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Bio-ethical Challenges of the 21st Century

Interview with Dr. Bernard Nathanson

Following is the transcript of an episode of Fr. Frank Pavone's EWTN series, Defending Life, for the year 2000.  Click here for more on Dr. Nathanson.

Hello this is Fr. Frank Pavone, National Director of Priests for Life. One of our good friends at Priests for Life is Dr. Bernard Nathanson, who many of you know as the man who assisted to, in his own words, "uncage the abortion monster" in the United States. In the 60's he and his colleagues plotted and schemed how they might liberalize the abortion laws in our country, which at one time, protected unborn children throughout pregnancy. Well, Dr. Nathanson and his friends were successful. They were founding the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws which later was renamed the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL). He was one of the founding directors and he became the director of the largest abortion facility in the western world, in New York City. Dr. Nathanson even aborted one of his own children as he relates in his very powerful book, "The Hand of God." In fact he's the author of several books which give important insight into how the abortion movement got started and into the deceit that he and his friends used to launch that movement.

One of the most important things that Dr. Nathanson witnesses to today, now that he is a pro-life advocate, completely converted to the life position and rejecting abortion all together, is the fact that he claims the Church was asleep when he and his friends were plotting and scheming how to open the doors to abortion. He says he stole the abortion issue from the Church. In fact he has said to clergy that he and his friends would have never gotten away with what they did if the clergy had been united, purposeful and strong. Well today, Dr. Nathanson is trying to see to it that the Church is not caught asleep again when it comes to the bio-technological challenges of the 21st Century -- and some pretty incredible things are on the horizon and in fact are here already.

I recently sat down with Dr. Nathanson to review what some of these things are and the first thing I asked him was about the role of the clergy and the importance of the clergy in turning back the tide on abortion and how he stole the abortion issue from the Church. Let's listen to what he had to say.

Dr. Nathanson:

The clergy is not aware that there are revolutionary scientific advances going on. I'm not sure they're advances, but they're changes certainly, which have the potential to change our lives beyond my imagination and yours and I'm speaking now of genetic engineering and enhancement genetics, behavioral genetics, the human genome mapping, euthanasia, organ transplants, artificial intelligence and finally the tinkering with the aging process which has the potential to allow each of us to live a thousand years or forever.

Fr. Frank:

Another issue of critical importance is that of the human genome and as we've been hearing in the news, the characteristics of the human genome have been mapped so that we can determine what genes control which characteristics. What does this mean for medical ethics and bio-ethics? Dr. Nathanson also commented on that question.

Dr. Nathanson:

The human genome project was launched in 1990 with a 3 billion dollar funding from the American government, federal government. And basically the design of the project was to be able to pinpoint, identify every single one of our genes on all the 46 chromosomes in each cell of our body. There are probably somewhere between 80 and 100 thousand genes on these 46 chromosomes. Now, the project is almost finished ahead of schedule. It was scheduled for 15 years and so it would finish in the year 2005, but because of very significant revolutionary advances in what is called "gene sequencing", certain people such as Craig Venter, have leaped ahead on this project and they are claiming that by the end of the year 2000, they will be finished with the human genome map. In other words, if the physician or the scientist takes a drop of your blood or even a cell from inside your mouth he can run it through a computer and get a complete mapping of all the genes in your body and can tell you with reasonable certainty what your future is and not only in terms of health but in terms of behavior, in terms of your private life, social life and so on.

The biggest question surrounding this kind of technology is, who shall get the information? Should the government have it, should you have it, should your parents have it or your children? Should your fiancée have it? Or all of this? The issue of confidentiality is so central to this project that it is the subject of a great deal of debate in all of the bio-ethical journals now being published.

Then to go on to the other areas which you expressed some interest in…we have what is called "enhancement genetics" and I think people are aware that there were newspapers reports within the last two weeks of what are called "smart mice." These are mice whom the geneticists have tinkered with and altered their genes. They have identified the gene or genes for memory and presumably intelligence and they have enhanced them, blown them up or added genes to them and these mice are really super mice now. They have acquired a great deal more measurable intelligence than the average strain of mouse. Well, of course this technology can easily be applied to human beings. So, what we are looking at in that particular area is the creation, if you will, of a super class, a class of philosopher-kings like Plato spoke of but also the reverse, the mirror side of that is, a class of individuals, whose genes have been reduced…intelligence genes…and they will become the menial brutes of our society made to do all the tasks which no one wants to do and of course they will have muscle genes incorporated within them.

