What becomes of the tiny human being, if doctors find in their pre-implantation diagnosis that it possesses a bad gene? Is it a candidate for therapy, or for extermination?’
As we all know only too well, the media have seized upon the dying of our present century to engage themselves vigorously in ranking and evaluating the past hundred years’ most distinctive accomplishments. The May 16, 1999 issue of the Sunday New York Times draws our attention to the great pianists that have performed over the past ten decades. Twenty-five recording companies have collaborated in producing two hundred CDs illustrating the best piano recordings of the century. This unparalleled event will contribute much to the discussion of who was the greatest keyboard artist of the 20th century. Seventy-four pianists, the Times article informs us, “made the cut.” Legendary wizards of the keyboard such as Busoni, Brailowsky, Rosenthal, and de Pachmann, did not.
In another section of the same newspaper, a different meaning is attached to “not making the cut.” Natalie Angier reports on “attacking genetic diseases” through “pre-implantation diagnosis.” She refers to a procedure in which doctors remove a single cell from an eight-celled embryo in a laboratory dish to see if the embryo has an inherited disease, such as cystic fibrosis or Fanconi’s anemia, and, if it has, they do not attempt to implant it in the mother’s womb. Of course, the doctors are not “fighting the disease” as much as they are attacking the subject who might, if given the chance to be born, express the disease. Also, they are not merely engaged in “diagnosis,” but when the diagnosis is unfavourable, in the destruction of the bearer of the disease. And in choosing not to implant, they are, more to the point, choosing to exterminate the embryo.
The embryo that does not make the pre-implantation cut is not relegated to a second-order status, such as the one to which Busoni and his kin are assigned, but to oblivion. They are not allowed to enjoy whatever life their lesser status affords, but are summarily dispossessed of all status. If medical diagnosis could routinely be followed by the extermination of the patient, how many of us would be willing to see our doctor for an annual checkup? The eight-celled embryo has no choice in the matter. Others make the choice for it. They do so in the interest of ensuring that only an embryo with a genetic promise of health will occupy its mother’s uterus. A genetic certificate of health thus becomes an absolute requirement for continued existence. Those outside the womb who do have cystic fibrosis or any number of other diseases, may feel guilty that a less sophisticated and more permissive generation allowed them to live.
We may be inoculated against the horror of any moral transgression by allowing ourselves to be mesmerized by positive sounding phrases. Moral distraction must be preceded by verbal distraction. “Pre-implantation diagnosis” in itself indicates that we have pushed the frontier for disease-detection all the way back to the pre-pregnancy stage. “Attacking genetic diseases” does not convey the notion of destroying innocent human beings. But the essential malice lies in what is left unsaid. What becomes of the tiny human being if doctors find, in their pre-implantation diagnosis, that it possesses a bad gene? Is it then a candidate for therapy? Or for sympathetic care? Or does it become a candidate for extermination?
At New York’s Mt.Sinai Hospital, a few years ago, the amniocentesis report on a woman carrying twins indicated that one, but only one, had Down syndrome. The woman did not want to bring into the world a child who is handicapped in this way and requested that he be aborted. Doctors performed what they called “the selective delivery of discordant twins.” The phrase is a masterpiece of verbal deception that distractingly emphasizes the positive while carefully ignoring the negative. What they “selected,” however, was not a delivery but a death. And the “discordance” was more between the mother and society than between the inhabitants of her womb.
Dr. Robert Casper, who heads an IVF center at the University of Toronto, explained to Canada’s Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies that he does not discard surplus embryos, but allows them to be “destroyed naturally” by placing them in the mother’s vagina where they are absorbed into her body. This adroit euphemism no doubt distracts his female clients from the grim realization that he is using their birth canal as a death chamber. Referring to the process as “natural” represents a triumph of trickery over truth.
The mindset that permits the callous destruction of “undesirable,” “unwanted,” or “unusable” human embryos is, to give it a proper and precise name, preposterous. Derived from the Latin roots prae (before) and posterius (after), this word literally means placing before that which should come after. The “preposterous” is often ludicrous, such as in bringing the soupspoon to one’s face before opening one’s mouth, or trying to put socks on after putting on one’s shoes. When moral values are involved, however, the preposterous can become calamitous.
