Ethics of Particular Bio-Medical Technologies
Organ Transplants. Organ transplants have been used to prolong life successfully for some time. In many ways, these represent charity and love toward one’s neighbour. However, several ethical matters come up in the transplant. First, it should never be taken involuntarily, even in death. The body is not to be pilfered. Second, it should not be taken from the unborn, or even the aborted. Two wrongs do not make a right, and a ‘consensual’ abortion does not make harvesting organs or cells from those babies ethically permissible. Third, the principle of the greater good means giving s transplant to the very elderly may not always be better when there is a much younger candidate, particularly if survival of the operation is less likely. Fourth, it can not take the life of the one giving the organ. Harvesting organs from clones would be a deep violation of human dignity and sanctity.
The growing ability to 3D print organs may eventually make organ donation a thing of the past. It will not require donors, and organ rejection will no longer be the case. It may raise other problems: do they become commodities, and those with more money can simply afford them, while the poor cannot? Further, what if ‘super-organs’ can be printed? Again, the principle of correcting vs creating must guide. Maintaining life as God made it, not engineering it as we want it to be, is the Christian ethic. Third, what if we could simply keep replacing those body-parts that are wearing out? Could we not eventually print a 20-year old version of ourselves, and ‘transfer’ consciousness? This would violate the biblical notion of the spirit and soul being related to your body.
Bionics/ Cybernics. Certain technologies attempt to fuse machine or computer technology with human biology. Examples include: robotic limbs, bionic eyes/ ears, portable pancreas, portable kidney, and direct links from brain to machine. Nano-machines, that would do internal cell repair or tissue repair are being developed.
Where these technologies repair what is broken, deformed or not functioning, they serve God and love man. The more sinister applications include linking the brain to the Internet to have a permanent ‘interface’ with the knowledge or entertainment on the web. This will be unethical on several levels. It will destroy the dignity of each human, instead immersing him into a consciousness more like a hive or ant colony than a human society. It will blur the distinction between human learning and memory and machine storage, erasing a sense of value and interpretation of facts. Finally, the humanness of a human in society will be swallowed up in people living a virtual contact with a virtual society.
DNA Editing. The breakthrough technology CRISPR will potentially allow everything from sex selection, to the eradication of latent diseases and deformities. However, it will also allow the manipulation of size, body shape, strength, appearance, or even mental ability. It could create hybrid creatures, mixtures between human and animal. It could create ‘super-foods’, develop new viruses, and new cures.
First, some of the experimental work on CRISPR for human DNA is already unethical, experimenting on human embryos that are destroyed after two weeks of life. Second, the question will be, is the attempt here to restore and correct life as God made it, or an attempt to reconstruct life as we would have it? CRISPR for curing cancer, correcting deformity, preventing disease is a submissive use of God’s creation. Using it to ‘design’ a baby, select sex, elect abortion, develop superhumans, would be wrong.
Genetically modified food is not all of a piece. Humans have actually been genetically engineering for thousands of years with selective breeding, cross breeding, plant splicing. Most food will have to be genetically engineered in the next 50 years to keep up with the population. The ethical question comes in developing diseases to wipe out certain bugs, or crops which can resist certain insects. The delicate balance of nature is easily upset, and the age of superviruses, new diseases, new bacteria is an almost inevitable result of this technology. Stem-Cell Research & Cures. There is a difference between nonembryonic (“adult”) stem cells and embryonic stem cells. Using the latter is wrong for all the reasons abortion is wrong. Further, nonembryonic stem cells are just as effective, and some have been found to be more valuable.
Cloning. Cloning producing an identical copy of a human through non-sexual fertilisation. Enormous ethical problems exist with cloning. First, it bypasses God’s plan for procreation and the family. Second, it attempts to be a creator of life instead of its custodian. Third, it opens up enormous possibility for exploitation: one can barely imagine all the evil applications in terms of harvesting body parts, prostitution, forced labour, or military use. Third, clones of existing humans will present massive legal and social problems of identity and even rivalry. Fourth, it will become another futile attempt to avoid mortality, by having one’s clone live on after your death, or perhaps using it as a host body for your brain.
Augmented Reality – glasses, contact lenses, visors, headsets that will add information, or record it for health or legal purposes. Applications include: navigation, consumer information, facial recognition, The primary concern here is privacy: that your words and actions may be being recorded and stored without your consent. However, just as dashcams are becoming more and more standard to solve insurance claims, it is not unlikely that medical insurance companies may increasingly make use of these technologies to permanently track the health and even habits of its clients.
Longevity, Cryonics & Transhumanism. Longevity technologies include many of the biomedical technologies already mentioned: bionics, internal monitoring, DNA editing, replacement organs. Currently, technology has not changed the aging process, but scientists hope to change aging at the cellular level. Cryonics freezes human bodies at death, hoping to resuscitate them in the future when the technology exists. Transhumanism encourages the use of all bio-medical technologies that would create a post-human, or even post-biological state. Some hope to be able to ‘upload’ their consciousness to a machine, which would allow for immortality.
On the face of it, nothing is wrong with seeking to slow aging, or combat its effects, considered as part of the curse. On the other hand, seeking a human life beyond what is broadly given to mankind represents a kind of rebellion. Cryonics denies biblical truths: apart from resurrection, a person cannot be resuscitated. The Bible is clear that our lifespan is limited by God (Ps 90:10). Seeking to avoid death is desiring the tree of life while we are under the curse of sin, something God forbad. Seeking immortality through transhumanism is equally rebellious, and also insults the dignity of man being physical and biological. These are not constraints to be escaped, but wonders to be rejoiced in (Ps 139:14).
Material adapted from Norm Geisler
– David De Bruyn, Professor of Church History, Shepherds’ Seminary Africa