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In vitro fertilization: scientism and ascendant amorality

on Tuesday, 01 January 2008. Posted in assisted reproduction

Msgr. Michel SchooyansMONSIGNOR SCHOOYANS is Professor of Political Philosophy at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, and a member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. The ideas expressed in this article are further developed in his book Power over Life Leads to Domination of Mankind. Taken from the Jan.-Feb. 2008 issue of Social Justice Review (Central Bureau of the CCVA, 3835 Westminster Place, St. Louis, MO 63108 USA; website: www.socialjusticereview.org).

In the discussion on in vitro fertilization, we keep hearing that "science is not in a position to decide the question on the beginning of the human being, and would be incapable of saying when and if there is a human person present."

This affirmation is both true and false. It is true to the degree that it falls outside the scientific domain to determine the nature, quality, and specificity of the human person, just as it does to affirm or deny the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. It is false because science, while strictly respecting method, can say something about the human individual, mark its emergence, and analyze the genetic identity card or map that it will retain throughout its life. When sperm meets ovum, biologists can declare that an original new being begins at that moment, a being that has the genes not of a horse, not of a rabbit, but of a man, a being who will pursue his development for seventy or eighty years without interruption.

It would thus be sophistry to conclude that since science can say nothing about the human person as such, science cannot say anything about the human individual. As for affirming that the human individual necessarily has the ontological status of a person, this is a philosophical conclusion. It would be a double sophism to conclude that since science cannot say anything about the human person as such, nobody, whether the man in the street, the philosopher or the theologian, can say anything about it...

It would be a triple sophism to draw the practical conclusion that since science cannot say anything about the human person as such, the scientist can allow the threshold at which the human being must be respected to drift at his convenience--or at that of his patrons or clients. In any case, even assuming that the scientist must refrain from taking a theoretical position, he must still prudently conclude on the practical level that he must conduct himself as though he were dealing, without any doubt, with a human being. In the case of landslides, rescuers act on the hypothesis that there may be survivors, and they cannot be reproached for relentlessly continuing the search.

Once science assumes that it cannot decide the question of a human being’s beginning, and refuge is sought in the suspension of judgement, practice becomes normative. Ethics is no longer anything but the reflection of an entirely materialistic practice. What is done is good because it is done — whence we have an irresistible spiralling: first abortion, then orthogenesis, in vitro fertilization, third-party donors, gestational mothers, eugenics, euthanasia, etc. Utility (for some) becomes the criterion of truth for all. Sometimes it is said that this is the price we must pay for scientific progress, and that to take a position would be to "infringe upon academic freedom" and to "block the development of science". This type of argument does not survive examination.

The most costly war today, in terms of human lives, does not deploy nuclear or other sophisticated weapons. No, the most deadly war is the one whose victims are found in laboratories and clinics, among millions of human embryos and foetuses. The banalization of the deliberate killing of human beings gravely blunts the sensitivity of humanity’s personal and collective moral conscience. It cripples the mechanisms of human reason that are capable of checking the aggressiveness which is part of man. Aggressiveness thus becomes unbridled, and we can foresee that it will lead to an increase in the kind of behaviour that engenders war. Mother Teresa often made this point.

The manipulation of human embryos inescapably accustoms people to complacency in the face of murder of any kind. If I can dispose of the existence of a human being just conceived, one whom I can scarcely imagine, but to whose presence science attests, why should I refrain from disposing of the existence of any other human being? ..

The debate on in vitro fertilization looks like a rehashing of old discussions about scientism. Yes or no? — are the experimental methods of physics, chemistry and biology the only valid methods of knowledge to which the human mind has recourse? Yes or no? — should the last word on the dignity and destiny of man come from these disciplines? Man will always remain a mystery to himself, a cypher that he must decode. This mystery has to be discerned and probed by the intellect, employing for this purpose convergent and complementary methods. However, we must denounce the statement inherited from the tradition of scientism: "regarding the beginning of the human person, somewhat as in the case of [the existence of] God, science is not allowed to decide, and as a consequence, we cannot involve any scientific consideration that would provide the basis for a morality superior to experimental practice." In short, biology can explain what an organism is, and philosophy will tell us what a person is. But then, why should it fall only to biologists to decide in fact that such and such a human individual has no right to respect?

Finally, it is necessary to avoid the pitfall of reenthroning an impossible dualism that smacks strongly of Manichaeanism. We must dispute the pessimist vision that considers matter — particularly the body — as contemptible, and therefore manipulable by amoral means. In fact, under the guise of acting only on the body, the new technocrats touch the soul. Thus, if man is a substantial unity, then we can never forget that what defines man is precisely that man rises above the matter that the biocrats depend on so heavily for their empire.

The controversy over in vitro fertilization, like that concerning abortion, requires that doctors rethink the specificity of their mission, and weigh the consequences of this mission on the plane of moral obligation. Medicine will make a false turn if, intoxicated by the upward spiral of performance, it endorses the scientistic premises of a certain kind of biology. Instead of treating patients with their own interests first, and in harmony with medical moral obligation, it will drift towards a veterinary kind of morality. A veterinarian ordinarily cares for animals not in their own interest, but in that of their owners. Dr. P. Simon takes this shift to its ultimate conclusion by introducing the concept of "medicine for the social body". With perfect logic, the former Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of France places research for the good of the species above research for the good of the individual — the moral worth of society above that of the person.

Medicine follows an equally false path when it introduces discrimination by reserving therapy for only certain categories of human beings, knowingly condemning others to experimentation or death. Medicine takes a false step if, forgetting the common good, it reserves the fruit of its achievements to a minority of privileged nations, or if it promotes research programmes in this direction.

