Brave new world

June 22, 2006
Brave new world
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) submitted
Noted theologian discusses stem cells, experiementation

In the 19th century novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley delivered a warning to the men of the modern age that they must not figure themselves in the role of God.
Now, in the early 21st century, humankind finds itself with the technology capable of fabricating human life and of reshaping human life according to its whims.
In a lecture delivered Friday, June 16 at the Bishop Harrison Diocesan Center in Syracuse, Father Phil Keene, SS, addressed an audience of priests, sisters, lay people and Protestant pastors. Over 40 people gathered at the building in the University area to learn about some of the issues summoned by breakthroughs in the area of genetic research.

While many Catholics are familiar with the problematic nature of utilizing embryonic stem cells with their connection to the unborn fetus, Father Keene teased out many of the other ethical implications of developments connected to stem-cell research. For instance, while many debate the value of embryonic stem cells, most medical researchers perhaps agree that stem cells, whether they come from a human embryo or umbilical cord blood, can be used to treat numerous illnesses. What if, however, a certain modern-day Josef Mengele elected to use this same research to develop a Nazi-esque “superman.” “We’re entering a very different area of concern and there are profound theological issues,” Father Keene said in regards to genetic shaping. He later added that forging new humans is a “denial that we are God’s creatures.”

So the problem of stem-cell research pretexts its application.
“There’s a profound question of what the research is for,” Father Keene said. A DeWitt native, Father Keene is a professor of moral theology at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. He also sits on the institutional review boards of several hospitals in the greater Baltimore area.

Father Keene identified several ethical issues facing the Catholic community in the face of the brave new world glimpsed at through the most recent advances in genetic research. But he also addressed several key issues concerning more mundane medical research including the distribution of medicine globally and the ethics of experimentation. He began by presenting a framework for the presentation within the confines of research and experimentation. While research itself contains somewhat fewer ethical challenges, there are still some poignant issues within it. Why, for example, is there a considerable amount of research into cancer and heart-disease treatment while certain rarer or less high-profile diseases receive far less interest?

Father Keene places a considerable amount of importance also on the distribution of medical care as well, noting that broader, more global distribution of medical care is “important to the future of peace and stability in the world.” “I think it’s that important,” he said. Additionally, he took issue with the excesses capitalism can sometimes exercise at the expense of sanity. Without arguing that society can do away with profit based incentives altogether, Father Keene criticized the manner in which, in order to develop a product that can compete with an edition manufactured by company A, company B spends millions of dollars developing a comparable product. The consumer is then burdened with the expense. “We need a better regulatory scheme,” Father Keene said.

Those same economic considerations are often the driving force behind stem-cell research, Father Keene noted. Certain companies foresee developing strings of human DNA code, which they would in turn own, and sell, an event that could potentially have very significant ethical implications. He also addressed the issue of how decisions regarding research are made and asserted that perhaps public policy isn’t enough and that a larger element of society should be able to influence research and experimentation. “I don’t think that it’s enough to say that public policy ought to regulate research,” Father Keene said. “There should be a broader base of public involvement.”

Before breaking for lunch, Father Keene identified two different types of genetic research: germ-line cells (or stem cells) and somatic cells. The former consists of studying tissue while the latter concerned with studying undifferentiated and undeveloped cells, which can be configured to become any number of things. Stem cells are divided into three types: adult stem cells, umbilical cord blood stem cells and embryonic stem cells.

According to Father Keene, the theological implications are two fold. On the one hand, such research has a clear-cut medical application that is not problematic for theologians. On the other hand, such research can be used to redesign the human being and that’s a troubling prospect. During the second phase of the presentation, Father Keene returned to the stem cell question. “In principle, stem-cell research with a suitable goal and a suitable source is okay,” Father Keene said. Catholics objections are raised by the fact that aborted fetuses are a potential source for stem cells. However, Father Keene finds the issue of purpose equally or perhaps more disturbing. “In some ways, this super race question is even deeper and more critical than the issue [of the source],” he said. Near the close of his presentation, Father Keene focused on the Human Genome Project, the enormously ambitious project which maps the human gene.

A complicated development of the Human Genome Project is the fact that its diagnostic applications are expected to precede its therapeutic applications by 100 to 300 years. Many will be aware of a potentially debilitating disease awaiting them with no hope of having it treated.
Father Keene believes such a development would demand a different kind of spirituality and a different way of holding on to hope.

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