Genetic Engineering

As participants in the rapidly changing scene of this fabulous century, we are ever aware of the giant strides that science has taken into the unknown. The awesome job of splitting the atom has been done, spinning off in its wake both the evil mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the bright hope that nuclear energy may yet be harnessed to the world’s needs. In the DNA discoveries, the very core of Life was penetrated proving with finality that a life is indeed begun when a father’s sperm fertilized the mother’s ovum to form a unique individual, whom, if lost, will never be replaced. And in the space experiments, we have all been spectators of the stirring adventure when men walked on the moon.

Scientific activity is, of itself, inherently good since it is an honest search for the truth about every physical thing under the sun. The men and women engaged in it invest their lives in this act of discovery with the hope that their work will benefit the society in which they live. (“Let knowledge grow, that life may be enriched” was the academic motto of the University of Chicago where nuclear fission first took place.)

The fruits of these labors – the hard won facts of science – are morally neutral in themselves, but the applied uses of their knowledge may not be. We must face the fact that scientific research “has gradually assumed increasingly precise direction . . . ” Whereas in the past it was a discipline of discovery, “it is characterized now more by intent than by discovery.”1 We must be prepared for the fact that as the applied sciences continue their inexorable thrust into the unknown, they will occasion moral dilemmas exacting the last drop of wisdom of which society is capable. In fact, this situation has already begun.

It is to be fervently wished that Science would police itself, and failing that, the high offices of government would step in, but we have seen confusion compounded in HEW guidelines, and action by committee is sluggish and indistinct at best. If Right to Life of Michigan deserves to consider itself a defender of human life, it must not shrink from the summons to maturity posed by these dilemmas. It must plan to insert its voice at the councils of decision. Perhaps the center state for these dilemmas is occupied by what is known as Genetic Engineering of which the following are part:

Amniocentesis – In approximately the 16th week of pregnancy, a needle may be inserted into the uterus and fluid extracted from the sac surrounding a developing baby. This fluid reveals information about the baby’s physical condition. The procedure was developed as a life saving technique for RH babies and others, but recently it has been turned into an instrument of death. For it is now being used as a screening process for “defective” babies in utero (or even those of an unwanted sex) who are then aborted. We consider this application to be a tragic misuse of amniocentesis and one that is a significant factor in the pressures for planned eugenic perfection of mankind. (It is also the focal point of our controversy with March of Dimes.)

In Vitro Fertilization (Test Tube Babies) – Despite our continuing sympathy for couples unable to procreate their own children and our personal understanding of the natural yearning to do so that is part of the human personality, we must take a negative view of the efforts of in vitro fertilization as we see them today and as evidenced by the work of the British doctors Steptoe and Edwards. This is because we may not ignore the ethical questions of (a) destroying the fertilized ova which do not measure up for implantation, and (b) abortion of the developing fetus which is discovered through amniocentesis to be “defective.”

Further facets of genetic engineering in the blueprint stage are nuclear transplantation or cloning, monitored mating, and the human-plant and human-animal hybrids. On the subject of monitored mating, we note that no less an authority than Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling has said . . . “I have suggested that there should be tattooed on the forehead of every young person a symbol showing possession of the sickle-cell gene or whatever other similar gene . . . that he has been found to possess in a single dose. If this were done, two young people carrying the same seriously defective gene in a single dose would recognize this situation at first sight and would refrain from falling in love with one another. It is my opinion that legislation along this line, compulsory testing for defective genes before marriage, and some form of public or semi-public display of this possession, should be adopted.”2 (Emphasis ours.)

However “far out” these ideas may sound, they are spoken unsmilingly in high circles. These portents are disturbing, and the subject matter is extremely complex. Yet we must not assume an attitude of helplessness among the ethical confusion of our times. “We are merely required to do what all men and women have always done; to rediscover and apply the truth to our own circumstances . . . “3 The alleged technological imperative of “what we can do we must do” is suggestive of knowledge without an ethic or conscience. Let us instead adopt the more humane imperative of Professor Paul Ramsey of Princeton University who says, “The good things that men do can be made complete only by the things they refuse to do.”4

1 Bryan Griffin, The Human Life Review, Summer, 1977, p. 32, The Human Life Foundation, Inc.; New York, NY.

2 Linus Pauling, “Foreword to reflections on the New Biology,” UCLA Law Review 15:2; Feb. 1968, p. 269 as quoted by Charles Frankel, “The Specter of Eugenics,” Commentary, March 1974, p. 28.

3 Bryan Griffin, op. cit. p. 35.

4 William Smith, “Procreation Is Not For the Laboratory,” Human Life Review, Fall, 1978, p. 35. The Human Life Foundation, Inc.; New York, NY.