Technology raises slew of moral questions

David Prentice is senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council. He holds a doctorate in biochemistry and for nearly 20 years was a professor of life sciences at Indiana State University and an adjunct professor of medical and molecular genetics at Indiana University School of Medicine. He was an early proponent of adult stem-cell research and continues his research in that field.

He is a founding member of Do No Harm: The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics, a fellow of the Wilberforce Forum Council for Biotechnology Policy, a fellow of the Institute on Biotechnology and the Human Future, and an advisory board member for the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity.

Our Sunday Visitor: Why are we seeing more media interest in families formed by egg and sperm donation?

Dr. David Prentice: What seems to be happening is an effort to try and just open things up to what amounts to the Wild West, that anything goes as long as you can get a baby out of it. Whether it’s donor eggs, donor sperm, surrogacy or three-parent embryos, it’s this fascination with technology and this obsession with creating a child.

Of course what that means is that most of these people are focused on a baby as a commodity: It is not creating a new life out of love; it’s not receiving that new life as a gift. It is: “We are going to manufacture.” It starts with “We need eggs, sperm, a womb.” Then it will be: “We have to do quality control.”

OSV: What does that “quality control” involve?

Prentice: The IVF industry — it is an industry, not a medical practice — follows a business model. They say they have to recruit women as egg donors who will have good genetics. And we see more and more quality control screening of embryos with pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD).

People will start by saying they don’t want the child to suffer with a genetic disease, and then they will say they don’t want to be burdened with having to take care of a child with a genetic disease.

OSV: How effective is genetic screening?

Prentice: It’s not science fiction like some movies where you can pay to design a child genetically, and the genetically improved kids get good jobs, while those created the old fashioned way get menial jobs. In creating a family we have gotten to the point of trying new technology and then screening the child not because we love the child but because we want a good quality product.

Realistically, they never will be able to predict what diseases a person may get. There is a certain hubris some people have that they can predict a 90 percent certainty that you will or won’t have this, or that they can keep repairing you and extend life to 200 years or whatever.

Prentice
Prentice

We’re not just our genes; rather, it’s the environment you’re in, the experiences you have that make you who you are, not genetics. For example, our own human fingerprints are not genetically determined. They depend on how you are lying in the womb and the cells that migrate out over the tip of your digits. There are many things in the womb definitely that have nothing to do with genetics or a predisposition one way or another to a disease.

OSV: The fertility industry is largely unregulated in this country. What are some of the dangers with this lack of regulation?

Prentice: It has become a commercial enterprise that is trying to deliver a service. I hear on the local radio in the Washington, D.C., area the guarantee of a baby or even a certain type of baby. That is the sort of quality control going on. It’s saddening to see these kinds of sales pitches for people who are in some cases very well intended and just want a baby. But the fact is that they are willing to do virtually anything to get a baby. We’re not thinking clearly as a society about the whole issue of reproductive technology.

OSV: What would promote better thinking on the topic?

Prentice: We need to educate everyone, not just policy makers, not just a few people. Before people even get into this situation where they’re focused on a baby, they need to understand what all is going on when someone says “I’m going to do IVF or donate eggs.” What do they mean when they say “a surrogate”? The vast majority of people in the U.S. don’t know really what goes on in a fertility clinic. They think you just go in, they do something, and you come back nine months later and you have a baby. They don’t understand all the technology involved, and frankly, all the lives that are lost.

OSV: As a scientist, describe how technology often races ahead of society’s ability to regulate that technology and determine the morality of that technology.

Prentice: It comes back to the scientist really needs to be thinking ahead, and the classical question posed for years and years is not “Can I do it,” but “Should I do it?”

Most scientists don’t get training in ethics, especially bioethics. As one colleague said, “It would limit what I was able to do; I don’t want to ask those questions because I want to do whatever I want to do.” That’s a disappointing attitude because if I’m the one with the lab that might come up with this new technology that might morally and ethically challenge society, it’s inherent on me to think about those consequences first, before I ever step in the lab and start to do that experiment.

We really face a problem first with scientists, and then, as new technologies crop up, it becomes a matter of society needing to be educated in terms of not just what the technology could do for you, which is what most people are focused on, but what are the consequences. We need to have these sorts of wide-ranging debates to discuss the potential outcomes of technology instead of waking up one day and finding out we have a problem and we have to address it.

Ann Carey writes from Indiana.