One of the secular stories or myths that has a very deep message today is the famous tale of Doctor Frankenstein. In that captivating story, Frankenstein had learned that he could bring back life in a body that was already dead. But he never asked whether it was right that he do it. As everyone knows, the results were catastrophic: because something is possible, either scientifically or, more specifically medically, does not automatically mean that it should be done. Science needs ethics. It does not transcend ethics.
God has truly put creation into our hands, but it does not follow that we can do whatever we want with it—for example, the atomic bomb! We can now destroy the earth! Is this a good thing?
The field of medical and genetic science is filled with possibilities, both good and bad. The main point is that technological breakthroughs do not absolve us (both scientists and laymen) from making ethical decisions about the use of such scientific advances.
For example: there is the cautionary tale of Dr. Jerome Lejeune, a French scientist, who discovered that the abnormality of the 21st chromosome of a person’s genetic makeup causes what is now called ‘Down Syndrome’. He did his research in the early 1960’s and was lauded and praised for it. He was even invited to the White House by President Kennedy to receive an award for this accomplishment. What he thought would happen is that other scientists would work on discovering how to ‘cure’ or ‘change’ this situation while the child was still in the womb. Instead, they used that knowledge to develop methods of early detection, which was used for the abortion of the innocent child! In 1969, Dr. Lejeune gave a talk warning the scientific and medical establishment that they were headed for a “National Institute of Death” using genetic advances to kill the fetus instead of saving it. He pleaded for humility and compassion. He reminded them of the ethical concerns, which must direct and limit some of the options pursued.
After the talk he told his wife, “Today I lost the Nobel Prize”. And so he did, as he began to be shunned by the scientific community.
His discovery, which could have led to the cure of this condition through genetic intervention, became merely a diagnosis that led to the abortion of the ‘infected’ child. An unethical decision was made by the medico-scientific community to use that knowledge to kill rather than to heal.
Today, any child with Down Syndrome has a 90% chance of being aborted. Pre-natal eugenics is already in full flower! In a recent piece in America magazine, it was reported that newspapers were trumpeting the fact that Iceland had completely eradicated Down Syndrome. Patricia Heaton, who many would remember as the wife ‘Debra’ in “Everybody Loves Raymond”, and who is one of the leaders of a group called ‘Feminists For Life’, acerbically points out that Iceland had indeed ‘eradicated’ Down Syndrome, not through healing but through the killing of 100% of the pre-born infants with the Down Syndrome chromosome!
So the question on the table is still unanswered: should something that can be done, be done? Scientific discoveries do not excuse a person who has dedicated himself or herself to science from asking ethical questions. Moreover, ethical questions when answered have practical consequences. This means that persons in government are likewise not absolved from permitting scientific possibilities, which would have drastic consequences. If we allow the principle, for instance, that the practical consequences of an action, like the killing of a pre-born child are acceptable, then where do we stop? There may be many reasons why it is judged that a child is not practical now; but what about the child who cannot defend itself?
Ethics need to be used to judge whether an act is truly for the good of humankind. For us as religious people, there is no doubt what our response should be. In the Book of Revelation, we have a clear answer to this dilemma: “I have put before you life and death. Choose life says the Lord.”
One of the first things that Hitler did in his “new world” of the Third Reich was to round up all the undesirables from hospitals, mental institutions, etc. and put them to death as ‘life unworthy of life’.
In killing these ‘undesirables’ in the womb, are we not choosing Hitler’s solution instead of God’s?