Friday, February 13, 2015

DNA, Babies, Life, and Death

DNA evidence in a court case isn't new: but deer DNA in a poaching trial is.

Less than two decades after a cloned sheep's birth, British Members of Parliament okayed human cloning: using DNA from three people.

Scientists who think this is a good idea may be right: at least for some versions of the new tech.
  1. Deer DNA Proves Poacher's Guilt
  2. Science, Technology, and "Rational Reflection"
I've said it before, a lot: new ideas aren't always bad, old ideas aren't always good, and thinking is always a good idea. (September 7, 2014; February 14, 2014)

Humans are People

(From sporki, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(World Youth Day 2000.)

Human beings are people: all humans, no matter who our ancestors are, where we live, what we look like, or how old we are. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 357, 361, 369-370, 1700, 1730, 1929, 2273-2274, 2276-2279)

We have equal dignity, but we're not all alike: and we're not supposed to be. (Catechism, 33, 366, 1934-1938, 2232, 2393)

Maybe that sounds radical: but it's what I must believe, since I'm a Catholic.

Families are important, but not all-important. (Catechism, 2201-2213, 2232)

Children are an important part of a family, and they've got duties. (Catechism, 2214-2220)

So do parents, but it's not the same set of duties. (Catechism, 2221-2231)

Wanting to raise children is a good thing, but nobody has a right to have children. Children are not property. Nobody is. (Catechism, 2373-2379, 2414)

Science and technology, learning how things work and using that knowledge to make new tools, is part of being human. It's what we're supposed to do. Like everything else we do, ethics apply. That includes medical techniques intended to produce children. (Catechism, 159, 2292-2296, 2375-2377, 2414)

That's how we should behave. What actually happens is — sometimes regrettable, occasionally tragic, and that's another topic. Topics. (February 1, 2015; January 18, 2015; December 28, 2014; July 11, 2012)

Life and Health: "Precious Gifts"

Backing up a little: I must believe that human life is sacred; that life and health are "precious gifts;" and that healing the sick is a good idea, within reason. (Catechism, 2258, 2288-2295)

Individual Catholics might feel squeamish about organ transplants, for example: but the Church says they're okay.

On the other hand, we're not allowed to dry-gulch someone and take their kidneys — or kill one person to get parts for another. (Catechism, 2296)

We're also required to believe that humans are people: all humans. That includes folks who aren't old enough to vote: or breathe.
"...The inviolability of the innocent human being's right to life 'from the moment of conception until death'..."
"Instruction on Respect for Human Life In Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation Replies to Certain Questions of the Day," William Cardinal Levada, Prefect; Luis F. Ladaria, S.I., Titular Archbishop of Thibica, Secretary; Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (February 22, 1987))
I live in a country where it's legal to kill people: as long as we do it while they're still young enough to be fair game. This convenient arrangement is getting extended to other folks: who are too old or sick to be worthy of life.

We don't call it Lebensunwertes Leben, but most Americans speak English: and that phrase got a distasteful reputation about 73 years back. (December 5, 2014)

It's been decades since I've heard the phrase "quality lifestyle" used in discussions of euthanasia. I thought it was a bad idea in my youth, partly because I realized that I'd probably get culled soon after the first sweep. (December 5, 2014)

Moving on.

People, Property, and Parts

Designating some humans as non-persons can be convenient.

Folks with the 'wrong' ancestry were once considered property in my country. We're still cleaning up the mess that left. Slavery is a bad idea, and we shouldn't do it. (Catechism, 2414)

Some Catholics have owned slaves, others have been slaves: and neither makes it right.

I didn't become a Catholic because we're all perfect people. Good grief: one Pope was elected three times, kicked out twice, and sold the Papacy once. Then there was the Verdun incident, and that's another yet another set of topics. (September 14, 2014; January 11, 2015)

Sooner or later, someone's going to suggest cloning 'important' people so that Senator Fogbottom or the CEO of Amalgamated Gigabucks will have spare parts available.

That was lurid fiction in 1979. Today? For all I know, someone's discussing a real-life analog to Clonus in Washington.

Life and physical health are "precious gifts." Maintaining or restoring health and normal function is a duty. So is not making health, fitness, or appearance, my top priority. (Catechism, 2288-2291)

That's why I don't feel guilty about having metal and plastic hip joints, re-engineered hands, and a brain that needs prescribed drugs to work properly. (August 29, 2014)

On the other hand, if I needed a new heart — breaking someone else down for parts wouldn't be right: even if the donor wasn't, legally, a 'real' person. Killing one person to help another isn't right. (Catechism, 2296)

Ancient, Not Old-Fashioned

The Catholic Church is old, ancient. Some of our traditions (lower-case "t") go back to the days when Rome was a superpower.

But we're not desperately trying to live in the 1st, or 11th, century.

Our basic principles don't change. No matter what century I lived in, the rules would be:
That hasn't changed in two millennia, and it won't.

How we apply those principles to our daily lives: that's changed, and will continue to change.

But forgetting that humans are people was wrong when Rome went through four emperors in one year, it's wrong today, and it'll be wrong when Caesar's assassination, Zhang Zeduan's landscapes, and the United Nations Charter are seen as roughly contemporary.

