PORTLAND, Ore. — The recent production of stem cells from cloned human embryos has prompted a researcher to consider the need for scientists to take other disciplines into account before engaging their work.
“Scientists ... do not consider bioethical issues to be issues at all; they don’t see the bioethical argument or any philosophical argument,” Massimo Bionaz, assistant professor of animal sciences at Oregon State University, told Catholic News Agency May 17.
The May issue of the journal Cell included a paper from scientists at Oregon Health and Science University announcing they have produced embryonic stem cells by transferring the DNA of a human skin cell into a human egg to produce an embryo.
After the egg’s own nucleus was removed, the nucleus from another person’s skin cell was added into the egg, and with electricity and caffeine the researchers were able to induce the normal development of an embryo. The embryos were thus genetic copies — clones — of the persons whose DNA was inserted into the eggs.
The harvesting of the embryonic stem cells necessarily included the destruction of the embryos.
“This,” Bionaz reflected, “is the problem. Those scientists, they went ahead and did the cloning; they thought this was absolutely fine and justified because, based on their criteria, there was no reason not to do that. So they jump completely the question of what a human is.”
Bionaz, a member of the Euresis Association as well as the Catholic ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation, said that scientific researchers often see arguments of philosophy or bioethics as “problems to be overcome.”
He warned of “scientism,” which he called the “presumption that science is the only discipline which can say something true about reality.” This, Bionaz emphasized, is “dangerous.”
For scientism, “any argument outside the utilitarian argument” is seen as being “of no use.” Too many, he said, have the view that “whenever something is possible to do, I ought to do it.”
While the aim of the research was good (to produce stem cells for therapies to treat diseases which will not be rejected by patients’ bodies because they will be genetically identical) it required an evil (the killing of human beings).
“It’s the paradox of the short sight of science. They begin in this way, with the justification of providing tissue, maybe even lifesaving tissue, but they don’t care about destroying” another human being, said Bionaz.
Aside from lacking “a clear bioethical judgment,” he said, “those scientists didn’t even ask the question.”
Rather than presuming to do any research which is “possible, technically, to do,” researchers should take the time to ask ontological questions about the nature of the human being.
“It goes to the point of understanding what a person is, of what is a human being,” he said.
While noting that scientists “are trained very well on the technical side,” they “lack completely the way of thinking of the philosopher or bioethicist or any other discipline,” Bionaz said.
He emphasized the importance of different fields of study working together to paint a complete picture of existence.
“Reality is very complex, and every aspect of reality requires its own discipline. It’s against reason to try to study or assess a reality with a discipline that does not conform to the method of that specific reality.”
“Science can study the material phenomenon, what it is possible to reproduce, to measure.” But, Bionaz added, science cannot address “the ontological significance of a human life ... because it’s not the proper discipline for that area of reality. That pertains to philosophy, to theology, even to bioethics, in some way.”
Without the perspectives of these fields, science will regard the human person as “only a mass of cells to which you can do whatever you want,” which is why respect for the human person “now is falling apart.”
The researchers who produced the cloned human embryos “want to provide tissue to help or to save a human being,” but they “didn’t consider the significance of what they were doing.”
Bionaz attributed his thought about the importance of considering philosophy and other disciplines when doing scientific research to Blessed John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University.
In those lectures, Newman “described exactly” the follies of using the wrong discipline to study a given segment of existence and that, when this happens, “reality can get confused, and we misunderstand it.”
“For instance, this one of the human being: to understand what is a human person, you need several disciplines,” Bionaz said. “Science is not enough; it allows you to unravel a part of the human being, of course, but not the totality of the human being.”
“For this reason, it is so important as scientists to have the humility to understand our limits, and we should actually have deep discussions with people of other disciplines.”
Dialogue with philosophy, he said, will remind researchers that “the human being has a value, and then we scientists will work for the human being, not against it.”
The manufacture and subsequent destruction of a human embryo for the production of embryonic stem cells is an instance of “destroying the human being and not helping him.”
“Even though the purpose is to help someone else, because, of course, the idea is to help human beings, the problem is if the end justifies the means,” Bionaz concluded. “It’s not an issue that scientists can assess. You need a bioethicist together with a philosopher.”