BIOETHICS: Bio-engineering crafting brave new world

DALLAS?C. Ben Mitchell believes ethical responses to questions about medical treatment start with an understanding of what it means to be a human being.

As a professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity International University and senior fellow of The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, Mitchell strives to apply a Christian worldview to developing biotechnologies.

“As you think about living in the 21st century, we have seen and Dr. (Robert) Orr has promised some amazing technological developments,” Mitchell told a bioethics conference at Criswell College May 7. “Some are even talking about extending human life indefinitely,” he projected, well beyond 100, 150, 300 or 1,000 years. “Some are arguing that technologies are going to enable us to have an immortal life in this physical body or in some bodily form.”

The two-day conference, “Cutting-Edge Bioethics: Human Life on the Line,” dealt with “end-of-life issues, reproductive technologies, stem cell research and beyond” and was jointly sponsored by The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, Christian Medical & Dental Associations, Trinity International University, The American Academy of Medical Ethics together with Criswell College and Baylor Health Care System of Dallas.

Mitchell asked participants to imagine standing on a platform with a spouse to affirm “til death do us part” when that could be 450 years. As startling as that seems, Mitchell said developments in physics raise the question of whether aging can be postponed. Other prognosticators are confident life will be created in the lab, he added.

“Sex selection is already with us as various clinics will guarantee to some degree that you can have the gender child you want. Is the gender of our children something we receive as gifts or do we choose gender?” Mitchell asked. Current discussion in pharmacode genetics moves on to imagine manipulating a person’s genes so that those linked to certain diseases might be turned off, he noted.

Mitchell said “the list is huge” for the number of conditions known to have a genetic link or contribution.

“Increasingly, physicians are more interested in your genetic information than they are other patient information.” As a result, the practice of diagnosing an ailment by listening to heart rhythms and touching the patient has been replaced by ordering a lab work-up to gain insight into the condition, he explained.

The underlying biology leads to developing drug therapies that could prevent or possibly cure certain illnesses through gene therapy. But Mitchell warned, “Right now we are in a no man’s land where we know a lot about the map but we don’t have much on this side of the scale. We can diagnose a lot more conditions and diseases genetically than we can do anything about.”

What Mitchell referred to as “a diagnostic therapy gap” raises the question of how early the knowledge of a disease would affect how the patient lives his life. Using Huntington’s Disease as an example, Mitchell said the loss of fine motor coordination and nervous system atrophies arising between 40 and 50 years of age are symptoms that precede an earlier than normal death. “If you’re 45 years old and know the symptoms might start at 50 do you want to know when there’s no treatment for it? Would knowing at 25?even though there are no symptoms until age 45 or 50?significantly reorient your life?”

Backing up to telling a 15-year that such a disease is inevitable, Mitchell asked, “What would it mean to know as an adolescent that you had what some would call a ticking time-bomb syndrome? Would parents want to know when the child is 2 or before birth?”

Citing Orr’s principle that “knowledge brings with it responsibility,” Mitchell said doctors are dealing with making diagnoses without a lot of therapies in the near future. The discussion takes a more unusual turn in addressing how genes affect behavior. Mitchell said some socio-biologists believe there are risk-taking genes prompting them to watch and play extreme sports while risk-aversive genes pass by such programs on ESPN because they don’t even want to see it. Whether the behavior is aggression, anxiety or cleptomania?”the stealing gene,” Mitchell said, “We just blame it on our genes now.”


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