(Zhang Zeduan's Along the River During Qingming Festival, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

(From Raphael-Lacoste,, used w/o permission.)

Diversity, Unity, and Tradition

As a Catholic, I'm part of an outfit that's καθολικός, universal: a united and diverse people, embracing all cultures and all times.

Our Tradition, capital "T" is important: but the Catholic Tradition isn't our word for 'clinging to a bygone age.'

It is the living transmission of the Gospel.

Our Tradition is not about one culture or one era. It's for Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and everyone else; although the Acts 2:5-11 thing is about the Holy Spirit. There's Sacred Scripture, too. (Catechism, 74-95, 113, 174, and 126)

Before wrenching myself back on-topic, some definitions:
  • "BIBLE: Sacred Scripture: the books which contain the truth of God's Revelation and were composed by human authors inspired by the Holy Spirit (105). The Bible contains both the forty-six books of the Old Testament and the twenty-seven books of the New Testament (120). See Old Testament; New Testament."
  • "MAGISTERIUM: The living, teaching office of the Church, whose task it is to give as authentic interpretation of the word of God, whether in its written form (Sacred Scripture), or in the form of Tradition. The Magisterium ensures the Church's fidelity to the teaching of the Apostles in matters of faith and morals (85, 890, 2033)."
  • "TRADITION: The living transmission of the message of the Gospel in the Church. The oral preaching of the Apostles, and the written message of salvation under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (Bible), are conserved and handed on as the deposit of faith through the apostolic succession in the Church. Both the living Tradition and the written Scriptures have their common source in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ (75-82). The theological, liturgical, disciplinary, and devotional traditions of the local churches both contain and can be distinguished from this apostolic Tradition (83)."
We should be thinking about ideas, old and new; not assuming that old is good and new is bad:
"...Let all the other sons of the Church bear in mind that the efforts of these resolute laborers in the vineyard of the Lord should be judged not only with equity and justice, but also with the greatest charity; all moreover should abhor that intemperate zeal which imagines that whatever is new should for that very reason be opposed or suspected...."
("Divino Afflante Spiritu," "Inspired by the Holy Spirit," Pius XII (September 30, 1943))
Part of that's quoted in the New American Bible's Preface. Pius XII was writing about about scriptural studies, but I'm pretty sure that applying the principle to new technologies makes sense.

1. Deer DNA Proves Poacher's Guilt

(From ThinkStock, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
"Deer DNA used for first time in UK to prosecute poacher"
BBC News (February 4, 201)

"DNA from a red deer has been used for the first time in the UK to help prosecute a poacher.

"James Kennedy, 70, illegally shot and killed and then removed a deer from the Glenfinnan Estate in Lochaber.

"He claimed to having shot it lawfully at another location, but scientists matched a blood stain in his van to remains he had left on the estate.

"Kennedy was fined £100 and ordered to pay compensation of £70 at Fort William Sheriff Court on Tuesday...."
Maybe spending public funds on DNA testing in this case was overkill: or maybe not. Wildlife management is important here in Minnesota, where I live: and some of the most active supporters of game and wildlife laws are hunters.

I don't hunt, but quite a few of my kinfolk do: and I don't see that as a problem. Animals are God's creatures, but so are we: and part of our job is taking care of this world. (Catechism, 2415-2418)

Here in Minnesota, that job includes managing the populations of wolves, deer, and trout; and dealing with zebra mussels. I'm getting off-topic again. (March 17, 2013; August 17, 2009)

Apparently the odds of DNA profiles like these matching is one in 40 million: so either Mr. Kennedy is guilty, we're looking at a wildly improbable coincidence — or something else is going on. My guess is that Mr. Kennedy shot the deer on protected land.

Poaching isn't the worst crime in the world: but it's nice, having a tool that can help sort out what's true and what's not in these cases.

2. Science, Technology, and "Rational Reflection"

"MPs say yes to three-person babies"
James Gallagher, BBC News (February 3, 2015)

"MPs have voted in favour of the creation of babies with DNA from two women and one man, in a historic move.

"The UK is now set to become the first country to introduce laws to allow the creation of babies from three people.

"In a free vote in the Commons, 382 MPs were in favour and 128 against the technique that stops genetic diseases being passed from mother to child.

"During the debate, ministers said the technique was 'light at the end of a dark tunnel' for families.

"A further vote is required in the House of Lords. It everything goes ahead then the first such baby could be born next year.

"Proponents said the backing was 'good news for progressive medicine' but critics say they will continue to fight against the technique that they say raises too many ethical and safety concerns....

"...Prime Minister David Cameron said: 'We're not playing god here, we're just making sure that two parents who want a healthy baby can have one.'...

"...Estimates suggest 150 three-person babies could be born each year...."
James Gallagher's article doesn't say whether "...150 three-person babies could be born each year..." in England, or worldwide. Either way, it reminded me of the expert who figured that England would need three computers, tops. That was in 1951. (January 27, 2013)

Sooner or later we'll probably see something like "Jurrasic Park Meets The Boys from Brazil" hit the silver screen. Then there's "The_Clones_of_Bruce_Lee," and that's — not quite another topic, actually.