Fr. Frank:

Another way in which our modern society has tried to play God is by playing around with the process of human reproduction. Instead of consenting to God's original plan for the natural procreation of human beings in an act of intimate love between a man and a woman in marriage, we've taken it upon ourselves to create all kinds of artificial methods of reproduction. What are the ethical challenges and the dilemmas involved in this? Dr. Nathanson will tell us in this next segment.

Dr. Nathanson:

The problem in assisted reproductive technology, is that it is turning upside down all of our relationships to each other. For example, there is egg donation and sperm donation then surrogate mothers and embryo transplants and frozen embryos. The absurdity of this comes up in a case in California in which a trial judge had an eight-year-old girl appear before him. A couple who wanted a baby (the woman could not carry a child and the man had weak sperm) commissioned the assisted reproductive technologist to mix somebody else's sperm, the sperm donor, with somebody else's egg. They paid for it. They created an embryo, the embryo was put in the womb of a surrogate mother and she delivered the baby nine months later. Then the question arose as to who were the parents and just about the time the question arose the original couple who paid for all this filed for divorce. So the question became was the original couple the parents of this child or was the sperm donor and his wife the parent or the egg donor and her husband the parent or the surrogate mother and her husband the parent? The judge concluded there were eight parents literally, biologically but the child had no parents and was placed in a foster home. I mean the permutations and combinations of this kind of technology are staggering.

Fr. Frank:

One of the other areas that Dr. Nathanson has been spending a lot of time researching and speaking about, is the aging process and he has some incredible things to tell us about how we're trying to get control of that.

Dr. Nathanson:

The aging process has been the subject of a great deal of study and genetic experimentation. It has been determined that at the end of every chromosome, the very end, their is a structure know as a telomere, which is a little spindly structure and every time the cell divides, it divides between 50 and 100 times during our lifetime…every cell, that telomere shortens and eventually it becomes so short that it disappears and at that point it is thought that that is what controls the aging process, the disappearance of the telomere. Now the scientists, the geneticists have discovered a gene which switches on an enzyme known as telemorase, which in turn keeps the telomere from shortening. When you do that, you can prolong life indefinitely. I'm not talking about 120 years or 200 years, I'm talking about 5000 years or actual, literal immortality. So if you think we have a problem with term limits in the Congress now, just wait and see…

Fr. Frank:

My brothers and sisters I think you're beginning to see from Dr. Nathanson's comments, that the challenges to human life and dignity in this new century are not only about the taking of life but literally the restructuring of life and in this regard he spoke to us about the prospect of actually making new species, taking human organs and artificial intelligence and combining it with robotics to create scenarios that we haven't even begun to imagine. Let's listen to what Dr. Nathanson has to say.

Dr. Nathanson:

Well, we're talking really Huxleyan imagery in a way but the truth of the matter is it's here. It's not just Huxleyan pipe dreams and what you are talking about now is really the bridge between today and the indefinite future. What I mean is that organ transplant today is a hot issue. Who shall get the kidney? Shall we have sale of organs our shall we have only donation? Who shall get the heart? How are the priorities arranged? There are a great many ethical questions surrounding this technology, but the truth is, that this technology will be quickly supplanted and completely eradicated by artificial organs that technology will provide, that we will have implantable artificial and indestructible hearts and kidneys and so on which will do all the work of our own kidneys or hearts and that is really the future in that area.

But you bring up artificial intelligence and Kurzweil just wrote a book on that in which he predicted that in the year 2039, we will have computers which are 1000 times faster than the human mind. Those computers will be able to think, they will be able to have moods or emotions, they will do everything the human brain can do and a thousand times better. So again it's a question of, who will be, what will these people be, who will these computers be? Will they be people? Will they think for us? Will we be kept as house pets or something of that sort, because we will clearly be subservient and inferior to these incredibly efficient organs and organ systems which are computers. The new computers, by the way, are DNA computers. They are the fastest computers there are and that's what the future is. But the bottom line on this is, what is our destiny as human beings? Are we to be in some way supplanted by another species with artificial intelligence and artificial organs and no need for a complex body such as we have now and a lot of the organs which we have, being unnecessary? I mean it will change our thinking about ourselves, about each other, about our relationship to society, to the nation and to God.

