Those who would defend human dignity in the face of science's relentless march towards "discovery" are once again under attack. Senators Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Mary Landrieu (D-LA) are making headlines for introducing controversial legislation that would ban the American scientific community from developing embryos that contain both human and animal material. Dubbed the Human-Animal Hybrid Prohibition Act of 2009, the bill upholds the unique dignity of the human species and condemns human-animal hybrids as "grossly unethical because they blur the line between human and animal, male and female, parent and child, and one individual and another individual."
One might think that even the most ardent disciples of science would acknowledge the problems (if not the downright creepiness) inherent in blending human and non-human genetic material, but no. Instead, critics are dismissing the grave ethical and moral concerns at stake as paranoid hyperbole and characterizing opposition to human-animal hybrid experimentation as yet another attempt to sabotage scientific progress, and thus, the betterment of mankind.
How could anyone object to the limitless possibility and promise of genetic research? People are suffering, after all—suffering from terrible degenerative diseases like Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and diabetes; debilitating spinal cord injuries; lost limbs; birth defects.
Children are diagnosed with leukemia, soldiers are maimed in war, mothers die in childbirth... the list goes on and on.
Indeed, life is fragile and imperfect, and these kinds of tragedies strike every day. It just doesn't seem right; it doesn't seem fair. This sense of powerlessness and indignation in the face of disease and death has inspired man since the beginning of time to harness every tool at his disposal to overcome the ravages of nature. Each generation enjoys the benefits of scientific advances that have reduced and marginalized diseases and afflictions that were once considered death sentences.
Smallpox and tuberculosis once ravaged the globe, killing millions—now they are controlled by the miracle of vaccine. Bionic technology allows amputees to reclaim independence and dignity, and surgeons are now able to treat birth defects like spina bifida by operating on infants while they are still in their mother's womb. Doctors are even able to use discrete animal body parts—things like porcine heart valves—to treat human ailments like heart disease. These miraculous medical advances have no doubt been a good thing for humanity—but, like all good things, there must be a balance, and the tools we use to manipulate nature must be wielded with prudence and respect.
We're all familiar with the famous scene from Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein, as Gene Wilder—driven mad by isolation, exhaustion, and determination—witnesses the "birth" of his creation and screams in triumph: "It's alive!! It's alive!!" For those that have read Mary Shelley's tragic novel however, they know that the story of Dr. Frankenstein is not a comedy, and it is not merely a ghost story.
Shelley's tale is a solemn indictment of modern man's fanatical obsession with science. Dr. Frankenstein, a young medical student mourning the premature death of his mother, becomes obsessed with the prospect of defeating mortality through the creation of a biologically infallible super-species. He succeeds, but quickly realizes that his attempt to defy nature—to play God—has resulted in the creation of an abomination. Even as he realizes his folly in attempting to alter the fundamental order of the natural world, it is too late—the damage has been done, and the consequences are grievous.
Senator Brownback and the co-sponsors of his Human-Animal Hybrid Prohibition Act of 2009 rightly understand the grim implications of allowing science to triumph over all moral and ethical considerations, blind to the question of human dignity involved in these issues. When the building blocks of life are separated from their natural end, merely used as raw material for experimentation, mankind is treading on dangerous and slippery ground. Not all barriers are made to be broken—and if we cross these lines, it is highly doubtful that we will be able to reverse the damage done, or turn back the clock.
The scientific community, if allowed to push forward unchecked by vigorous debate and deliberation about the potential consequences of its actions, may well find itself beset by the same horrors encountered by Shelley's Frankenstein, with society left to face the consequences.