A Call to Moral Theologians: Biotechnology Needs More Attention
(Note: Guest poster Brian Green from the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University writes this first post in what we hope will be an occasional series throughout this academic year on Catholicism and Conscience. The Markkula center is currently hosting a yearlong speaker series on Conscience, some of which are of particular interest for Catholic moral theology and will be discussed in more detail in these posts.)
On October 9th, 2013, William Hurlbut, M.D., Consulting Professor at Stanford University and former member of the President’s Council on Bioethics spoke on the topic “Cloning, Stem Cells, and the Conscience of a Nation.” Hurlbut is well-known for his pro-life views and for his work on altered nuclear transfer (ANT), a technical solution for obtaining pluripotent stem cells without the need to destroy human embryos. He is a frequent speaker on these and many related issues and will be speaking at Princeton University in late April in conjunction with a program at the Center of Theological Inquiry.
Hurlbut remains at the forefront of technical and moral exploration of issues involving stem cells and cloning. He spoke about not only the technical and ethical aspects, but also his own theological perspective and the role of conscience in these debates. Overall his talk can be seen as an urgent call to moral theologians to get more involved in these topics, because more thought and more voices are needed, and soon.
Several major themes underlay the material which Hurlbut presented. First, he discussed how contemporary biotechnology is developing a voracious appetite for humans and their parts – whether as embryos, fetuses, cells, tissues, or organs. Innumerable cures could be enabled by access to these items, whether bioengineered tissues and organs, cell lines producing various products, treatments for diseases, treatments for paralysis, and so on. One estimate for the number of people in the USA who could potentially medically benefit from these treatments is 150 million.
Second, Hurlbut discussed how the existence of this appetite is related to legalized abortion. Without legalized abortion, much of this research would not be possible. Two decades ago he recounted that while visiting a lab he was shown a tiny human arm. This amazing laboratory product was collected as a bud from an aborted embryo and then implanted in a mouse with no immune system (to prevent rejection) and then allowed to grow before ultimately being harvested. Hurlbut recounted that his first response was amazement – now we can grow arms for people! Then, his second reaction was horror – that was going to be somebody’s arm! That experiment relied on access to aborted fetal tissues. Hurlbut mentioned that there are already discussions about whether to ask women to abort their fetuses later so that the parts are more well-developed before harvesting, and that some ethicists believe it is better to use unborn humans for medical experimentation than animals, thus raising even more moral questions.
Third, moral theology needs to take a much deeper and more intensive look at the moral issues being generated by contemporary biotechnology. There is a lot of momentum building around technologies that utilize humans and their parts. With so much at stake and so many pressures to use whatever material is most available (and IVF embryos and aborted fetal tissue being in great supply), the struggle to guide it towards a more ethical outcome is difficult. Some researchers would like the destruction of 20,000 embryos to count as nothing – is that what all of us as a society want? Who gets to decide whether this is ethical or not? How many of us are even aware of, much less considering the morality of, these possibilities?
Hurlbut discussed a few of his theological convictions in light of these issues. For example, he said that as a Christian he believed that God would not have created such powerful ways of healing, only to have them be available only through immoral means. In other words, he believed there must be a way to obtain the cures morally, without harming or killing some in order to help others. That belief motivated him to look for a way to obtain the goods of stem cell developments in a morally appropriate way, and not via destructive means, thus leading to his publications on altered nuclear transfer. He emphasized the importance of imagination when approaching these topics, to find the better alternatives among the possibilities before us. We can find them if we look, but if we do not look, we will not find.
Hurlbut’s overarching point of was the importance of moral reflection on our growing biotechnological power. Calling cloning and stem cells issues that have the genuine power to change the course of civilization, Hurlbut emphasized the importance of engaging these issues in the right way, because once a path is chosen we may effectively become locked in to the moral outcomes.
Moral theologians have a crucial task of reflection here. As we – all of humanity – grow in power, will we also grow in wisdom? Will we find morally appropriate ways to obtain the medical miracles that lie before us? Or will we grow in callousness instead, building a civilization that relies on the destruction of some for the lives of others? If we become reliant on the destruction of embryos and fetuses for our health, what kind of world will we have created?
Hurlbut quoted many people throughout his talk, from bioethicists who compared fetal humans to plants, to C.S. Lewis, who said that when faced with a problem we should always respond with more love, not less. Hurlbut hoped that we shared his repugnance towards many of these possible futures, that these potential futures would alert and activate our consciences, and that we would help seek to avoid these dystopian futures. His conscience lead him to look for a better way to obtain pluripotent stem cells, and he hopes that the rest of us will find that path to be the better one, and not instead take the “easier” way, using cast-off embryos and fetuses with no regard to their human dignity.
Will Catholic moral theology have a voice in this struggle for the conscience of a nation? Certainly many Catholics already have been involved in this debate, and with the advent of induced pluripotent stem cells, the stem cell debate, at least, has entered a lull. But there are many other new issues either on the horizon or already here. Do we even know that they exist? Are we ready to engage them? Who will take up these issues and seek not only the technically best solutions but also the most moral ones? How much attention do these issues deserve relative to other issues of concern to moral theologians?
Rapid significant shifts in biotechnology require rapid significant shifts in attention by ethicists concerned with these biotechnologies. That this field urgently needs more workers, I think, is the call which William Hurlbut has given to moral theology.