Science and Technology

Humanity: A Matter of Definition

Mouse embryo with human stem cells.
This handout photo from the Seoul research institute Maria BioTech shows a mouse embryo implanted with human stem cells (illuminated by flourescent green proteins).

Europeans, like Americans, are struggling to determine appropriate guidelines for embryo research. Here, two politicians from the Christian Democratic Union offer criticism of Germany’s research policies from different angles.

Thomas Rachel: I do not like what amounts to a clear violation of the decision made by the German Bundestag last year. In that vote, the German government was expressly required to work toward a comprehensive ban on cloning at the international level—meaning a ban on both therapeutic and reproductive cloning. Instead, the government, at the United Nations, helped prevent debate on a proposal to that effect by Costa Rica.

Jürgen Gehb: That’s true. The wording of the Bundestag resolution was clear. Nevertheless, one must ask, considering the status of scientific research in Germany, if this resolution was reasonable. The Transrapid train, developed and built in Germany, may go to China, and the Hanau nuclear fuel processing factory may follow it there. [Gehb is alluding to Germany’s export of technology rather than its development for domestic use: the construction of the Transrapid train in Shanghai and the proposed sale of nuclear equipment to China from Hanau, a city in western Germany.—WPR] If we say goodbye to genetic technology as well, we will someday enjoy a perfect banana republic—but, unfortunately, without having a climate in which bananas will grow.

Rachel: This is very much like what the chancellor said in the debate over stem cells. That, too, was about business and jobs. But when human values are concerned, economic arguments carry no weight. In therapeutic cloning, the fetus is used for research purposes, while in reproductive cloning, it is used to create an identical person. The first means killing an embryo, while the second questions our very image of what a person, as an individual, is.

What does the dignity of man mean in this connection?
Gehb: There is nothing in the constitution, in individual laws, or in decisions by the Constitutional Court giving any definition of when human life begins.

Rachel: Human life begins when the sperm and egg cells join.

Gehb: One can certainly make that claim, but we are then faced with massive contradictions. Even [Germany’s 1990] Embryo Protection Act permits the discarding of embryos, because, during in vitro fertilization procedures, as a backup, rather than a single egg, three egg cells are fertilized. And what about intrauterine devices, which block the implantation of an already fertilized egg in the uterine wall?

Rachel: Yes, there are contradictions—in the laws on abortion, too. As lawmakers, we have a responsibility to society, which is why we must consider where to draw the line.

Gehb: But the limits you propose are totally restrictive. We cannot take something that is permitted in a large number of democracies and attack it in the harshest possible way—by accusing it of being a violation of human dignity.

Mr. Gehb, would you permit reproductive cloning as well?
Gehb: Of course not. I do not want to see a test-tube baby—slim, blond, and blue-eyed—created some day. That is really a horrific idea. But scientists are not all possessed by evil instincts. The situation is analogous to nuclear energy, which was developed with an eye toward peaceful ends…

But then came the atomic bomb.
Gehb: In science, curses and blessings are never far apart. One can use a scalpel to remove a tumor or slit a throat. With artificial fertilization, we have opened a Pandora’s box, and now we must prevent negative side effects.

Rachel: This question is not fundamentally for lawmakers to answer. [Retired Constitutional Court Judge] Wolfgang Böckenförde once said that the state exists is based on presuppositions that it cannot itself create. The Christian idea of humanity is one such presupposition, and in our country, it is the culturally dominant one. Human dignity is granted by God and is beyond human power to define or decide.

Gehb: Sick people, too, possess human dignity and worth. Through research on stem cells, it may be possible to lessen suffering from severe illnesses, or even cure some of them.