Monday, October 4, 2010

Of Nobel Prizes and Playing God

The Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine was awarded today to the man who invented in vitro fertilization (IVF). I had been paying closer attention to this Nobel Prize this year because of my Advanced Cell Biology class. There was a class "contest" to see if anyone would be able to correctly predict the winner of this year's Nobel for Physiology and Medicine. Most people guessed that stem cell research of some type would win the prize.

However, it is an interesting coincidence that the prize was awarded for IVF. Why? The class I'm taking consists primarily of analysis and discussion of various scientific papers relating to important topics in cell biology. We read and discussed a number of papers on embryonic stem cells - mostly mouse embryonic stem cells, but inevitably the discussion turned to the ethics of human embryonic stem cells. During the discussion, our professor acknowledged that scientists have not done themselves favors by appearing to be "tinkering" with nature merely for the sake of tinkering. Just because we can do something doesn't mean we should. But he also seemed to be under the impression that opposition to HESC research was based primarily in ignorance. For instance, he stated that many HESC opponents believed that aborted fetal tissue was an HESC source. I don't know how true that is for the general population, but I don't know any educated Catholic who labors under that mistaken assumption! For my part, I'm fully aware, and have been for a long time, that HESCs are sourced from "leftover" embryos resulting from IVF, and that fact doesn't make the destruction of small humans any less a violation of the moral law.

He also made a point which I found interesting, even if I strongly disagreed with the assumption that this would be a good thing: if HESC research is able to produce a cure for a disease like diabetes, the moral opposition to the use of HESCs will eventually break down. He used IVF as an example: opposition to IVF has eroded, because who could possibly be against something that produces cute little babies and gives infertile couples their dearest wish? And thus we have a new morality in which the ends justify the means, and the Catholic Church is increasingly seen as outmoded and even cruel in its insistence that the creation of human life not be artificially divorced from the union of man and wife.

IVF is now so widely accepted that a lady at my knitting group whom I barely knew had no problem announcing to the entire group that she and her husband had just conceived a child through IVF. Her obvious excitement signaled to me that I was meant to react with squeals of delight and overflowing enthusiasm. How does a Catholic react in such a situation? I think I congratulated her briefly and excused myself to go to the ladies' room. Too much information from a total stranger, too much temptation to ask, "So how many of your leftover babies are going to stay on ice forever?" I sadly lacked the courage and wisdom to respond in a way that showed my compassion for her struggle with infertility while pointing out the moral perils of IVF. I did not wish her ill in any way whatsoever, but I did feel a profound sadness at the whole situation.

So I cannot rejoice or celebrate that IVF is being acknowledged by the Nobel Prize committee as a major scientific breakthrough. To me it was a milestone of a different kind: the point where it was no longer considered a violation of moral law to manipulate the very beginnings of human life at will and "play God." Nowadays it's a race to the bottom -- science may and should do as it pleases, ethical objections and frozen embryos be damned. These small human lives are considered merely a commodity. Please join me today in praying for an increase in respect for all human life, from conception to natural death.

ETA: Via the Irish Rover blog, a short article on a researcher who was passed over for the Prize. Many of my fellow students felt that this work on induced pluripotent stem cells would get the prize, and it's worth noting that these biology graduate students showed a great interest in and excitement about this alternative to embryonic stem cells.