This is the last of a series of posts [by RJS] looking at the book The Language of God by Francis S. Collins, Director, National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), National Institutes of Health (NIH). Today we will turn to the appendix entitled “The Moral Practice of Science and Medicine” to address an absolutely essential issue in our world – bioethics. After all, faith and worldview play an enormous role in debates over bioethics. How do we chart our way in and through the morass ahead?
Scientific research in general gives rise to a flood of ethical and moral conundrums. In this appendix Dr. Collins highlights a few of the many possible issues in biomedical research.
Example 1: Knowledge of the human genome allows accurate testing for an increasing number of heritable ills. DNA testing can allow both personalized medicine and blatant discrimination in employment, health care and insurability (especially in the US). An added complication is introduced by the fact that many personality traits are heritable at least in part, related to specific genetic factors. Thus “personalized medicine” could address more than just physical illness and disability. This is a complex issue as Dr. Collins recognizes: “Though genetic research on human behavior holds the exciting promise of improved interventions in psychiatric illness, this research is also somehow upsetting, as it seems to tread dangerously close to threatening our free will, our individuality, and maybe even our spirituality.” (p. 259)
Example 2: Human stem cell research and the possibility of cloning mammals or even humans, opens the floodgates to another set of ethical questions. Stem cells could conceivably lead to “regenerative medicine” where damaged tissues and organs could be restored and many progressive and fatal chronic illnesses could be effectively treated or cured (think diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, …). Christians have tended to hold the position that sanctity of life prohibits use of human embryo stem cells in such research. Methods that avoid human embryos are preferred – but at least some of the alternative methods are related to techniques used for cloning individuals – possibly humans. That is, they produce cells that could go on to give rise to individuals.
The list of real and potential ethical dilemmas is almost endless – in genomics, medicine, chemistry, physics, nanotechnology,….
So — How should we approach these ethical issues arising from scientific investigation?
As an insider it is clear that leaving it to the experts alone is not the right move. Dr Collins’ notes: “It would be a mistake to simply leave those decisions to the scientists. … Scientists by their nature are hungry to explore the unknown. Their moral sense is in general no more or less well developed than that of other groups, and they are unavoidably afflicted by a potential conflict of interest that may cause them to resent boundaries set by nonscientists.”(p. 270-271)
On the other hand he says: “I hesitate however, to advocate very strongly for faith-based bioethics. The obvious danger is the historical record that believers can and sometimes will utilize their faith in a way never intended by God, and move from loving concern to self-righteousness, demagoguery, and extremism.” (p. 271)
And – how do we keep the discussions civil and productive?