Science and ethics collide

If you’ve just joined us, this next lot of Saturday posts will focus on the thorny landscape of ethics, infertility and in-vitro fertilization (IVF) in keeping with the subject of the next issue of The Briefing. Last week, Michael Hill worked through the question of how much (and whether) humans should meddle with God’s creation. This week, Kirsten Birkett looks at what happens when science and technology, ethics and morality, and human rights rub up against one another:

Scientific breakthroughs are big news these days. Scientists discover the gene for this or that disease; new drugs let you lose weight or feel happier or pay attention; there are techniques to make babies for infertile couples or grandmothers; and soon we’ll be able to give grieving parents an exact copy of the child who died. What is more, we all have the absolute right to all of it.

What we are seeing is the outworking of a humanity which is superbly fulfilling one part of its God-given charge to rule the world, and utterly failing in another. We are proving that God has given us the gifts to understand and manipulate the created world to an absolutely incredible degree. What we can achieve through scientific research is truly amazing.

It is also amazing that we abuse it so badly.

Science has created its problems before—the atom bomb, pollution, global warming and so on. We are familiar with the issues involved with ‘if we can do it, does that mean we should do it?’. Yet until the recent leaps forward in genetic technology, the questions were rather distant. It was terrible that people were killed by the atom bomb, but most of us were not affected. Global warming is a nebulous sort of issue. However, what we do with our own bodies, our lives and our children is very close to everyone. Suddenly we are not concerned with what is wise or foolish for the world in general, but with human rights, human nature, my personal rights in my own family.

Just make it legal

One common response in the face of ethical problems is to reduce the issue to a purely legal one. When the Food and Drug Administration in the USA approved the use of the drug RU-486 Mifeprex (the ‘morning-after’ pill, which aborts a fertilised ovum), the reasons given were quite straightforward. Careful evaluation of the scientific evidence showed that the drug is safe and effective, and this evaluation adhered strictly to the FDA’s legal responsibilities as a science-based public health regulatory agency.

Regulating healthcare means, evidently, merely deciding that the drug has its stated effect, presumably with no unwanted side-effects. That’s all we need to know. That’s all the law demands. With this knowledge, we can make it legal, and there is nothing further to decide. The trouble is, it also kills developing babies.

Sticking to the letter of the law makes things neat, but what about the bigger issues? In this case, all the law does is ask a technical, scientific question. It is a great failing of our society that we assume that those who understand the technology also understand its risks and problems. Yet this is simply not true. For example, I don’t know what is involved in testing an unborn baby to see if it has Down’s Syndrome. However, I do know that what is important in such a test is the attitude of the parents in deciding whether to have the test. If it is because they will abort the child if it has Down’s, then that is immoral. If it is because they want to be able to prepare the best circumstances possible for a child with Down’s, then it is moral. The technology or even the availability of the test is not the problem. The attitude of the parents is what matters. In the case of the morning-after pill, whether it works reliably is not the issue. Whether it should be used at all, is.

The attitude of individuals is precisely the problem. The more options there are for abortion, the more parents are prepared to abort, the more the system will be designed to screen out ‘damaged’ babies. Dr Robert Edwards, whose work led to the first test-tube baby, has stated that in the future it would be irresponsible, even a sin, for parent to have a baby with a genetic disease. The moral thing to do would be to kill the baby.

Think of the world this will create. It will certainly not be one of reproductive choice for parents, despite the publicity to this effect. Even if there is legally available choice to have your unhealthy child, think of the political battles over funding for any healthcare. This will be a society where the rights of the healthy outweigh the rights of the sick.

(Read the full article online.)

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