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Reproductive Ethics, Genetic Engineering, and the Common Good

June 21, 2024


In November 2018, media outlets around the globe were abuzz with the news of the birth of twin girls with modified genes designed to make them immune to HIV. This groundbreaking and controversial experiment was conducted by He Jiankui, a Chinese biophysicist, who used CRISPR technology to disable the CCR5 gene, enabling HIV infection. However, He Jiankui’s work, which aimed to immunize babies against HIV, was shrouded in controversy due to its ethical and legal implications. Chinese regulations prohibit research on human embryos beyond the fourteenth day of existence and their subsequent implantation into a uterus. Moreover, the scientific community was concerned about the potential unintended consequences, as the CCR5 gene is also associated with significant brain functions. This experiment might not only have prevented HIV but also inadvertently enhanced the intelligence and memory of the twin girls.

This event sparked intense debate over using CRISPR-Cas9, the latest gene-editing technology. Genetic engineering is not a new field; arguments for and against it have been made for years, and various regulations have attempted to provide legal and ethical frameworks, albeit incomplete and often controversial. However, CRISPR-Cas9 has revolutionized genetic engineering, potentially transforming public perception and ethical considerations surrounding gene editing.

Lonergan’s Critical Realism

The Canadian philosopher and Jesuit Bernard Lonergan offers a compelling interpretive framework for examining the epistemological and ethical dimensions of reproductive choices. His Critical Realism emphasizes the interplay between knowing and being, guiding us beyond individual interests toward a vision that values the collective welfare of humanity. 

Lonergan’s seminal works, Insight and Method in Theology, provide a layered conception of good—from an elemental notion linked to desire’s objectives to the intrinsic ‘Good of Value,’ fully comprehensible only within the context of moral conversion. This nuanced understanding is particularly relevant for today’s debates on reproductive ethics, encouraging us to make decisions that harmonize technological potential with broader human well-being.

In Insight, Lonergan explores the nature of human understanding and how we come to know and discern truth. He introduces the idea of the “good” in a foundational sense, linked to the immediate objectives of our desires (i.e., particular goods). This basic level of good is what people seek instinctively, driven by their immediate needs and wants. However, Lonergan does not stop at this elemental notion.

In Method in Theology, he deepens this exploration by distinguishing between different levels of good:

1. Particular Goods (those of desire): This is the most basic level, where good is perceived as satisfying individual desires and needs. It’s an immediate and often self-centered understanding of good.

2. The Good of Order: This level involves understanding good within the context of social structures and relationships. It recognizes that individual goods are interconnected and that a well-ordered society is necessary for individuals to flourish. Here, good transcends personal satisfaction and includes the well-being of the community.

3. The Good of Value: This is the highest level of good, which can only be fully comprehended through moral conversion—a profound transformation of one’s values and priorities. At this level, good is understood as that which genuinely enhances human dignity and promotes the common good. It involves a self-transcending love and commitment to what is genuinely worthwhile, beyond mere personal or immediate gain.

This more nuanced understanding of good is particularly relevant for today’s debates on reproductive ethics. Modern technologies, such as CRISPR and other genetic modifications, offer unprecedented potential to alter human biology. However, decisions regarding their use should not be driven solely by the basic good of satisfying individual desires (such as selecting for desired traits) or even the societal good of preventing diseases. Instead, they should be guided by the higher good of value, which considers the broader implications for human dignity and the common good.

Notwithstanding, these advancements in reproductive technologies have, in some contexts, normalized the transition from a ‘natural birth’ to a ‘chosen birth.’ However, this heightened agency brings with it significant ethical considerations. The concept of the “best baby,” which includes not only rectifying genetic anomalies but also enhancing specific traits, raises fundamental questions about our understanding of human nature and the potential societal implications.

For instance, preferences for specific traits may vary widely across cultures, societies, and individuals, potentially leading to new forms of inequality and discrimination. Lonergan’s philosophy urges us to transcend individualistic aspirations and consider the collective impact of these choices on society.

Ethical Considerations and the Common Good

Lonergan’s insights into the Common Good offer a comprehensive perspective that transcends individual welfare. He emphasizes a societal dimension where each individual’s good contributes to and is enriched by the well-being of all. His philosophical constructs urge us to move beyond mere individualism and consider the collective welfare of humanity, particularly in the context of reproductive technologies. 

This conception of the Good is multi-layered, encompassing different aspects of human desire and ethical reasoning. He differentiates between the ‘Good of Order,’ which refers to the structured coordination of human actions toward common goals, and the ‘Good of Value,’ understood within the context of moral conversion and deeper ethical commitment. This layered understanding is particularly relevant for today’s debates on genetic modifications and reproductive choices.

Individual decisions regarding reproductive technologies have far-reaching implications. While promising to eliminate certain hereditary diseases or enhance specific traits, genetic modifications pose significant ethical challenges. How might these choices impact the human gene pool over generations? What are the potential ecological and biodiversity consequences of narrowing genetic variability?

Impact on Human Gene Pool:

Appropriating this framework helps us understand that modifying genes in human embryos can have long-term consequences on the human gene pool. By selectively enhancing or disabling certain traits, we risk creating new forms of inequality and potentially reducing genetic diversity, which is crucial for the resilience of our species. Decisions made today could set precedents that influence the genetic makeup of future generations, possibly leading to unintended health and societal issues.

