“It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld my man completed…” – Mary Shelley
J. Craig Venter may not sleep well tonight. He has introduced to the world the first artificially created genome– named ”Synthia”. Unlike the joyful reaction at the birth of a baby, created by God, humanity is staring back at ”Synthia” with suspicion, akin to Athena’s transformation of Medusa, or Victor fleeing from his “abhorred monster”– a face too terrifying to behold.
Venter, who is president of the J. Craig Venter Institute, and lauded for being one of the first scientists to sequence the human genome, explained during a press conference that “Synthia” is “the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer.”
Julian Savulescu, an ethicist at Oxford University, described Venter’s announcement as follows::
“Venter is creaking open the most profound door in humanity’s history, potentially peeking into its destiny. He is not merely copying life artificially or modifying it by genetic engineering. He is going towards the role of God: Creating artificial life that could never have existed.”
Professor Savulescu described the “unparalleled” risks:
‘This could be used in the future to make the most powerful bioweapons imaginable”
Here are some excerpts of the Vatican’s cautious reaction, published in The Globe and Mail’s AP report:
“If it is used toward the good, to treat pathologies, we can only be positive” in our assessment, Monsignor Rino Fisichella, the Vatican’s top bioethics official, told state-run TV. “If it turns out not to be … useful to respect the dignity of the person, then our judgment would change.”
“We look at science with great interest. But we think above all about the meaning that must be given to life,” said Monsignor Fisichella, who heads the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life. “We can only reach the conclusion that we need God, the origin of life.”
Another official with the Italian bishops’ conference, Bishop Domenico Mogavero, expressed concern that scientists might be tempted to play God.
“Pretending to be God and parroting his power of creation is an enormous risk that can plunge men into a barbarity,” Bishop Mogavero told newspaper La Stampa in an interview. Scientists “should never forget that there is only one creator: God.”
“In the wrong hands, today’s development can lead tomorrow to a devastating leap in the dark,” said Bishop Mogavero, who heads the conference’s legal affairs department.
On February 13th of this year, Benedict XVI spoke during an audience of the Pontifical Academy for Life. This audience before the Holy Father took place as part of the academy’s annual plenary assembly. The Holy Father spoke on the subject of bioethics:
“Bioethical questions often throw light on the dignity of the person, a fundamental principle which faith in Jesus Christ … has always defended, especially when it is overlooked in dealings with the most simple and defenseless people”, he added. “Bioethics, like any other discipline, needs guidelines capable of guaranteeing a coherent reading of the ethical questions which inevitably emerge when faced with possible conflicts of interpretation. In this space lies the normative call to natural moral law”.
“Recognizing human dignity as an inalienable right has its first foundation in that law – unwritten by the hand of man but inscribed by God the Creator in man’s heart – which all juridical systems are called to recognise as inviolable, and all individuals to respect and promote. Without the basic principle of human dignity it would be difficult to find a wellspring for the rights of the person, and impossible to reach ethical judgements about those scientific advances which have a direct effect on human life”.
“When we invoke respect for the dignity of the person, it is fundamental that such respect should be complete, total and unimpeded, … recognising that we are always dealing with a human life”, said Pope Benedict. “Of course, human life has its own development and the research horizon for science and bioethics remains open, but it must be reiterated that when dealing with matters which involve human beings, scientists must never think they are dealing with inanimate and manipulable material. In fact, from its first instant, the life of man is characterized by the fact of being a human life, and for this reason it has, always and everywhere, its own dignity”.
“Conjugating bioethics and natural moral law is the best way to ensure” recognition for “the dignity that human life intrinsically possesses from its first instant to its natural end”.
Natural moral law is a guarantee for legislators to show true respect both for the person and for the entire order of creation. It is the catalysing source of consensus among peoples from different cultures and religions, enabling differences to be overcome by affirming the existence of an order imprinted into nature by the Creator, … an authentic call to use ethical-rational judgement to seek good and avoid evil”.
Critics come from all sides:
Those who support Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research, such as Nobel laureate and geneticist David Baltimore–have not spoken favorably of Venter’s creation. Dr. Baltimore spoke to the New York Times and described Venter as having ”somewhat overplayed the importance of this.”
Environmentalists like Eric Hoffman from Friends of the Earth denounced Venter, by stating on the FOE website:
“Craig Venter’s lab has taken genetic engineering to an extreme new level.”
“These new synthetic chromosomes mimic billions of years of evolution. We must ensure that strong regulations are in place to protect the environment and human health from this potentially dangerous new technology.”
“Mr. Venter should stop all further research until sufficient regulations are in place.”
The ethical-rational judgement which worries the Holy Father– is at the heart of another controversy, brought about by the expansion of biomedical research facilities in the United States. The Town of Ave Maria, Florida may become the latest possible location for such expansion.
The Jackson Laboratory, which holds ”workshops“ in Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research at its facility, and provides “resources” for Human ES Cell Research may be opening a facility in Ave Maria. The Jackson Lab’s representatives are making public appearances in Southwest Florida to drum up politicial and public support, which may involve taxpayer’s dollars– but the residents of Ave Maria, the majority of which are Catholics, have not protested publicly.
Meanwhile, Ave Maria University’s president, Nicholas J. Healy, Jr., said to the Naples Daily News, ”If they [The Jackson Lab] were to locate here I think there would be very considerable benefits to the entire area…”, and Tom Monaghan was reported as saying, “Go ahead with it.” (Read full article here).
At this rate– “Synthia” may soon be moving to Ave Maria.
Marielena Montesino de Stuart writes at the Roman Catholic World blog.