Kathy Schiffer is a Catholic blogger. In addition to her blog Seasons of Grace, her articles have appeared in the National Catholic Register, Aleteia, Zenit, the Michigan Catholic, Legatus Magazine, and other Catholic publications. She’s worked for Catholic and other Christian ministries since 1988, as radio producer, director of special events and media relations coordinator. Kathy and her husband, Deacon Jerry Schiffer, have three adult children.
Scientific inquiry – that intellectual activity by which, through observation and experiment, we come to understand the physical and natural world in which we live – is a great gift from God. Through the use of our minds (which are also a great gift from God), we come to understand the world He created and, in turn, come to understand the Creator Himself. The pursuit of scientific knowledge is good, therefore, unless...
Unless, that is, we pursue scientific interests without simultaneously acknowledging the source of all knowledge, God Himself.
Unfortunately, that's what has happened all too often in the modern era. Scientists with no moral compass pursue knowledge and fame, with no thought of how their research may violate God's intent for the world He has created. With no ethical constraints on what they study and how they study it, scientists have shaken the moral foundations of society. Here are just a few of the cases that have made the news in recent months:
CRISPR Technology Genetically Alters Human Embryos
CRISPR, the gene-altering technology that was invented in the United States, has been in the news again and again. Last fall a Chinese scientist named Dr. He ignited a firestorm when he announced that he'd used the technology to alter human embryos, which were implanted and brought to birth. Dr. He kept his research quiet, since it extended beyond permissible guidelines for scientific study; and in light of his violation of internationally accepted policies, Dr. He's employer, China's Southern University of Science and Technology, fired him. Scientists worldwide decried the experimentation.
Granted, Dr. He had a noble purpose in mind when he decided to alter the DNA of human embryos. His goal, he explained, was to prevent the children of HIV-positive parents from inheriting their parents' condition. But Dr. He's research could have wide-ranging effects on society; in altering a single strand of DNA, he could have changed not only the child's susceptibility to HIV but also countless other, still unrecognized effects. And those effects could reach on to future generations. Gene-altering is a veritable genie in a bottle which, once released, can never be controlled.
Another doctor here in the United States is also experimenting with CRISPR technology. Like Dr. He, developmental biologist Dr. Dieter Egli from Columbia University has as his goal “to determine whether CRISPR can safely repair mutations in human embryos to prevent genetic diseases from being passed down for generations.” Dr. Egli's research focuses on the noble goal of preventing blindness. If successful, Egli's research could prevent people with the mutant gene from passing it on to their children. In the future, Egli claims, his research could help to prevent many inheritable diseases such as Tay-Sachs disease, cystic fibrosis or Huntington's disease.
So what's wrong with that? For one thing, the research veers far into the territory of “playing God.” But especially sinister, Dr. Egli kills the modified embryos he creates. As an NPR reporter explained, “So far, Egli has stopped any modified embryos from developing beyond one day so he can study them.” In other words, he kills the day-old babies he creates. Both Dr. He and Dr. Egli “manufactured” embryos for the express purpose of experimenting on them – a horror to anyone who understands that God alone can create man, and that all men are infused by their Creator with an immortal soul.
In vitro fertilization is problematic in itself. It begins with two sinful acts: A man must masturbate to produce semen, a woman must subject herself to a medical procedure in which her eggs are removed without medical necessity. With the assistance of medical specialists playing God, the egg and sperm are united in a Petri dish. And the worst affront to human dignity: unused fertilized cells – little humans – are either stored in a frozen state or simply discarded.
But at the Texas-based Center for Assisted Reproduction, fertility specialists go a step further. They don't place the sperm and eggs into incubators before implantation into the human body. Instead the gametes, male and female reproductive cells, are placed into what is called an INVOcell, a device that can be inserted into the female body, and in which fertilization occurs.