Ecological and Biodiversity Consequences:

The ecological implications of genetic modifications extend beyond humans. For instance, altering human genes might inadvertently affect our interaction with the environment and other species. Lonergan’s emphasis on the interconnectedness of all aspects of existence urges us to consider these broader ecological impacts. Narrowing genetic variability could reduce our ability to adapt to environmental changes, thereby impacting not just individual health but the sustainability of ecosystems.

If we adopt a critical realist approach, however, we can navigate these challenges with a focus on collective human flourishing. Lonergan’s philosophical approach advocates for informed and responsible decision-making processes that consider immediate benefits and long-term consequences. This perspective encourages us to look beyond individual desires and assess how our choices contribute to the Common Good, ultimately promoting a balanced approach that harmonizes technological potential with ethical integrity and communal well-being.

Fostering interdisciplinary dialogue and community engagement is essential to addressing these ethical considerations. Policymakers, medical professionals, and potential parents must collaborate to ensure that a commitment to the Common Good guides genetic interventions. This involves creating platforms for public discourse, ethical review boards, and comprehensive educational programs that integrate scientific knowledge with philosophical, theological, and ethical insights. By doing so, we can ensure that our advancements in reproductive technologies align with a vision of human flourishing that respects both individual rights and collective responsibilities.

Practical Applications for Policymakers, Medical Professionals, and Parents

Implementing policies and practices that reflect Lonergan’s ethical principles is essential to aligning reproductive technologies with the common good. This involves creating frameworks encouraging reflection, dialogue, and responsible decision-making across various sectors. 

Policymakers play a crucial role in shaping the ethical landscape of reproductive technologies. To foster a community-centric approach, it is essential to establish policies that encourage dialogue and reflection on genetic choices. One effective measure could be the formation of Genetic Ethics Committees at both local and national levels. These committees would serve as forums for public discourse, bringing together diverse perspectives from ethicists, scientists, religious leaders, and laypersons. For example, town-hall-style meetings focused on emerging genetic technologies can provide a platform for citizens to voice concerns, hear expert opinions, and collaboratively shape policy directions.

Additionally, public funding should prioritize treatments that address life-threatening genetic disorders over aesthetic enhancements. Countries like Sweden have already taken steps in this direction, ensuring that public resources are channeled towards creating a healthier society rather than catering to superficial desires. Implementing policies that emphasize the Common Good can help prevent the commodification of human life and ensure that advancements in genetic technologies benefit society as a whole.

Within the context of Catholic doctrine, it is essential to emphasize the sanctity and dignity of human life from conception to natural death.

Concerning medical professionals, they are at the forefront of implementing and advising on reproductive technologies. To facilitate informed decision-making processes for potential parents, healthcare providers must ensure that individuals understand the broader implications of their choices. This can be achieved through in-depth, multi-session consultations beyond detailing medical procedures, including discussions on societal and ethical impacts. For instance, genetic counselors in Iceland have pioneered such comprehensive consultation models, enabling parents to make well-rounded decisions.

Introducing ethical case reviews in hospitals can also ensure that decisions are introspective and ethically sound. Regular interdisciplinary meetings involving sociologists, ethicists, and geneticists can help medical professionals stay informed about the societal impacts of genetic choices. These practices foster a holistic approach to patient care, ensuring that individual decisions align with the broader ethical framework that respects the Good of Order and the Good of Value.

Parents play a pivotal role in shaping the future through their reproductive choices. Within the context of Catholic doctrine, it is essential to emphasize the sanctity and dignity of human life from conception to natural death. Parents should be encouraged to reflect deeply on their motivations for considering any genetic interventions, ensuring that their decisions uphold the inherent worth of every human being as created in the image of God. Rather than focusing on selecting specific genetic traits, parents should consider the broader ethical implications and the potential societal impacts of their choices. Participation in church-led educational programs and ethical discussions can provide valuable guidance. These programs, facilitated by trained professionals and aligned with Church teachings, can help parents understand the moral dimensions of their decisions, encouraging them to act in ways that respect the sanctity of life and promote the Common Good.

Moreover, parents must recognize that every choice they make is part of a larger societal fabric. Understanding the long-term impacts on community values and human diversity can help ensure that their decisions contribute positively to the Common Good. Engaging in community dialogues within their parish or diocese can help parents consider how their choices might shape future generations and societal norms, always grounded in a respect for life and the teachings of the Church.

By grounding reproductive choices in Lonergan’s ethical framework and the Catholic tradition in which his approach was developed and emerged, we can navigate the complex landscape of genetic technologies, focusing on collective human flourishing without defaulting to reductionistic narratives and sterile utilitarian calculus. Policymakers, medical professionals, Church leaders, and parents all have roles to play in this endeavor. Encouraging policies that foster dialogue, provide comprehensive and ethical guidance, and promote introspective decision-making processes are essential steps in aligning reproductive technologies with the Common Good, something that sorely needs a recovery. This approach ensures that advancements in genetic engineering benefit individuals and contribute to society’s holistic well-being, reflecting the multi-dimensional intricacies of human existence that Lonergan so profoundly emphasized.