Today’s advanced techniques allow doctors to trespass bounds they had been forced to surrender to — until now. This possibility places problems before doctors that they cannot resolve alone. We have a right to expect from them a sense of responsibility sufficient to recognize their lack of competence and to accept the principle of self-regulation and of interdisciplinary perspective. That is the conditio sine qua non of healthy discernment in [all] foreseeable and morally acceptable hypotheses, experiments, or achievements, based on the respect due to every person from the first moment of existence. If the powers of discernment are not employed, if doctors persist in resolving dilemmas case by case according to their passing inspiration, they will inevitably be caught up [on] a serpentine path which, having led them from abortion on demand to "liberating" euthanasia, will lead them from in vitro fertilization to the State’s takeover of reproduction, via systematic eugenics. Doctors and Christian hospitals, in particular, must refuse to become involved lest they lose their specific character in short order.

In vitro fertilization, on the philosophical plane first of all, gives rise to serious problems of an ethical and political order. It calls into question the basic principle in all human ethical systems, the foundation of all civilized societies: the Golden Rule. "Do unto others as you would have them do to you" is a rule which Kant, among many others, interprets to mean "always act in such a way as to treat the humanity within you and others as an end and not imply as a means." In vitro fertilization opens the way to the destruction of the family via reproduction itself, as well as by means of the socialization of reproduction. The development of new (existent and anticipated) biotechnologies will amplify, soon and fantastically, the political and legal difficulties already observed in our examination of the social, political and juridical risks caused by the liberalization of abortion.

In vitro fertilization provides a gauge for the discretionary powers held by high-ranking technicians who are caught up in the whirlwind of efficacy, while sometimes imprisoned in amorality. These technicians offer leaders or powerful minorities unheard of instruments of domination, which will proceed from complete control over human reproduction, through eugenics, to end in programmed dying. Finally, from the point of view of moral theology, it is urgent to give swift justice to the tiresome canard that in vitro fertilization is an open question, one to be decided by each individual, choosing his own truth in a beautiful "pluralist" display. All the necessary principles are at hand in order to solve this problem, and there is no place whatsoever for a "new ethic" or a "new morality".

Conclusion: no to ascendant amorality!

A study of the different implications of in vitro fertilization emphasizes the solidity of the moral criteria we must take into account in order to make well-founded ethical judgements about biotechnological procedures. There should never be any question of regarding the right to freedom in scientific research as an absolute, nor, above all, of using it as the ultimate criterion for scientific morality. Unfortunately, in following these problems even briefly, we soon get the feeling and then the conviction that the areas of biological research under consideration here are the headquarters of ascendant amorality. Only ability, performance and progress count. "If we don’t do that, others will beat us to it. If we don’t try this, we risk letting others get ahead of us." The researcher’s freedom is unlimited; whatever is possible or seems doable is permissible and even desirable without restriction or condition. The freedom granted to scientists is absolute, often with the endorsement of poorly informed pastors or of moralists who fail in their role. The scientist is consecrated as unaccountable. Pastors and moralists thus contribute greatly to imprisoning scientists in pure biology, pure politics, pure positive law.

To the degree that moralists exclude any normative intervention, they automatically contribute to the generalized moral positivism that floods the entire fields of biology, law and politics. However, moralists just might remind themselves of what they should be reminding others, namely, of the primacy of the human individual, regardless of his or her stage of development. In this very primordial recognition, all interpersonal relationships are rooted.

If moralists, out of guilt over the Galileo affair, choose to sidestep the issue, they become de facto accomplices in the unbridled and irresponsible folly that has already invaded laboratories, hospitals and innumerable dispensaries. Some pastors and moralists, already intimidated by the noisily reported facts, fall into an even greater stupor since they often adopt an inferiority complex before laboratory technicians. Nevertheless, they must refuse to worship the modern Golden Calf whose power rests on the dominance of new biotechnologies. If not, they will open wide the way for new Hitlers and Stalins, whether through ignorance, compromise or failure in duty.

We see from this that the moralist’s task expands to new and unsuspected breadth. The attitude toward human life has become the touchstone of all morality. It governs both private as well as social morality. The lessening of respect for the human individual points ipso facto to the disappearance of the meaning of personhood. When I impose myself as the measure of another individual’s existence, the sense of morality is dissolved and with it, the sense of sin. When we act as creators and proprietors of the genetic patrimony that we solely transport, then the sense of finitude, the sense of creation and the sense of Providence vanish.

When through his actions and thought man has extirpated from mind and heart all idea of loving, parental, fraternal and existential relationships, he finds himself naked and in the tragic condition of a solitary individual who is vulnerable and exposed to the power of his rivals — and at the same time, of a lord without pity, to the degree that he can wield his power over others.

Msgr. Michel Schooyans


On Jan. 31, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI invited the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to give particular attention to "the difficult and complex problems of bioethics." "The two fundamental criteria for moral discernment in this field," he added, "are unconditional respect for the human being as a person, from conception to natural death; and respect for the origin of the transmission of human life through the acts of the spouses."

The Pope highlighted new problems associated with such questions, such as the freezing of human embryos, pre-implantation diagnosis, stem cell research and attempts at human cloning. All these, he said, "clearly show how, with artificial insemination outside the body, the barrier protecting human dignity has been broken. When human beings in the weakest and most defenseless stage of their existence are selected, abandoned, killed or used as pure ‘biological matter,’ how can it be denied that they are no longer being treated as ‘someone’ but as ‘something,’ thus placing the very concept of human dignity in doubt."