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The desire to advance human knowledge drives human history. Since pre-historic times, a series of constant innovations — the invention of the wheel, the domestication of herds, the carving of weapons, the casting of iron — show that the quest for progress is very much part of who we are.
But should this natural tendency be without limits?
In the last 50 years, technology has become omnipresent in everyday life. But not everything that is technologically possible is morally acceptable. While that has been a constant throughout history, it became a patent reality with the atomic era. Physicists’ ability to manipulate the atom provided humanity with a virtually unlimited source of energy while at the same time it unleashed the capability of destroying life as we know it.
In the face of this terrifying possibility, the people of the world came together in 1968 to promulgate a treaty to avoid the further proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Today, we find ourselves on the edge of a new frontier. Biomedical advances are revolutionizing our world in ways that may not be as apparent as those stemming from the first splitting of an atom, but whose catastrophic implications may end up being as devastating for our moral well-being as a nuclear conflagration may be for our physical being.
When the first child was conceived using in-vitro fertilization (IVF) in 1978, the Catholic Church warned against the consequences of separating human reproduction from its true nature — an act of love between a man and a woman. Still, the possibility of providing offspring to infertile couples obscured any moral reticence. Contraception and legalized abortion had already given the parents the right not to have a child. With the development of IVF, begetting a child became, in a sense, a further right of parents, no longer a gift from God.
Societal acceptance of the procedure rapidly diminished the value of human life to the level of a commodity to be manipulated at our convenience. What began as the social acceptance of a fertilization method that would provide relief to some couples, brought with it the acceptance of the “side effect” of extra embryos, each one with its unique DNA and individuality, that would need to be disposed of in some way.
Once the disposal of embryos became an accepted procedure, the next logical step was selection aimed at avoiding genetic defects or hereditary diseases. In some cases children are even selected to be used as a donor to cure an ailing sibling.
Today the destruction of embryos for experimentation is of no concern for the majority of people. Over the span of 25 years, a silent cultural revolution has taken place. We need to reflect on the consequences of that revolution.
Most Americans recoil at the Chinese policy of restricting the number of children per family, with its unavoidable consequence of gender selection. Today in China, on average, 117 boys are born for every 100 girls. In some rural areas the imbalance may be as high as 156 to 100. That level of simple gender selection is but a glimpse of the new eugenic mentality that unbridled experimentation and manipulation of human life is leading us towards.
In much the same way that a stand had to be taken to control the expansion of nuclear weapons, humanity needs to set limits on the scientific manipulation of human life. Stem cell research and cloning are outside morally acceptable limits. The sooner we realize that, the smaller the consequences will be for humanity.