A colleague of mine has referred to this modern era as the “Biotech Century.” More than ever before, biological research and medical science have improved our lives, but have created new ethical dilemmas as well. Here are some of the major trends to watch for in the coming year.
Issues at the Beginning of Life
- Abortion. Forty-four years after the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, Americans are more conflicted about the issue of abortion than ever before. 18 states have banned the procedure at 20 weeks of gestation. Such “pain-capable” abortion bans are based on the idea that the 20 week-old fetus has enough neurological development to feel pain, making abortion a form of torture. With a Republican administration in Washington, watch for renewed attempts to appoint conservatives to the bench and to overturn Roe.
- Reproductive technologies. Choices, choices: so many ways to have a baby. In vitro fertilization (IVF) and intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI). have pushed the envelope, making a genetically-related baby more and more possible for childless couples. The downside? Thousands of human embryos frozen for future use, discarded, or experimented on. A fundamental question remains: Are our children the God-ordained offspring of a loving marital union, or are they merely the products of an assembly line?
Issues at the End of Life
- When does death occur? New protocols are making it easier to withdraw care from acutely-injured patients, in order to provide more organs for transplants. Slippery-slope concerns should cause all of us to worry about the details.
- Assisted suicide. The American Medical Association is re-thinking its traditional opposition to medically-assisted death. As a part of this trend, five states have passed laws allowing doctors to help terminally-ill patients to end their lives at a time of their choosing. So who owns the life that we live, we ourselves or the Creator Who made us?
From the Laboratory
- Animal-human chimeras. Here’s an interesting idea: genetically modify a species of pig, making it incapable of growing a pancreas. Incubate the pig embryo with human pancreas cells, so that the resulting piglet has a human-derived pancreas, which can be used as a donor organ for transplant. Such a procedure might be a cure for diabetes, and may be ready for human trials soon. How about the ethics of all this? The devil is in the details.
- Gene editing. The completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003 produced the genetic blueprint of the human species, leading to a plethora of new research ideas. One revolutionary new insight takes advantage of a bacterial defense mechanism to recognize foreign DNA. A new procedure modifies this into a molecular “machine” that can actually edit any genome, including those of human beings. So-called CRISPR technology may make some very nifty things possible: think of engineered mosquitoes incapable of transmitting the Zika virus. But this new technique opens up some very disturbing ideas about modifying human nature itself.
Stay tuned – We’ll be talking about these and other trends in 2017.
In the meantime, have a blessed and productive New Year!