A Few Thoughts on the Bioethics of Space Cowboys

A Few Thoughts on the Bioethics of Space Cowboys October 15, 2013

As a part of a series of posts in honor of Down Syndrome Awareness Month, and in response to recent media reports about a potential “cure” for Down syndrome, blogger and minister David Zahl contributes an essay today about bioethics, science fiction, and what it might mean for us all.

I’ll lay my cards on the table: I don’t know if Down Syndrome should be cured. I’m not even confident about the terms of the question. The word “cured” is just too loaded. And Lord knows, the last thing we need is another non-expert weighing in on an issue that is as complicated, both morally and scientifically, as it is emotionally charged for so many. But I can contribute to the conversation in one respect. I can tell you about the movie Serenity.

Now bear with me for a moment, as the line between lightheartedness and irreverence can be a thin one, and the hope here is not to cheapen the conversation by invoking pop culture, but instead to expand and maybe even enrich it by including an unlikely partner. After all, as essential as their input may be, this discussion is too important to be contained by the “same old suspects.” In addition to scientists and parents, priests and politicians, we would do well to consult our storytellers and poets, to examine not only our conscience but our imagination as well. There are too many intangibles at risk not to do so.

The subject of what constitutes “normal” or “good”, “strong” or “weak”, what needs “curing” or modifying and what doesn’t, has fired our collective imagination for decades. In recent years, for example, we’ve seen a spate of zombie and superhero movies which use biotech hubris, and the disastrous consequences thereof, as jumping off points for tales of pop redemption, World War Z being one particularly high-profile recent example. Of course, the primary objective of most of these films has to do with entertainment (and revenue!), and we should be careful about ascribing an ethical seriousness to genres which consciously seem to resist it. But our cultural preoccupation with—and gut-level suspicion of–“playing God” is undeniable.

Amy Julia mentioned the 1997 sci-fi film Gattaca in a recent post as an example of a Hollywood film that explores these questions with a bit more purpose than your average blockbuster. It depicts the fascist possibilities of a “brave new world” in which natural born children are second-class citizens to those who have been genetically “optimized.” Needless to say, along with the undesirable qualities and fallibilities, much of the humanity has been scrubbed out of the modified offspring as well. Gattaca paints a picture of a merciless meritocracy that is frightening in its clinical indifference to “weakness”—the seed, of course, of its undoing. And yet some critics might object that the film’s overt eugenics might trigger associations that would shut down dialogue on the issues it raises before it can go anywhere. But I commend it to you.

The most thoughtful voice on this subject in recent years–at the multiplex at least–is that of writer-director Joss Whedon (The Avengers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse), who is a master of subverting genre trappings and turning the often juvenile appeal of the summer blockbuster on its head. Believe it or not, he has addressed the question of “curing” something that is widely perceived as aberrant in not one but two of his projects, 2004’s “Gifted” storyline in The Astonishing X-Men and the 2005 sci-fi feature Serenity. Anyone interested in an offbeat yet insightful perspective could do worse than to start with Whedon.

As thought-provoking as his work on X-Men may be—one man’s blessing is another man’s curse, etc.–the premise inverts the issue too much to be of much use when thinking about Down Syndrome. That is, the “cure” on offer applies to mutant superpowers, i.e. ostensible strength rather than ostensible frailty. But Serenity, the miraculous big-screen continuation of his cancelled sci-fi TV series Firefly, is a different matter entirely. The corollaries are still a little crude, but the concerns are similar.

The cult movie (and show) follows a ragtag crew of intergalactic smugglers as they work to oppose the sinister Alliance. Sounds like standard sub-Star Wars stuff, right? Yet as the plot unfolds, we discover that the Alliance is seeking to eliminate rebellion and trouble in their civilization by destroying “sin” (yes, that is the actual word they use), or “curing” the parts of human nature they deem unprofitable.

Their scientists have invented a chemical compound that suppresses the antisocial traits of those who take it, in this case any urge toward violence or malice. At first the “clinical trials” create a planet full of pleasant, docile, and peaceful inhabitants. It is a veritable utopia, until… those taking the compound, over time, not only cease to rebel, they cease to do anything. The population slowly starts to lie down and stop working, playing, talking, eating, drinking, and reproducing until finally, they stop breathing.

Everyone but a tiny percentage, that is, who experience the opposite response. For them, the compound multiplies their violent impulses, turning them into savage embodiments of Id who destroy everything in their path. What ensues is not for the faint of heart (you’ve been warned!). Suffice it to say, like most science fiction, the slopes are intentionally slippery, and the dangers of hubris become abundantly clear. Which isn’t to say that Serenity endorses a quietistic or unnecessarily passive approach to biomedical engineering. Technology and science are not the enemy here–remotely! But the drive to control and remake reality on our own terms, according to vision that will inevitably be limited by its context, may not always be as noble or neutral as we might like to believe.

What does this have to do with Down Syndrome and the question of a “cure”? I’m not entirely sure, and Whedon is savvy enough of a storyteller to give us room to come to our own conclusions. He is not in the propaganda business, thank God, and he has not drawn us a bioethical roadmap. He has simply told a marvelous story that might have the power to start the wheels of our imagination turning in a fresh way. A great story, after all, can accomplish what no amount of moral reasoning or logic can do: shortcircuit our preconceptions, tap into our hearts, and allow us to see, if only for a moment, from a different point of view. Which is no small thing, especially for those of us who find ourselves caught in a seemingly endless cycle of argument and counter-argument, justification and defense. No, if you’ll pardon the pun, when it comes to such vital questions, we need all the dimension we can get.


David Zahl is the director of Mockingbird Ministries and editor-in-chief of the Mockingbird blog (

He and his wife Cate currently reside in Charlottesville, VA, with their two sons, Charlie and Cabell, where David also serves on the staff of Christ Episcopal Church.


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