Engineering capabilities on human beings appear to have no ethical boundaries but only technical obstacles that must be overcome. Thus experiments on human embryos and their genetic modification are in keeping with a radical transformation of human procreation, enshrined in reproductive and selective procedures. While in China what we define as Medically assisted procreation techniques are spreading thanks to promises of genetic selection of human embryos affected by pathologies, and while in Iceland accurate pre-natal screening for Down’s syndrome enable women to opt for the termination of their pregnancy, Chinese and South Korean researchers have placed a new cue on the scientific chessboard. In fact, the August issue of “Nature” international journal published the first study that could pave the way to so-called “genome editing”, a technique that allows scientists to correct human germline mutations and thus create genetically modified human beings. In fact, human embryos affected by genetic disorders were created in the lab through donated gametes, and modifications in their genome were introduced to remove the gene that caused the disease. The embryos were later destroyed, as they were used only for the purpose of the experiment. Newspaper reports on this issue seem to want to record all these “summer topics” under the magical heading of a medicalized western society, namely, as therapeutic interventions aimed at eradicating the disease from the face of the earth. And for the ancient Greeks, wasn’t therapeia the art of serving the gods? The matter is closed. Others have taken time to remind most people that such procedures underlie the eugenic plan of the late nineteenth century to select and produce better human beings. As we all know, this project, inspired by Darwin’s theories, was horrifyingly restored by the Nazi regime in a systematic manner for the improvement of the so-called Arian race. However, today it appears that people are turning a deaf ear;
there is a widespread refusal to speak of eugenics because we live in a liberal society – where every individual is free to decide for himself – and because modification and selection techniques are not motivated by racial purposes but are merely aimed at ensuring the health and the wellbeing of one’s offspring.
However, these remarks are not enough to justify our indifference and to prevent us from undertaking a critical reflection on what we’re doing. I am using the term “we” because in a democracy there is a co-responsibility that encompasses the fact that the above-mentioned practices are not confined to the private sphere, and for two sets of reasons: first of all, they are carried out via medical and scientific means, hence they are a product of our society and our culture. Secondly, they are usually enshrined in laws approved by our representatives in Parliament.
Thus the first question we should ask ourselves relates to the ways in which we are caring for our children and for the future generations. Embroiled as we are in the semantics of medicine and biology, we don’t even recognize them when speaking of analysing, selecting, discarding, quality-testing embryos and foetuses.
By paradox, in the era marked by the greatest theorization of tolerance we are introducing a severe form of discrimination of mankind that is not based on skin colour, sexual preference or political ideas but on health conditions.
When the only identified feature of a diseased “embryo” or “foetus” is the disease and not the fact of being a “son”, the human significance of procreation and therapy are equally disrupted. In fact they both relate to the cure and to taking care, to a responsibility of the other as he/she is, despite the disease. We should respond to such selective delusion, created by impersonal devices such as the various IVF practices, with the criterion of hospitality. In fact each one of us has come to the world and in the world because we were hosted in our mother’s womb, in a community of language and thought.
We find it hard to be hospitable towards migrants and foreigners because we have forgotten that guests, just like children, have value simply because they exist, and not because they meet our expectations or because they passed a quality-test run in a lab. Thus the core of the matter is that we have lost the words to fully understand what we our doing within the walls of our scientific laboratories:
The vapid, technical language of medicine must not deflect attention from our responsibilities.
And the first form of responsibility is to create public spaces for reflection and rediscover meaningful words such as son, guest, and community.
(*) Director, Athenaeum Centre for Bioethics – Catholic University of the Sacred Heart.