good; the worst atrocities are performed in the name of humanitarian causes. And we must press the logic of the utilitarian argument to its ultimate conclusion: Sacrificing one to benefit all soon makes all vulnerable.
Christians must do more than assert the truth that life begins at conception; people dismiss that as arbitrary and outdated dogma. We must also raise the question Lewis did in The Abolition of Man: What does it really mean if we set ourselves up as the master of the future destiny of the human race?
Lewis answers: If man with his technology makes the ultimate conquest over nature, he will soon find that nature has conquered him. "If man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be," manipulated by dehumanized conditioners.
The 20th century will be remembered for the triumph of liberal democracy over tyranny. What tragic irony if the 21st century, by exchanging transcendent moral truth for the cold calculus of utilitarianism, ushers in a new and even more terrifying form of tyranny.
C.S. Lewis's Abolition of Manis available at Christianbook.com.
"Biotech Revolution" articles appearing on our site this week include:
Gen-Etiquette | Scientists may be mapping the genome, but it will be up to us to determine where the map will lead. (Oct. 3, 2001)
Manipulating the Linguistic Code | Religious language falling into the hands of scientists can be a fearful thing. (Oct. 3, 2001)
Times Fifty | Can a clone be an individual? A short story. (Oct. 2, 2001)
The Genome Doctor | An Interview with Francis Collins. (Oct. 1, 2001)
A Matter of Life and Death | Why shouldn't we use our embryos and genes to make our lives better? The world awaits a Christian answer. (Sept. 28, 2001)
Wanna Buy a Bioethicist? (Editorial) | Some corporations have discovered that bioethics makes good public relations. (Sept. 28, 2001)
Previous Christianity Today coverage of bioethics includes:
Two Cheers | President Bush's stem-cell decision is better than the fatal cure many sought. (August 10, 2001)
House Backs Human Cloning Ban | Scientists say they'll go ahead anyway. (August 27, 2001)
Embryos Split Prolifers | Bush decision pleases some, keeps door open for disputed research. (August 27, 2001)
House of Lords Legalizes Human Embryo Cloning | Religious leaders' protests go unheeded by lawmakers. (Feb. 2, 2001)
Britain Debates Cloning of Human Embryos | Scientists want steady stream of stem cells for "therapeutic" purposes. (Nov. 22, 2000)
Tissue of Lies? | Latest stem-cell research shows no urgent need to destroy human embryos for the cause of science. (Sept. 28, 2000)
Beyond the Impasse to What? | Stem-cell research may not need human embryos after all. But why are we researching in the first place? (Aug. 18, 2000)
Thus Spoke Superman | Troubling language frames the stem-cell debate. (June 13, 2000)
New Stem-Cell Research Guidelines Criticized | NIH guidelines skirt ethical issues about embryo destruction, charge bioethicists. (Feb. 7, 2000)
Human Embryo Research Resisted (August 9, 1999)
Editorial: The Biotech Temptation (July 12, 1999)
Embryo Research Contested (May 24, 1999)
Biotech Babies (December 7, 1998)
Stop Cloning Around (April 27, 1997)
Charles Colson's columns for Christianity Today are available at our site, including:
Merchants of Cool | We should be angry that the media hawks violence and that parents allow it. (June 6, 2001)
Slouching into Sloth | The XFL is but the latest sign of the coarsening of our culture. (Apr. 17, 2001)
Checks and (out of) Balance | Moral truth is in jeopardy when the courts enter the business of making law. (Feb. 27, 2001)
Pander Politics | Poll-driven elections turn voters into self-seeking consumers.(Jan. 3, 2001)
Neighborhood Outpost | Changing a culture takes more than politics. (Nov.8, 2000)
MAD No More | In this post-Cold War era, it's time to rethink our nation's defensive strategy. (Sept. 27, 2000)
Salad-Bar Christianity | Too many believers pick and choose their own truths. (Aug. 8, 2000)
A Healthy 'Cult' | A lively response by one unusual audience shows how God's power transforms culture. (June 12, 2000)
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