I somehow doubt that most Americans will read in their newspapers or hear on the radio what may prove to be the most profound paragraph in the State of the Union address. The President addressed many vital issues, but among them the question of human dignity takes center stage. In the face of pressure from unethical biotech researchers and businesses, George W. Bush said this:
A hopeful society has institutions of science and medicine that do not cut ethical corners, and that recognize the matchless value of every life. Tonight I ask you to pass legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical researchhuman cloning in all its forms creating or implanting embryos for experiments creating human-animal hybrids and buying, selling, or patenting human embryos. Human life is a gift from our Creatorand that gift should never be discarded, devalued, or put up for sale.
He thus called for four protections to be built into federal legislationvital safeguards against the most terrible abuses of human nature that science has (so far) devised. Let's look at them one by one.
- A ban on cloning in all its forms. This is the ban we have been seeking for many years, yet have so far failed to pass in the Senate (the House has passed it twice)because enough members of the Senate are beholden to lobbyists who hold out both cures and profits from the abusive cloning of embryos for research. What most of them do not knowwhat most Americans do not knowis that sane countries all around the world have banned this technology. It is not a "pro-life" issues, or even a "conservative" or "religious" issue. Canada has made it a felony. So has France. And the United Nations General Assembly voted last year to urge all nations to follow suit.
- The President called for a ban on creating embryos or implanting them for experiments. This would encompass two different abuses. First, using any method (cloning or in vitro fertilization) to make embryos for experiments. And, second, implanting an embryo for experimental purposes. This may seem such a terrible thing that no one would wish to do it, but unfortunately this is how it works: First something is unthinkable, then suddenly we are told that it is the key to "cures." In the state of New Jersey, the lawlobbied for by the biotech industryspecifically protects cloned pregnancy as long as the cloned baby is not born alive. Go figure.
- The third abuse is making a human-animal "hybrid" or "chimera." This is a being that is part-human, part-animal. Scientists have already been playing around with genes, switched from one animal (or plant) to another. The same principles could be used on humans. One team wants to use rabbit eggs to provide a home for human DNA, to make an embryo that is mostly human but a tiny bit rabbitin order to kill it for stem cells. All of these Frankenstein efforts must be stopped in their tracks.
- The fourth strand in this comprehensive defense of human dignity would prevent people from treating human embryos like things. Buying, selling, and patenting embryos would be forbidden. There has been debate about the embryo patent issue for years, since decisions in the courts to permit the patenting of genes (including human genes) has led experts to expect that the next frontier will be whole embryos. What's more, the biotech industry is on record as claiming the right to patent embryos that have been genetically engineered. Under the administrations of both parties, the U.S. has refused to issue patents on embryos, and a year-by-year ban has been inserted into spending bills. But aside from that there is no law to stop them and no law to prevent courts from overturning their refusal if a company comes along with a lawsuit and a pile of moneydeclaring human beings patentable matter.
President Bush mentioned another key technology issue elsewhere in his speechnanotechnology, the technology of tiny particles and processes and, perhaps, tiny machines, which is being heralded as "the" technology of the 21st century. He said he would be increasing funding for it, and left it at that. But, as Congress has made clear, the nano ethical, legal, and social issues (NELSI) are enormously important. All the abuses of biotech and more may soon be replicated using this new technology, unless we keep it under clear ethical control. If we do, then as with ethical biotech (including the amazing advances in adult stem-cell research), we can look forward with confidence to nano solving many of our problems.
We must not take this extraordinary situation for granted. Whatever our political views may be (and Christians can be Democrats, Republicans, and other things besides), this particular President has vigorously defended human dignity against the ravages of unethical biotechnology. For that we must thank God and engage afresh in the task of asserting that human dignity in our national life.
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Previous Life Matters columns include:
Are You My Sperm Donor? | Plus: Another Hwang turn, more small surprises, and other life ethics stories. (Jan. 26, 2006)
Breeding Humans Like Rabbits? | From the frying pan into the fire. (Jan. 20, 2006)
The Prospects for 2006 | Deeper into the (Christian?) biotech century. (Jan. 9, 2006)
Peter Singer Meets Dr. Hwang | The ethics of the Brave New World. (Jan. 5, 2006)
Bethlehem's Bioethics | Christmas in the early 21st century. (Dec. 22, 2005)
A Common Cause for Our Common Humanity | Left and right come together in defense of us. (Dec. 14, 2005)
Face Offand Back On | Face transplants raise more questions than answers. (Dec. 8, 2005)
More CT articles on bioethics are available on our Life Ethics page.