CBS reported on the case of a lesbian couple in Texas, who each wanted the privilege of carrying their baby. With the help of sympathetic doctors, Ashley and Bliss Coulter each had their turn at being pregnant. Bliss had the INVOcell implanted in her womb, where fertilization occurred; five days later, doctors removed the INVOcell and froze the embryos. One was then transferred to Ashley, who carried the baby to term. The doctors at the Center for Assisted Reproduction expressed their support: Dr. Kevin Doody praised the revolutionary type of IVF, saying, “It's more accessible, it's more affordable and it's truly more natural.” His wife, Dr. Kathy Doody, agreed; and failing to recognize the controversy surrounding the procedure, she attributed other doctors' reticence to use the new treatment to an “unwillingness to change.”
In a macabre experiment that makes my head and my heart ache, researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, New York, have blended cells of humans and mice to create a “super mouse” that’s four times as smart as an average mouse.
To accomplish this, they injected the brains of baby mice with cells from “extra” human fetuses left over from in vitro fertilization. The scientists used ‘glial’ cells–cells which serve as the “glue” of the nervous system, providing support and protection for neurons. Glial cells develop into astrocytes–star-shaped cells with long tendrils, which help to coordinate the transmission of electrical impulses between neurons, a function which is vital for thought processes.
Lead researcher Professor Steve Goldman called the changes in the injected mice “whopping effects.” He told New Scientist magazine that the mice which had received injections of human cells were “significantly smarter” than the control mice.
According to a report in The Telegraph:
- Human astrocytes are 20 times the size of those in mice and have 100 times the number of tendrils.
- Scientists found that within a year of the injections, the human cells had taken over with the mouse cells 'fleeing to the margins.'
- “It's like ramping up the power of your computer,” added Prof. Goldman.
Professor Goldman’s self-established ethical parameters meant that he did not continue the experiment to inject the brains of monkeys. “We briefly considered it,” Goldman said, “but decided not to because of all the potential ethical issues.”
German Professor Wolfgang Enard, a researcher at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, also acknowledged the scientist’s responsibility to establish limits on research. “If you make animals more human-like,” Enard asked, “where do you stop?” Indeed, Professor Enard. If it’s self-evident that creating human/monkey hybrids is ethically wrong, why is it acceptable to create human/mouse hybrids?
Even Bigger: Human-Pig Hybrids
In January 2017, scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California announced that they had created the first human-pig hybrid, a living pig embryo with some human characteristics. The living pig-human embryos, called “chimeras,” had been implanted into adult pigs' wombs and allowed to grow between three and four weeks. Scientists then removed the creatures, causing their deaths, and studied them. The study's lead author, Jun Wu, told National Geographic that the researchers created 186 later-stage pig-human embryos, and that the chimeras survived until removed from the pigs' wombs. Dr. Wu estimated that each pig-human had about 100,000 pig cells for each human cell. The next step, according to the India Times, is to grow a fully developed pig-human.
Cerebral Organoids: “Mini-Brains on the Move”
One of the most recent announcements from the scientific community hails from the Medical Research Council's Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England. Scientists there have grown a miniature brain in a dish with a spinal cord and muscles attached. According to The Guardian,
The lentil-sized gray blob of human brain cells were seen to spontaneously send out tendril-like connections to link up with the spinal cord and muscle tissue, which was taken from a mouse. The muscles were then seen to visibly contract under the control of the so-called brain organoid.
Lead researcher Madeline Lancaster said, “We like to think of them as mini-brains on the move.” The latest blob shows similarities, in terms of the variety of neurons and their organization, to the human fetal brain at 12-16 weeks of pregnancy.
Scientists erroneously thought that they'd evaded moral questions because the structure was, in their estimation, “still too small and primitive to have anything approaching thoughts, feelings or consciousness.”
What Does the Catholic Church Teach About Use of Embryonic Stem Cells?
The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Life has issued a statement explaining why the scientific and therapeutic use of human embryonic stem cells is always wrong. You can read the entire statement here; but some of the points it makes are:
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has also addressed the morality of using embryonic human cells in research or therapeutic use. The Bishops link to a number of statements issued by the Vatican and by the USCCB. You can access that information here.