Body Building: Intervention in Evolution

By Freyne, Gail Grossman | Conscience, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Body Building: Intervention in Evolution


Freyne, Gail Grossman, Conscience


Embryo Politics: Ethics and Policy in Atlantic Democracies

Thomas Banchoff

(Cornell University Press, 2011, 272 pp)

978-0-8014-4957-4, $35.00

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

A FEW SHORT YEARS BEFORE the turn of the century Dolly the cloned sheep was born. "It's unbelievable," said Princeton geneticist Lee Silver in a 1997 New Fork Times article titled "Science Reports First Cloning Ever of Adult Mammal." "It basically means there are no limits. It means all of science fiction is true," Silver continued. That may seem like an oxymoron, but the same article features another medical expert musing about an idea he'd once had for a fictional tale about a scientist who obtains a spot of blood from the cross on which Jesus was crucified, and then uses it to clone a man. The lines between fiction and reality have already begun to blur. Just what may soon be possible is made clearer by Thomas Banchoff's Embryo Politics: Ethics and Policy in Atlantic Democracies.

Banchoff does not fall prey to the allures of science fiction and he avoids sensationalism, but his book is sensational. It is an exciting read and should generate a great deal of public interest because it sets out with clarity the many strands, both ethical and political, that make up in vitro fertilization (IVF), stem cell research and cloning. The author takes us on a journey through space and time: across four countries during four decades. The countries are the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the United States. In 1968 the first human egg was successfully fertilized outside the womb in Cambridge, England. In 1978, the first IVF baby, Louise Brown, was born. The derivation of human embryonic stem cells in 1998 led to the first verified cloning of a human embryo in 2008. Also in 2008 the British government disclosed that it had permitted scientists to solve the problem of the shortage of human eggs for research by the creation of animal-human hybrid embryos as a source of stem cells. This high-tech innovation paradoxically feels like being plunged back in time to ancient Greece and Rome and myths about centaurs, satyrs and other half-human creatures.

It is my belief, as I laid out in Care, Justice and Gender, that philosophical reflection is always ultimately pared down to two questions: What is human identity and what is the best way for human beings to live together? As Banchoff's tale unfolds, the crux of human identity is contained in the question: is a human embryo a fully human being? Does it become human at the moment of conception or implantation? Is conception an event or a process? In an attempt to answer these and related questions, the author makes many suggestions about the best way for the embryo, the elderly and everyone in between to live together. Nation-states must deal in politics and policy for the good of all, yet, as the book makes clear, many individual citizens have very different views of what constitutes the common good.

What began with the race to produce the first test-tube baby continued with research that--in the beginning--progressed unhindered by intervention from the Catholic hierarchy. The author reminds us that in 1968 the bishops of England and Wales issued a statement supportive of IVF research, as did the future pope, John Paul I, then Cardinal Albino Luciani, who sent public congratulations to the Brown family. But IVF programs require many more fertilized eggs than are implanted. What is to be done with those that are left over?

As far as the Catholic hierarchy led by Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was concerned, IVF as a fertility treatment was to be completely rejected. The embryo--and they did not pronounce upon whether it had a soul or not--was to be treated as a human being with all the attendant rights from the moment of conception. Theologians differed in their opinions on IVF. One German Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner, wondered whether rights could attach to the 50 percent of the eggs that failed to implant. …

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