A new medical discovery might pose ethical challenges we’ve never faced before. I’ll explain, next on BreakPoint.
Almost one year ago, molecular biologist Katsuhiko Hayashi at Kyoto University did something that may forever change the way we think about human life. But at the time, he had little idea just how significant his discovery was.
Publishing his results in the academic journal, “Science,” Hayashi says he assumed they would be of interest mainly to his fellow biologists. So imagine his surprise when he began receiving emails from infertile women, all very interested in his work. One woman in England offered to fly to his laboratory in Japan, hoping he could help her conceive a child. “That is my only wish,” she pleaded. Hayashi was also contacted by the editor of a gay and lesbian magazine looking for details.
So what did he discover, exactly? The journal “Nature,” picking up the story this summer, reports that Hayashi used the skin cells of a mouse to create “primordial germ cells,” or “PGCs.” For those of us non-biologists, that may not mean much—until we read that he went on to mature these cells into eggs, fertilize them and implant them into a female mouse, which then gave birth to live young. Let me run that by you again: this researcher made a mouse a mommy—using nothing but its skin.
Hayashi then went on to create sperm in the same way, and successfully birthed more mouse pups, these being the descendants of their father’s skin.
According to “Nature,” if these processes could be replicated in humans, infertile individuals could become parents. But, wait, there’s more! This technology would allow anyone to produce either male or female sex cells, meaning (theoretically) that women could become biological fathers, and men biological mothers. Thus the interest in the LGBT community.
“What’s the big deal?” somebody might say. "If people—especially infertile couples—want kids, what’s wrong with Hayashi’s research making it possible for them?”
Well, we might reply that it’s not natural to manufacture a child from skin. But then again, neither is installing metal joints or doing a blood transfusion—but we do these things routinely. Isn’t medical science all about cheating nature’s grim prognoses and making the impossible possible? Why should this be forbidden?
Well, I think C. S. Lewis would have responded with another question: “Is there anything that should be forbidden?” That’s precisely the challenge he issued in his famous essay, “The Abolition of Man,” and to which academics of his day had no answer.
As part of mankind’s conquest of nature, Lewis argued, we've conquered our own belief in moral absolutes. After all, the materialist would say, such beliefs are also part of nature. They’ve evolved to help us survive. But now that they’ve outlived their usefulness, we’re free to rise above them. The problem, as Lewis pointed out, is that we have no higher level to which we can rise. When we give up saying, “I ought,” the only thing we can still say is, “I want.”
“Man’s conquest of Nature,” Lewis writes, “turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man.”
What ultimately sets us apart from the rodents in Hayashi’s laboratory is not our technology or power to cheat nature. It’s our ability to say “no” to things we want to do, but maybe shouldn’t do. It’s the intuition that the way our parents brought us into this world is good. It’s the love that values children for their own sake and not because they fulfill our dreams and wishes.
Which is why, in our rush to bypass making babies the truly human way, we’ll likely miss how much we’ve begun to look like the laboratory animals.
Of Mice and Men: And the Abolition of Both - Next StepsThink. Consider. Examine. Are there limits to what we should do? Does it matter? Why would we object to this particular biotechnological process? Let us know your thoughts on this topic by commenting below.
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