Fr. Frank:

The Church's message in the midst of all of this confusing technology has always been the dignity of the human person. And I asked Dr. Nathanson what his research about that beautiful word "dignity" has revealed.

Dr. Nathanson:

Well, dignity is something which I spent a great deal of time on since I wrote my dissertation in bio-ethics on it. But, basically it's very simple and it's not a complex issue at all. Dignity resides in what is called "Imago Dei." I mean, I've explored all the other sources of dignity and in general people confuse the appearance of dignity with dignity itself. Dignity is intrinsic within the human being. It is given to us by God. It is untouchable. You cannot have your dignity taken away or enhanced or reduced. The appearance of dignity...yes, or respect for dignity...yes, those things are changeable, but the dignity itself is not.

Fr. Frank:

My dear friends, you and I in the Church in the 21st Century are called to respond the these new challenges and I asked Dr. Nathanson what he thought were some of the most important elements in the Church's response and here's what he told us.

Dr. Nathanson:

Well, clearly the first and most important priority is education. If the priest, the clergy are adequately educated to these issues, they will then become alerted to them. The sleep will be broken as it were and they will come out in front as leaders of the community in terms of trying to supply the very difficult answers to these complex questions. But the first thing that the clergy must do is educate itself to these matters such as, genetic manipulation and engineering, assisted reproductive technology, euthanasia, aging…all of these things. They are complex issues but they are manageable. In ordinary terms. You don't have to be a rocket scientist or a physician to understand most, if not all, of the genetics involved. It's pretty simple and I myself, I'm a physician, of course, I hated genetics in college but I never the less applied myself to the point where I think I am reasonably comfortable in that area. But you don't have to be a physician to do that. You can be a priest or a lawyer, and many lawyers are very competent in this area, or accountant or anything else. But the main thing is education and intense education at that.

Fr. Frank:

As you know the Priests for Life organization is meant to fully activate and encourage the Church to proclaim the dignity of life so I asked finally that Dr. Nathanson share his thoughts with us about the mission and role of Priests for Life.

Dr. Nathanson:

Well, you know Priests for Life is an extraordinarily fine group. I don't say that in order to make anybody feel better or flatter anyone. It's an unusual and a very unique group in that most of the priests whom I have encountered across this country and indeed around the world, shy away from the subject of abortion. They somehow want to keep it under the rug and only pull it out when they're ordered to. In my own experience as a Catholic convert for the last several years, I've attended a great many Masses and listened to a great many homilies and I believe in three years I've listed to only one homily on the subject of abortion and that was here in St. Patrick's Cathedral. Other than that, priests seem not to want to talk about it and Priests for Life is the Paul Revere of this whole gestault. That Priests for Life are riding around trying to galvanize the rest of the clergy into getting engaged in what is one of the most appalling revolutions of the 20th Century and I am enormously grateful to them and I admire their work enormously. But unfortunately, I believe that there are not enough, that Priests for Life should have a staff twenty times what it has now.

Fr. Frank:

I am very, very grateful to Dr. Bernard Nathanson for the courage that he has shown over these years as he has embraced the pro-life position and repented of his former sins and as he has embraced the Roman Catholic faith, which he did under the guidance of John Cardinal O'Connor, who baptized him. Brothers and sisters, as he said, we need to be informed about the bio-ethical challenges in this new century, this new millennium, but we also have to be greatly encouraged. Some of these things that Dr. Nathanson has said are very scary. But when it comes right down to it our mission remains the same in this challenging century as it has been from the very first century of the Church. And we find the mission given us in the Word of God, "God made man in his own image, in the Divine likeness He created us, male and female He created us." Each one of us is a reflection of Almighty God and no matter what challenges arise to reconfigure or to destroy or to distort that image of God, we must stand up and with courage and clarity, say that the human being is unique in all creation. And there's nothing wrong with knowing about how we function but we also have to reverence who we are and realize that our lives are indeed in the hands of God. May you, may all of us be faithful in our mission of defending Life.


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