Pushing the limits

July 1, 2015 -- Living City

Pushing the limits
When science progresses before an ethical discussion can begin

By Maria Luce Ronconi

Since the dawn of civilization, human beings have been pushing the limits in order to defy mortality. With this desire many have spent their lives in order to help overcome illness and find cures to help those who suffer. We keep on studying and researching so that we can defeat cancer, AIDS, Ebola and other lethal viruses. We have invented machines that keep us going when our heart or lungs cease to sustain us.

Organ transplants have helped many to have second chances in life. However, in 2013 Italian Dr. Sergio Canavero surprised the medical community with the “Heaven head transplantation project.” Thanks to the development of a spinal cord fusion, Canavero now thinks that a head transplant may actually work.

The consequences? Not only the cure of hopeless disorders, but the opening of a new frontier: life extension toward immortality. Canavero has already found a severely paraplegic Russian man who offered to be the first one to undergo such a transplant (with a body donor). Before asking the technical questions however, have we asked whether or not this attempt is ethical?

This is where the dilemma begins: while this new technological frontier is being crossed, the ethical debate has not taken place yet. The “how” has been or will be answered, but the “why” has not even been looked at. Every objection is about the uncertainty of the outcome. Assumingly the body will come from a deceased person, but what about the psychological aftermath (if the transplant is successful)? Or the emotional and spiritual consequences?

This is not the first time that medical progress has not been accompanied by healthy ethical conversations. Most of the time this starts when the practice is already taking place. We can see a pattern of control and a longing to defeat death., if we add this new attempt to genetic control (both in positive genetics, which improves genes which are desirable, and negative eugenics, which eliminates genes, which are defective or conducive to illness), reproduction control with all the gamma of embryo selections, designer babies, savior siblings and the attempt to clone humans.

This desire for autonomy and to be in control of our lives is deeply seated in our being. It goes back to the dawn of humanity as evident for example in the biblical story of Adam and Eve (in its metaphorical meaning). We always wanted to be God, or like God, in deciding what is right or wrong.

The most profound existential and philosophical error is, according to me, the thought that in wanting to control every aspect of our lives (and yes with reproductive control now parents can decide when and how their children will be born), we no longer think of ourselves as “creatures” but rather as “creators.” Our search and longing for autonomy has this unconscious, or maybe always more conscious, goal of being in charge of our own destiny, and we want no one or no thing to put limits in reaching the infinite and beyond.

Sometimes, in this context, religions are seen as an obstacle to science. Certainly this fear is founded in mistakes religious organizations made in the past, but also in not understanding who God is. This is changing today. More and more people — including scientists — are searching for a deeper meaning of their life and their work. Many are coming to accept the existence of God. Others may not accept the presence of God but have intuitions of something greater, of a spiritual presence that envelops the universe.

But where does this lead us? The truth is, the more we reach for autonomy, where the “I” takes priority over the “We”, the further we get from our real selves. Having the possibility to freeze eggs in order to be available for your employer, or having a baby designed to get the best of both parents’ genes does not guarantee us happiness. Instead, a fulfilled life is defined by our capacity to build relationships and to face suffering. And even with the best doctors and scientific progress, we won’t be able to go beyond our limits as creatures and control everything.

This includes the understanding that the lives we have are limited in time. Therefore these attempts at trying to defy our mortality in reality are evidence that we have a hard time accepting who we are: creations called to live in relationship with our Creator and with each other. This does not mean we should stop trying to find cures for cancers and all other illnesses that pervade our society; this may indeed be a way to serve and care for our neighbor.

However, pushing the limits of creation might not be serving one’s neighbor anymore. Is the wish to have a child motivated by being part of creation or more to “have” a child, to fulfill my life? Is becoming a mother of quadruplets at 65 a responsible act or reckless egoism for the children, who will soon be orphans at an age when they might need parents?

The limits in bioethical evolution are not so easy to figure out! But one thing is clear, we need to take time to share, to discuss the new discoveries and technologies; we need to take time out for the deeper questions involved in such progress.            

Maria Luce Ronconi teaches bioethics
at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York.