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How Much?Why Some Things Should Not Be for SaleWisdom, Intuition and EthicsWithout ConscienceWomen and Borderline Personality DisorderWomen and MadnessWondergenesWould You Kill the Fat Man?Wrestling with Behavioral GeneticsWriting About PatientsYou Must Be DreamingYour Genetic DestinyYour Inner FishYouth Offending and Youth Justice Yuck!
This book is a collation of previously published
papers, drawing together a number of otherwise diverse discussions into a
coherent whole. It is an accessible work, with useful introduction for the
non-expert and yet sufficient depth for those more familiar with the field.
While the book focuses on Roman Catholic theological views related to genetic
technology, much of the discussion has wider applicability. It is a helpful
contribution to the ongoing debates in this fast developing field of science.
In the main the book is clear and
concise, giving an accessible interpretation of Catholic theological views. It
tries to test the boundaries of Catholic thought about genetic technologies,
but it does not seek to transgress those boundaries. It offers a practical
resource to anyone seeking comment from a Catholic perspective. Particularly
the introductory and concluding chapters give a useful overview of the
technologies and the meta-issues from a Catholic perspective.
One difficulty with edited works of
this kind is that they can already be somewhat dated -- due to the time delay
between the original writing and publication of the articles and their
re-publication in a book. Also, because the articles have been republished as
wholes and not edited in any way, some of the discussion is a little repetitive
as central concepts are re-introduced on several occasions. There would have
been room to re-edit the articles and to push some of the ideas further.
A core assertion of the book is
that for believers, religious traditions inform the contexts for making moral judgments
(p.31). The question is how does this apply to genetic technologies? In
simple terms, medical science has developed four forms of genetic technology,
two uses of somatic or therapeutic and two uses of germ-line cells. The
therapeutic uses seek, for instance, to correct a genetic defect or prevent a
genetic disease. The germ-line uses seek to improve genetic traits or
permanently enhance the genetic endowment of humans (and their descendents).
The book argues that there is nothing in Catholic theology that prevents the
use of most of these, even if some of the issues raised are controversial and
would on balance see the technology not being applied. Catholic theologians
almost uniformly reject the closely related issue of adult cloning.
Discussions of gene technology
often assert that genetic manipulation it is akin to "playing God".
The book asks what precisely this might mean. Is the human entrusted simply as
a steward, or are we more like co-creators with power to develop and improve
the creation. The theological question is focused on how we see ourselves in
relation to the creator. A further question relates to the status of DNA-- is
it simply biological material open to manipulation, or is it in some way sacred
and thus should be placed beyond the boundaries of human manipulation?
Therefore further questions require more diverse theological treatment: Is it
necessarily wrong to 'play God'? What is the nature and extent of human
responsibility? How much freedom and responsibility do / should we have in
One important consideration, the
book argues, is that genetic corrections or manipulations will be passed on to
one's descendents through the gene line. What precisely will we be passing
on? How do we reassure ourselves that it is an improvement on what is there
already? Have we considered the long-term (generational) consequences? Where
is the line between what is therapeutic and what is enhancement?
The book underlines various ethical
issues, pertinent to theologians, in the context of genetic technology: How do
we assure ourselves that we are doing good not harm (in the short and longer
terms)? How do we preserve the dignity of the human person? How do we promote
the well-being of the patient (in somatic treatments) while considering the
ongoing impact for good or ill of genetic treatments? How do we balance the
risks and benefits when so much is unknown? Numerous wider ethical issues also
arise e.g. private institutions do not usually have the same constraints about
seeking ethical approval as public institutions do.
A number of key Catholic issues are
addressed such as, the perennial and sometimes controversial issue of the
status of the human embryo and beliefs about when human life actually begins.
The authors' view the commencement of life more as a process, where there is
development over sequential stages, rather than an event or a moment. Here
they push the boundaries of traditional Catholic thought. They relate genetic
technology discussions to some of the sensitive areas (for Catholic theology)
such as abortion and IVF, and do not shy away from addressing the issues or
suggesting that the technology has benefits that are not widely agreed by
The human genome project is argued to
be a successful (but potentially disturbing) reduction of the human being. The
ideology of reductionism is called into question. We know the location of our
genes, but this does not mean that we know their function, nor does it
necessarily give the right to manipulate or alter them. The authors argue that
the Human Genome project raises a myriad of theological and philosophical
issues that require renewed debate. These include: What is human nature? What
is our genetic history? What is the nature of the human person and what is the
relation to the human being? Who are we in relation to our biology? What are
the goals and limits of medicine? What is the meaning of suffering and
illness? What are our attitudes towards (genetic) disabilities? What is the
relationship between science and theology / ethics?
Cloning and cell cloning are both
routine in plant and animal science, but the book argues that we cross the line
when whole animal or human organisms are cloned. The authors draw a clear line
against the cloning of human beings. They place their argument in the context
of a number of theological / philosophical questions including: Does being
genetically identical equal behavioral identicality? Are we genetically
determined or do / should we have some control over this? Does cloning violate
the uniqueness of each individual? If we are cloning to replace a whole person
(eg a child who has died) is this not an ultimate reductionism, reducing the
status of a human person to something replaceable? Whose interests does
cloning serve? How does cloning relate to IVF technology?
While the technology has many
potential benefits, it also needs to be viewed in a wider theological and
philosophical context. The technology is very expensive and while offering
promise, we need to continue asking questions about whether or not we should be
using it, who benefits, and the wider social issues it raises (eg for medical
or life insurance).
In the end, we now appear to have
the power to bioengineer the planet -- or at least most living things. What
implications does this face us with? This book approaches the issues from a
theological perspective without diverging too far from what one would expect of
academic Catholic theologians.
© 2005 Erich von Dietze
Dietze, PhD, Chaplain, University Counseling Services, Curtin University, Australia