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Biotech advances raise fundamental human questions

Perhaps no other human endeavor will more clearly mark the break between the new millennium and what went before than the staggering advances underway in the burgeoning life sciences industry and how the human race responds to them.

If the century just ending provides any instruction, it is that science will not wait for ethicists and theologians to catch up with the latest development before proceeding, and that ethics is usually struggling to catch up.

The developments going on in laboratories today strain our imagination. How to even begin thinking about what one scientist has coined “reprogenetics” is a daunting question. We hope that the impressive eight-page section written by Special Projects Editor Pamela Schaeffer will help you begin to sort out the issues.

In the past century, too often commercial opportunity and warfare, not concern for the common good, have provided the impetus for jolting breakthroughs in science and technology. With those breakthroughs have come, on one hand, an unimaginable capacity for destruction through atomic warfare, the potential to eliminate life as we know it; a degree of environmental degradation previously unknown as our advances create pollutants in a variety and quantity that threaten the earth’s survival; and an ever widening gap between rich and poor, between the holders of natural resources and those who consume the resources.

On the other hand, we have experienced stunning advances in medicine, communications, the ability to understand the natural world in all its magnificence and complexity. And we are left with imponderables. How can all of this be happening at once? How can so much good and so much evil coexist? And how does the Christian move about in all of this? What step does one take next?

Where God has made angels to demonstrate splendor, animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity, the character Thomas More says in the play A Man for All Seasons God has made humans “to serve him wittily in the tangle of his mind.”

Never before have keen wits been so necessary. The question that was once the domain of theology and philosophy -- What does it mean to be human? -- has been usurped, in part, by the marketplace.

Therein, perhaps, lies a central danger. Not that the marketplace is evil.

Inevitably, the marketplace teamed with science will produce ever more spectacular cures and ways of dealing with human frailty.

The great danger, however, is that humans -- the very idea of humanity -- lies vulnerable to becoming one more commodity in the global marketplace.

It is happening already. The selection process used today -- abortion for gender or to eliminate a diseased fetus -- might one day seem technologically crude. But having come this far, is it difficult to imagine the future scenario advanced by one biologist of two separate human species, one genetically enriched, the other consisting of people as we know them, and neither being able to reproduce with the other?

More frightening than the discoveries of what might be scientifically possible is the realization that commerce and human greed may be the driving forces behind the new developments.

The challenge will be to find the way, while being vigilant against the dangers, to embrace and direct this new path of discovery. Space flight and exploration allowed us to reimagine our universe and our relationship to it.

This new adventure, this breathtaking exploration of inner space, of the tiniest increments of creation, will undoubtedly lead to a more profound understanding of the creative mystery and our relationship to it.

As we step from this millennium -- in all of our progress unimaginably distant from its beginnings -- we drag into the new millennium ageless questions: What does it mean to be human? What is the human’s place in creation?

National Catholic Reporter, October 22, 1999