The “Brave New World” of genetic manipulation in reproductive medicine has arrived, and its arrival embraces the utilitarian calculation that the death of the innocent is a legitimate means to secure the health of another.
Mitochondrial diseases, such as Leigh’s Syndrome and Alpers Disease are passed down from mothers to their children because offspring inherit their mitochondria (the energy producers of cells) exclusively from their mothers. Often caused by mutations in the mitochondrial DNA, these diseases can be devastating. Modern medicine has yet to offer a cure.
Researchers in the UK and USA have developed a number of procedures to prevent the inheritance of disease-causing mitochondria. The most favored method appears to be “Pro-nuclear Transfer” (PNT). PNT involves the creation of two one-celled human beings (zygotes) in a petri dish. One is “donated” and the other is the offspring of the parents who have passed on a mitochondrial disease. To bypass this disease, researchers remove and discard the nucleus of the “donor zygote” and replace it with the nucleus that has been removed from the infected zygote.
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The end result of PNT is a human being free of his mother’s mitochondrial disease, but who now has three genetic parents: the DNA contained in the nucleus has been provided by two adults, and the DNA from the mitochondria are from the second woman who donated the zygote. More importantly, the result is that where there were once two unique human beings, made in the image and likeness of God, we now have only one. This procedure demands the death of at least one human being so that another might have health. Some have suggested that two human beings are killed and the disease-free zygote is a new human being created from parts.
Unfortunately, the United Kingdom recently gave approval to researchers to move toward clinical use of these techniques. In the United States the Food and Drug Administration is devoting a day and a half on October 22 and 23 to “discuss oocyte modification in assisted reproduction for the prevention of transmission of mitochondrial disease or treatment of infertility.” (Emphasis added.)
These are disappointing developments as there are many ethical concerns with this procedure. And still unknown are the potentially serious health risks for the individual or his progeny.
But what is most disconcerting is the disregard for the dignity and rights of the “donor zygote” who is not treated as a person but as an object, a means, to secure the well-being of another. This is a tragedy as Blessed John Paul II emphasized time and again: “[t]he dignity of the person is the most precious possession of an individual,” it is a permanent endowment that must be cherished.
PNT is a clear violation of the personal dignity of man, a dignity that is rooted in his being a member of the human species—a unique and unrepeatable creation made in God’s image and likeness. Having been made in God’s image and likeness, the direct taking of the life of an innocent human being is also an offense to God. In Christifidelis laici John Paul stressed, “For this reason every violation of the personal dignity of the human being cries out in vengeance to God and is an offense against the Creator of the individual.” The human person is a great good, and the human community has the duty to uphold and cherish the dignity of God and his highest creation. John Paul’s words remain apropos:
In virtue of a personal dignity, the human being is always a value as an individual, and as such demands being considered and treated as a person and never, on the contrary, considered and treated as an object to be used or as a means or as a thing.
This procedure further represents a blatant offense against the fundamental equality of all persons before God and with one another. It is unjust discrimination which is “totally unacceptable” especially as it serves to “divide and degrade the human family.” It is an “intolerable injustice” because of the “dishonor inflicted on the dignity of the person”—both the child treated as a means to an end and the doctors and parents who perpetrate the unjust attack are demeaned by PNT.
The Church affirms that patients have a right to adequate health care. Researchers and physicians should make every effort to eradicate diseases such as inheritable mitochondrial diseases and secure the wellbeing of all their patients. But this “right to health” cannot come at the cost of “the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights,” the right to life. The “right to health”—admittedly a difficult right to define—is “false and illusory” when the duty to preserve life is so directly offended.
In a recent speech Pope Francis lamented a “throw away culture” that is increasingly operative in medicine and science. One can hardly conceive of a more clear manifestation of this throw away culture than PNTs deliberate killing and discarding of one human being to immediately secure the health of another.