We already have headlines like "Churches oppose three-person baby plan." Here's an excerpt:
"...The Church of England and the Catholic Church in England and Wales said it was not clear the technique - adding a donor woman's mitochondria to another woman's egg - was safe or ethical.

"But a group of scientists has urged MPs to approve the procedure - intended to stop deadly mitochondrial diseases...."
(BBC News (January 30, 2015))
I'm not surprised that scientists who developed this technique want Parliamentary permission: and am pretty sure that they don't see safety or ethical problems. Unless they're daft, the scientists wouldn't ask for human testing until they were confident that their tech would work: and wasn't unethical, by their cultural standards.

Preventing lethal mitochondrial diseases, disease of any sort, is a good idea. (Catechism, 1503-1510)

"...what is technically possible is not for that very reason morally admissible. Rational reflection on the fundamental values of life and of human procreation is therefore indispensable for formulating a moral evaluation of such technological interventions on a human being from the first stages of his development...."
("Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions," William Cardinal Levada, Prefect; Luis F. Ladaria, S.I., Titular Archbishop of Thibica, Secretary; Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (September 8, 2008)) [Emphasis mine]
It'd be easy to be excited by the prospect of a world without birth defects, where tragedies like Sharon Bernardi losing all seven of her children to mitochondrial disease didn't happen.

This is a personal issue for me. A friend and classmate died in her teens of a cancer that might have involved an inherited metabolic glitch.

My defective hips may be inherited, or could have happened for other reasons. My quirky neurochemistry is almost certainly inherited: my father was the same way, although less so; and two of my kids enjoy — or suffer — what I do.

The good news with the kids is that we knew what to look for: and this isn't the 1950s, for which I'm duly grateful.

I'm not sure that I'd want to be 'cured' of what makes my brain work the way it does, though. Like what Aristotle said: "There is no great genius without a mixture of madness."

Not that I'm a "great genius," but I am one of those creative types: and if being "normal" meant losing that — thanks; but no, thanks. I'd rather work with what I've got. (January 23, 2015)


Mitochondria are little modules embedded in the cells of most eukaryotes — a five-dollar word for plants, animals, fungi, and critters with hard-to-pronounce names. Mitochondria do or control quite a bit of a cell's chemical processing, so bad things happen when they don't work.

Mitochondria have their own DNA, and may have started as independent organisms: moving into or getting absorbed by eukaryotes some 1,500,000,000 years back. If that's what happened, they're fully integrated into eukaroytes by now.

Therapy and Death

(From HFEA, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("1) Two eggs are fertilised with sperm, creating an embryo from the intended parents and another from the donors 2) The pronuclei, which contain genetic information, are removed from both embryos but only the parents' are kept 3) A healthy embryo is created by adding the parents' pronuclei to the donor embryo, which is finally implanted into the womb[.]"
(James Gallagher, BBC News)

(From HFEA, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("1) Eggs from a mother with damaged mitochondria and a donor with healthy mitochondria are collected 2) The majority of the genetic material is removed from both eggs 3) The mother's genetic material is inserted into the donor egg, which can be fertilised by sperm."
(James Gallagher, BBC News)

Again, I must believe that human life is sacred: and that humans are people; no matter how young, old, or sick we are. (Catechism, 2258, 2270, 2276-2279)

That's why I'm pretty sure that "method one" isn't acceptable. You'd start with two people: one from the parents, and a donor. You'd wind up with one person: with the donor's mitochondria and the parent's DNA in his or her cells' nuclei.

I could rationalize that half a person is better than none, or that two halves make a whole, or dive into metaphysical gibberish. I won't, because I'm pretty sure that when two living people go into an operating room, and one comes out — someone's missing, and the leftover parts suggest that one of the originals died.

Somehow, that doesn't quite seem right.

Happily, the church doesn't insist that every bit of material with human DNA is a person.

If that were true — it's not — someone would die during every woman's cycle. Men produce about 100,000,000 viable sperm daily, replacing those generated about three months previously.

Thinking that enough people to populate California, Florida, New York state, Illinois, and Texas, every day in every man is — "silly" seems a mild term.

That's why I think "method two" may, in at least some cases, be acceptable. The procedure would start with two eggs — not people — and ultimately end with a person. Nobody dies: and that's a good thing.

Problems — and Opportunities — Ahead

As I said last month, I think we've got problems — and opportunities — ahead. Strictly therapeutic genetic manipulation may, in some cases, be okay: and a blessing to folks with inherited disorders.

The same technologies could be used to purge "undesirable" traits from humanity. Since many of my ancestors are of an 'inferior race,' I can hardly be expected to show enthusiasm for eugenics. And that's yet again another topic. (January 23, 2015; December 5, 2014)

Catholic viewpoints:
My take on science, faith, and getting a grip:


nothingprofound said...

Brian, another amazing read. Sober, reflective, informative and well-written.

Brian Gill said...

Thank you, nothingprofound: very much.

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From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.