Not compassionate medicine or therapy

READ MORE: The procedure does not treat a patient, but alters raw material (perceived) to create a future person.

Researchers engaged in genetic engineering of human embryos, and the bioethics scholars who provide justification, suggest that genetic engineering and medicine have the same goal of compassionate, therapeutic intervention to reduce the suffering of a person. The parents who choose the intervention and the scientist or doctor who performs the therapy will intend to eliminate inherited characteristics – described as “diseases” or “abnormalities” – that may harm the welfare of the child.

We have always seen medical healing as an unqualified good, so what is different about genetic engineering?

The problem is that the embryo is not actually perceived as a patient, a dignified person who deserves compassionate care. The embryo is instead perceived as raw material for a future person who, at the time of genetic engineering, only exists in the imagination of the participants.

The procedure is therefore not medicine, but manufacture. Although this seems at first like an irrelevant philosophical point, the manufacture of human persons at the beginning of life brings our society into a very destructive situation for all persons.

Scientific experiments for genetic engineering abuse and then kill many human embryos. The included procedure of IVF (in vitro fertilization) conceives multiple embryos, only one of which avoids destruction or freezing. The adults who choose and implement the genetic engineering procedure will not sincerely care about healing the chosen embryo itself.

There are many consequences of this distortion of compassion and misleading justification of medical practice:

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Burdens new persons with potentially damaging, unintended effects.
Denies the new person an opportunity to define their own life’s meaning.
Damages the identity and relationships of the new person.
Allows parents to undermine love in favor of selfish or strategic purposes.
Enables some people to impose their ideas of perfection on other persons and future generations.
Destroys respect for the dignity of each human being.
Increases discrimination and contempt for persons who are different or live with a disability.
Enables vast government powers over our society.

Pope John Paul II wrote: “A strictly therapeutic intervention whose explicit objective is the healing of various maladies such as those stemming from chromosomal defects will, in principle, be considered desirable, provided it is directed to the true promotion of the personal well-being of the individual without doing harm to his integrity or worsening his conditions of life. Such an intervention would indeed fall within the logic of the Christian moral tradition.”

We should note some important relations between genetic engineering and medicine in John Paul II’s declaration:

  • The genetic engineering must be “strictly therapeutic” for “healing” some “maladies”.
  • The purpose is the “well-being of the individual” with “integrity” and conditions of life”.

This pope speaks of the “logic of Christian moral tradition,” but not the full practical ramifications of genetic engineering in medicine and practice. For example, he does not mention the use of IVF (in vitro fertilization) in the actual implementation of genetic engineering therapies. John Paul II and the Catholic Church have consistently condemned IVF as the killing of unborn persons and a distortion of sacred human procreation.

John Paul II and the Catholic Church have also repeatedly defined the welfare of a human person as driven by the person’s unified nature in body and soul. “Maladies,” even in the scientific reason of medicine, are harms or obstacles to the fulfillment of a person in their union with God. A merely physical or practical deficiency may not meet such criteria.

Jesus’ miracles of healing gave priority to glorifying the mutual love between God and person. Genetic engineering of the embryo, however, cannot be a loving act. The person who is the intended object of the procedure is merely a potential being imagined by a person today. The “love” parents feel for their future child is merely a feeling of appreciation and ownership of an idea, or the anticipation of its realization. 

In Jesus’ teachings, charity seems to be an action in the world that has a worldly impact on the welfare of a recipient that is present to receive it. Jesus’ use of the Aramaic equivalent of “neighbor” also implied proximity.

With his healing miracles, Christ modeled love of neighbor as an expression of God’s love and power. Both lover and loved are transformed in their relationship with God, just as humanity has been redeemed and offered eternal joy in Christ’s loving sacrifice, death, and resurrection. The “love” of a future, born child through genetic engineering does not have the transformative possibilities that exist for a parent and child who are both present in the moment.

It is not at all clear that the actual practice, perceived as a union of genetic engineering and medicine, can ever meet the requirements of Christ’s commandments and the Christian ideal of medical intervention as an act of charity.

In order to perform genetic engineering of human embryos in holiness, as John Paul II described, we would first of all need to abandon experimental research on human embryos and the selection of preferred embryos through IVF.

The objectives of genetic engineering would need to be guided by thorough consideration of the human person’s purpose in faithful concentration on their worship and reunion with God.

It is quite likely that removal of inherited diseases, abnormalities, or afflictions may not enhance the person’s opportunities for holy living and the grace-filled experience of suffering that participates in Christ’s own suffering and triumph.

Parents will need to love the embryo itself as a developing child of God and appropriately consider – in the present – the risk-benefit ratio, complications from substituting their consent for the child’s, potential influence of discriminatory attitudes, balancing parental control with trust in God’s providence, the gift of love without conditions, etc.

In short, how can parents, scientists, and researchers claim faith in Christ’s new covenant for all persons if they actively pursue genetic engineering of human embryos? Jesus was clear that we “cannot serve two masters.” Sometimes we just have to say “NO”.