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Bioethics/PBS Bloodlines

by Rick Santorum

August 7, 2003

Imagine living in a society in which people are bought, sold and discarded as commodities, discriminated against for their genetic makeup and altered to become super-human or semi-human entities. That world is unfolding in the nation's laboratories. Should we encourage it or stop it?

In his papal encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), Pope John Paul II warns the world community, "with the new prospects opened up by scientific and technological progress there arise new forms of attack on the dignity of the human being." Are we willing to devalue members of our human family in the name of medical progress?

As a member of the bipartisan Senate Biotechnology Caucus, I am a strong supporter of advancing science and believe that Congress should continue funding the many non-controversial research alternatives that are leading to life-saving therapies for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, diabetes, cancer and spinal cord injuries. At the same time, I have serious concerns over the human toll of controversial technologies like cloning.

Congress currently is debating legislation to better regulate the biotech industry. The U.S. Senate is considering legislation passed by the House and introduced in the Senate by Senators Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Mary Landrieu (D-LA) that would ban human embryonic cloning.

However, it is the state courts that have been busily building the legal precedent in the biotech arena, dispute by dispute, with little or no guidance from elected leaders. This piecemeal legal approach is troubling because it largely ignores the social implications.

In an attempt to engage the public, a new PBS documentary called Bloodlines: Technology Hits Home examines the legal, ethical and social dilemmas of new reproductive and genetic technologies through the eyes of the doctors, scientists, patients, parents and lawyers involved. The documentary presents shocking scenarios that are challenging our fundamental moral beliefs and establishing questionable legal precedents.

Where should we draw the line? Clearly, if biotechnologies help some people at the expense of the vulnerable members of our society - the unborn, workers, the disabled - than no medical or social benefit can justify their use.

In recent testimony before the President's Council on Bioethics, which is studying the moral ramifications of biomedical technologies, Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops listed three core principles that I agree must govern our use of medical and scientific advances: First, we need to set ethical limits and not allow genetic therapies and research simply based on the utilitarian principle of the end justifying the means. Second, the human embryo must be treated with full respect and protected as a developing human life. And third, we must uphold the integrity of marriage and family in procreation as essential to humanity.

But with one-in-six U.S. couples facing fertility problems, the temptation is great to seek outside assistance for procreation that crosses the ethical line. Infertility treatments and surrogacy have become a big business in which family relationships are replaced by commercial contract law.

By allowing third-parties to enter into reproduction through in vitro fertilization, a child now can have as many as five parents - the "genetic" parents or sperm and egg donors, the gestational mother, and the couple that intends to raise the child - or zero parents when the intended parents walk away. The resulting legal wrangling degrades children and reduces them to property status.

Equally disturbing is the emerging market for personal genetic information. Genetic testing can benefit individuals and society if used to assess a person's special health needs or to find new therapeutic treatments to diseases. But we risk reducing people to a genetic or statistical profile, denying them the full respect they deserve as human beings.

The result could be the creation of a genetic underclass or the cultivation of a species with "designer genes." One indication that we are moving in that direction is the United Kingdom's consideration of a controversial new government proposal to genetically screen all newborn babies in the country and store their genetic profile data for "healthcare" purposes. How would this data be used and who would have access to it?

Instead of judging human beings by their inherent dignity and individual gifts and talents, are we going to brand them for life based on DNA? In Bloodlines, railroad employees tell how they were forced to take legal action against a secret genetic testing program the railroad used to find out if their on-the-job injuries were really due to a genetic predisposition. The enormous financial interests in accessing workers' most personal genetic information will surely tempt other employers and insurers.

Another troubling trend is the use of genetic screening of human embryos to encourage "eugenic" abortions. Many more pregnant women are seeking prenatal genetic testing to detect genetic defects in their unborn children and then aborting the babies if they are found to be imperfect. And a number of parents of newborns with disabilities are going so far as to take legal action against their doctors in "wrongful birth suits" if they did not encourage prenatal testing.

In Evangelium Vitae, the Pope cautions, "Prenatal diagnosis, which presents no moral objections if carried out in order to identify the medical treatment which may be needed by the child in the womb, all too often becomes an opportunity for proposing and procuring an abortion." We must treat these babies, not abort them. The disabled deserve our respect, and the society will suffer if we treat them as unwelcome or less than human.

Another threat to human dignity is human cloning for therapeutic purposes. Bloodlines features the story of a developmental biologist currently seeking a patent on an embryo that's part human and part chimpanzee (a chimera). In the United States, patents on human embryos are illegal, but in 2002, despite the ban, the U.S. Patent Office granted the University of Missouri a patent related to mammals that covers human embryonic cloning. Are we going to allow human or part-human embryos to be treated as property?

With therapeutic cloning as with human embryonic stem cell research, the intent is not to create new life, but to grow it in a lab, use its cells to create valuable new therapies, facilitate organ donations and correct birth defects, and then discard it. President George Bush has called a halt to federal funding of research on new stem cell lines, but federally funded research on existing lines continues.

A human embryo is a person, not property. It is important that we pursue treatments that help those who suffer serious injury or are stricken with horrible diseases, but it is wrong to do so in ways that cheapen human life. Public leaders must encourage responsible biotechnologies and reject unethical research and treatments. Otherwise, we'll wake up to a society devoid of humanity in which we are treated no better than an embryo in the lab.


Rick Santorum is a United States Senator from Pennsylvania and Chairman of the Senate Republican Conference.


Senate Republican Conference CA, US
Senator Rick Santorum - Senator from Pennsylvania, 661 869-1000



Bioethics, Santorum, Senator, Catholic

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