Destroying human embryos because they do not fit into our current patterns of personal and social convenience is preposterous because it places a secondary good of life (convenience) before that which is primary (human life itself). The primary and substantive good of all human beings lies in their fundamental identity as humans, their integrity as beings of intrinsic value, and their subjectivity as beings who are destined to experience life from their own unique center of consciousness. These goods – identity, dignity, and subjectivity – are intrinsic to the living human being and cannot be removed without removing something that is absolutely essential to it. On the other hand, there are secondary goods, such as health, attractiveness, desirability, status, and so on. These goods are transitory. They come and go, rise and fall. They do not exist in their own right, which is to say that they do not enter into the very substance of the human being. They are, in fact, accidents or qualities that modify the human substance, but are not commensurate with it. It is the human being that enjoys health. Health does not exist by itself. There is no such thing as health per se, only subjects who have health. Lewis Carroll’s “Chesire cat” may disappear leaving behind only its smile, but this image is fantastic and charming precisely because everyone knows that one cannot smile in the absence of a face.
Placing secondary goods ahead of primary goods represents an ontological reversal. But this preposterous reversion of things has more dire implications than merely getting things backwards. Demoting that which is primary to a secondary status moves it into a position where it is apt to be lost. Thus, by promoting the secondary goods of man to a position of primacy (making health more important than life, or sex more important than love), puts the primary goods in the perilous position of possibly being relegated to oblivion. Placing man first and God second has led, historically, to atheism. In this way, reverse order is tantamount to disorder or chaos. Again, etymology is illuminating. The chaos of dis-order is akin to the calamity of dis-aster, that is, being on the wrong side (dis) of the stars (aster).
As a personalist philosopher, Karol Wojtyla (now Pope John Paul II) has asserted that each human being is inviolable, irreplaceable, and unrepeatable. These features determine our proper moral response to the fundamental good of each person. Because each person (embryo, fetus, neonate, or adult) has dignity, he must not be violated. Because each person is unrepeatable, his unique identity must not be denied its proper place in the scheme of things. Each human being comes into the world at a certain time and in a certain place and with a certain destiny. In denying these factors, one cuts against the very essence of the person involved.
Abortion, in vitro fertilization, and pre-implantation diagnosis all make human life conditional. An unborn child must be wanted before it can be born. A surplus embryo must be needed before it can be implanted. An early-stage embryo must be healthy before it can continue its development. For these human beings to “make the cut,” their primary good must wait on the evaluation of their secondary goods. But in making life conditional on secondary goods, we make it shallow. In giving primacy to secondary goods, we obnubilate the primary goods themselves and thereby reduce human life to but a shallow image of itself.
What this also comes down to, and perhaps most significantly, is a crisis in love. Love, rather than mere attraction, is an affirming response to the fundamental good of the other. The lover honours the dignity, identity, and subjectivity of his beloved. But if these moral realities are utterly devalued, the ground of love itself is removed and love becomes an impossibility.
In the insubstantial world of images, love defers to mere attraction. “The way to love anything is to realize it might be lost,” as G. K. Chesterton reminds us. Love is profoundly concerned about the life and death of the other. But in the preposterous world of technologized disorder, there exists no substratum to serve as the object of anyone’s love. We are attracted to the ephemeral; we ignore what abides. We are fascinated by the shadow; we avoid the substance.
As the prospect for cloning is taken with increasing seriousness in our culture, we are confronted with the illusion that love is unnecessary because life cannot be lost. As soon as the announcement was made concerning the cloning of Dolly the sheep, people began making inquiries about the cloning of “loved ones.” A woman contacted British futurologist Patrick Dixon and queried him about the prospect of cloning her deceased father and possibly carrying the baby to term herself. Will cloning ultimately cheat death and insure an earthly immortality? In the absence of death, will it be possible for people to love each other passionately? If what we love cannot be lost, is there any point in loving it? Will replacement of the person make care for him unnecessary?
