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The Challenge of Bio-Medical Advances

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 01, 2010

Contemporary biological research continues to raise questions about what it means to be human. New bio-medical technologies now permit the manufacture of some replacement organs, not by building them from parts foreign to the body, but by using a person’s own cells to generate the organs in a laboratory. Do advanced bio-medical developments create moral problems?

It all depends. We are already well aware of the moral problems associated with embryonic stem cell research, in that the destruction of living human persons (embryos) is required to obtain the cells. Creating offspring to harvest their body parts, or hastening another’s death to do so, are also examples of immorality. But when Anthony Atala of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine builds a “cell delivery vehicle”, coats it with healthy cells from a patient’s bladder, and incubates it, then the cells multiply and eventually form a new bladder. The new bladder can replace a diseased bladder, and will not be rejected by the recipient because it was grown from his own cells. There is no moral problem here.

The mapping of the human genome has enabled doctors to diagnose some diseases by analyzing a person’s genetic structure, and scientists are learning that they can alter genes to turn certain capabilities on or off. Current research on the genetic changes that take place when healthy cells become cancerous may provide sufficient knowledge to make genetic changes to halt the process. Some hope that the ability to regenerate lost limbs, which exists in some lower animals but not in higher ones, will one day be able to be turned on for humans.

If such research can be carried on without some persons harming or killing others to make the research possible, there is no intrinsic moral problem with the process, and there may be significant moral benefits. For example, heart transplants are useful only if the heart can be taken before the donor's bodily functions cease, which requires a diagnosis of brain death. But it is a serious question whether brain death is really death. An organically grown heart would entirely bypass this problem. In other areas, of course, the application of new medical capabilities may just as easily raise significant moral questions. One is the question of a person's identity. Clearly it doesn't alter a person's identity to regrow a limb any more than it alters his identity to lose a limb. He is still himself. But using medical techniques to contradict our identity, such as an attempted sex change, is immoral—a repudiation of the gift of ourselves.

There is also the issue that all significant change introduces new sets of problems. For example, the ability to easily replace substantial numbers of defective organs could have another major impact on life span. As we now know, increasing the average life span can create all sorts of social problems, which frequently become a source of moral dangers. In this connection, it will be interesting to see whether aging can be substantially forestalled by the mere replacement of parts. If a newly grown bladder is inserted into an elderly person, does that bladder soon begin to exhibit the characteristics of aging? To what degree would it ever be possible to replace enough parts to largely eliminate the consequences of aging across the board?

In any case, the quest for bodily immortality raises intriguing questions about what it means to be human, and this has always been the case. Clearly our mortality is an important part of what makes us who we are. It colors our notions of self-sacrifice and heroism, and it comes as close as possible to forcing us to concentrate on our spiritual nature, on our essential nobility as persons, and on our ultimate destiny. It is unlikely that an increase of the average lifespan from 75 to 120 would fundamentally alter that dynamic; but the hope of eliminating death entirely is another matter.

It is also unclear whether there is something fundamental in the human person which causes him to tire of earthly life at some point, no matter how healthy he may be. One wonders, too, whether the sacrifice of one’s life to save another (a possibility which cannot be eliminated by mere advances in medical care) is essentially greater for, say, a 35-year-old if his expected lifespan is 110 instead of 65. Can we strictly quantify life?

For the Christian, all of these questions boil down to two: First, is there something about a particular bio-medical process that is specifically immoral (in terms of material or spiritual harm to others or oneself)? Harvesting materials from others in a deleterious way without their consent is clearly immoral, as is changing certain things about our own bodies for immoral reasons (such as denying our own given sexuality or choosing to enhance some aspect of our bodies in order to more successfully behave immorally).

Second, do I still yearn for God and give myself freely to Him? In prayer I may decide to have a heart transplant. That decision is not fundamentally different from choosing to use an antibiotic, except for the risk/reward ratio. But if I am in denial about my own nature and the relationship I am supposed to have with the loving Father who created me, then I am in spiritual and moral trouble. And if I am pursuing bodily immortality because of my disdain for God’s plan, then I’d best give up the quest.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: dschenkjr9859 - Sep. 04, 2010 7:44 AM ET USA

    So what does the Church say about heart transplants from someone who is simply ruled to be brain dead? This is the first I have heard of there being a possible problem.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Sep. 02, 2010 10:42 AM ET USA

    TreeRing's comment is well-taken with respect to heart transplants (though someone can live with just one lung). The issue is that transplanted hearts can be used only before all bodily functions cease, which depends on a diagnosis of brain death, and the validity of brain death as a diagnosis for true death is hotly disputed. I've slightly altered the article to take this into account.

  • Posted by: TreeRing - Sep. 01, 2010 6:50 PM ET USA

    I think you should check further about the morality of heart transplants. My understanding is that viable hearts for transplants are taken from patients declared brain dead who have not actually physically died. The same goes for lungs. An individual can donate a kidney or a lobe of the liver and still live. And some organs can be transplanted from people who have actually died, such as bone, tendon, skin, corneas. But this is not the case for hearts and lungs.