Human beings have an inalienable dignity. This means that their dignity is an aspect of their being that cannot be removed. If people are treated in accordance with who they are, they will be treated with dignity. What I am calling attention to here is a moral principle founded on a human reality: we should treat people as if they had dignity because, in fact, they do. In practical terms, this means that each human being, because he or she has dignity, is an end in himself or herself and should never be treated as a means to an end. No human being should be used to sub-serve the needs of another.
We do know, however, and with painful clarity, that human beings are commonly treated with little or no regard for their inherent dignity. The result is dehumanizing.
A new law has been proposed in the United Kingdom to regulate in-vitro fertilization. It is called The Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill, and has finished its passage through the House of Lords and will be debated in the Commons. As it stands, the Bill contains several provisions that clearly violate the dignity of human beings.
One provision in particular that is drawing heated criticism is permission for the genetic modification of human embryos. David King, director of Human Genetics Alert, attests that genetic modification, a procedure that most countries already have banned, represents the first time that any country has officially sanctioned genetic engineering of human embryos as the first step toward allowing human genetic modification.
The Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority has already granted a team of scientists research licenses to create human/animal hybrids. These hybrids would be used purely for scientific purposes and then be destroyed.
John Smeating, national director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, condemns this procedure in no uncertain terms: It is creating a category of beings regarded as sub-human who can be used as raw material to benefit other members of the human family, effectively creating a new class of slaves. Bishop Philip Tartaglia of the Diocese of Paisley, Scotland, calls the hybrid proposal a twisted enterprise and bemoans the continual state-sponsored attacks on unborn life.
Genetic engineering, human/animal hybrids, a class of slaves, attacks on unborn human life! These are disturbing images and hardly compatible with human dignity. Yet, these assaults on human dignity are freely chosen.
A professor of mathematics at a midwestern university has said that since we now have the technological wherewithal to blow up the moon, we should do so. This exemplifies the technological imperative in a nutshell. In contrast to the technological imperative that seems unstoppable, the moral imperative appears weak and ineffectual. Oliver Wendell Holmes was contrasting the power of evil with the power of good when he wrote the following limerick:
Gods plan made a hopeful beginning
But man spoiled his chances by sinning.
We trust that the story will end in Gods glory
But at present, the other sides winning.
Christians, however, are not allowed such cynicism, though it is understandable that those who are keeping score are more than a bit worried. They are commanded to love each other, which includes defending the dignity of all human beings. In the modern age of reproductive technology and genetic modifications of human embryos, Christs reference to the least of my little ones takes on a very special significance for our time.
Dr. Donald DeMarco, an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, is a member of the American Bio-ethics Advisory Commission and a corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.