We need not grieve over those we lose if cloning them can replace them. Already, a company that calls itself Clonaid has offered, at a cost of about $200,000, to produce clones for infertile or homosexual couples, for singles or anyone who wants a genetic duplicate of himself or his significant other. Or if one wants to duplicate a lost pet, a Connecticut company, appropriately named, Perpetuate, Inc., will collect and store DNA from a living or recently deceased pet (it has the decency not to have extended the pun to “Purrpetuate“). Although it does not guarantee results, for an initial fee of about $1,000 and annual storage fees of $100, it will attempt, when the propitious time arrives, to clone a client’s favorite pet. Those who perpetuate their pets in this way may avoid having to grieve over their loss.
The illusion of deathlessness is the logical outcome of the preposterous elevation of the secondary to the primary. Realistically, each of us is inviolable, unrepeatable, and irreplaceable. This does not make life tragic as much as it means that loved ones are precious. Technology can only do so much. It cannot reverse the metaphysical order of things. It cannot eradicate essences and replace them with attractive qualities (and even poor Dolly is showing disturbing signs of premature aging). It cannot remove the need to love and be loved. It cannot fabricate a world in which people are merely images and death is only a distant memory.
But technology can tempt us to believe in illusions. The central paradox of the culture of death is that in fighting disease, deformity, and unwantedness – themselves images of death – by destroying the human agents who bear these characteristics, we advance the culture of death. Exterminative technology does not exterminate the problem, it exterminates the person.
It is an old and time-honoured principle that “it belongs to the wise man to order.” If we put first things first, then we place the primary good of human life ahead of the secondary goods that are associated with human life. In this perspective, no human being is expendable, though every effort must be made out of love for them to help them secure life’s secondary goods. The convenience that technology provides carries with it the temptation to think that it can make our life so convenient that neither love nor grief will any longer be necessary. This is, of course, a diabolical temptation. We need secondary goods to survive; but we need to honour primary goods to remain human. Technology serves us only to the extent that we are willing to use it to serve others without disregarding their fundamental human reality.
If we think of life as primarily a gift, we should think that its primary beneficiary is the recipient of the gift and not some outsider. The gift of life, even life conceived in a dish, belongs primarily to the living child rather than to the mother or father, to a battery of scientists, or society. Hence, their “unwanting” the child should not be either primary or decisive. There are choices to be made, but if we choose wisely we will allow the natural order of things to serve as our guide. To choose to ignore the primary goods in our zeal for the secondary is both unwise and unrealistic.
Gina Kolata, the science reporter for the New York Times, and author of Clone: The Road to Dolly, and the Path Ahead, is enthusiastic about the prospect of cloning human beings. “After all,” she writes, “it is an American tradition to allow people the freedom to reproduce themselves in any way they like.” Kolata does not object to the preposterous reversal of the natural order of things that is inherent in cloning. Moreover, she banks her view of choice without check on the “American tradition.” But if what she alludes to is, indeed, the American tradition, it has a peculiar way of concealing itself from the American people themselves. A poll conducted by ABC’s Nightline showed that 82 per cent of Americans regard cloning a human to be morally wrong, while 87 per cent believe attempts to do so should be banned.
The epigraph she selected to introduce the final chapter of her book is a quotation from the International Humanist Society that, by no stretch of the imagination, could ever be construed as congruent with the “American tradition”: “The potential benefits of cloning may be so immense that it would be a tragedy if ancient theological scruples should lead to a Luddite rejection of cloning.” The Society, presumably, would not want to extend cloning either to theists or to critics of the technological imperative. Their own pool of candidates would hardly be representative of the “American tradition.” Nonetheless, by confusing argument with insult, it is implying that the basis for its pro-cloning imperative is both narrow and narcissistic. When Kolata asked Ian Wilmut, one of Dolly’s reproductive engineers, whether he thought we could improve human beings through cloning, he told her, “Only Saddam Hussein would say that.”
All human beings should “make the cut” simply because they are inviolable, unrepeatable, and irreplaceable human beings. The path to abortion and the road toward cloning is one that consistently and increasingly subordinates the primary good of the human to some secondary good. This radical disorder is truly preposterous. But, more significantly, it threatens our ability to locate the center of lovableness in the other, and with it, our own capacity to love. A world in which people are merely attractive is a loveless and most unhappy world. Abortion attacks love. Cloning is the attempt to replicate the unlovable out of the ruins of lovelessness.