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Lakshmi Chettur Herring

Sacredness of the Body: Quo Vadis?

Test tube babies are also a luxury item which only the rich can afford. And the spare ones are a bother, so we search for wastebasket to discard all the superfluous leftovers. 1 Some years ago a small news item in the international and national newspapers set up a wave of outrage. The news was that British scientists had finally decided to destroy some thousands of human embryos. These were what were called superfluous embryos resulting from the process of embryo transfer. When someone decides on an embryo transfer or test tube baby, as many ova as possible are collected and fertilized to save the bother of doing this procedure a second time. Two or three such fertilized eggs, which have undergone some cell divisions and are now known as embryos, are inserted into the maternal uterus. If one or more of them settle down in the uterine tissue to grow further – hurrah – the lady has conceived. If not, the spare embryos can be used for another attempt at pregnancy. In between two attempts, if the first attempt results in pregnancy, the spare embryos undergo the process of deep freezing. That is, they are frozen and stored at minus 160 °C, where they remain in a state of suspended animation. Each embryo is catalogued, given a code number from which one can find out its genealogy, and now enabled to persist for an indefinite number of years as suspended life – but not living, a little potential human being in suspended animation!
2 What happened to the British scientists was that they ran out of storage room for these little people – the embryos. Moreover, the parents of these embryos were not claiming them anymore – they didn't want them. So after much discussion and hesitation they were destroyed. A new holocaust? Fantasies ran riot. To some they were little humans screaming to be saved, to be allowed to live while they were left aside to perish. Moralists raised their voices loud, the eternal questions of when does life begin and when do the reproductive cells attain the status of human beings were all discussed again. For a few weeks – and then, the tempest blew over. All became quiet again, as before.
3 But there was a small group of scientists in the field of medicine who were outraged at this destruction for quite a different reason. Man has been plagued by baffling diseases like cancer, multiple sclerosis, AIDS, and many more from time immemorial. In spite of the vast studies that medical research has made, there are many aspects of the human body that are still a mystery. Countless animals are subjected to pain and agony in the name of discovering cures for human sufferings. And yet often enough what works in an animal system does not work in the human.
gene 4 Those scientists who are in search of a perfect system to try out their experiments consider these human embryos as the answer to their long quest. These little undifferentiated clumps of cells – as they define them – could be the ideal new little guinea-pigs of medical research. Maybe. But the issues involved are complicated, fundamental moral issues.
5 As science progresses, as we make each new discovery, we seem to be pushing our moral inhibitions a little further out. The first heart transplant raised a storm; now there are hearts, livers and kidneys on sale! The first test tube baby caused outcries; now test tube babies are routine and one can almost place an order for what prototype of a child one would like to have, like the Cadillac and Mercedes cars that some kings and business tycoons used to order. Test tube babies are also a luxury item which only the rich can afford. And the spare ones are a bother, so we search for wastebasket to discard all the superfluous leftovers.
6 Less than a month ago, a couple got a favourable court order permitting them to produce a test tube baby with a specific cell type. The cells of this baby were for treating an already born baby of theirs who had a genetic disease. Indeed it is nice to find a genetic cure for a sick child. But still I am not sure if it is absolutely right to produce another life only to be used for the medical needs of an already born child. Is the to-be-created-life of such »lesser value« that we have the right, morally, to use it as a therapeutic item for the first baby?
7 In the continuous process of progress, now the »clones« are on their march. First we cloned mice and rats and frogs. Then we progressed to sheep and pigs.
8 A while ago someone in the U.S. claimed to have produced a cloned human. In hot pursuit there was a claim from France of another cloned human being. Both claims were quickly denied. No one can be completely sure what the truth is. Has man successfully cloned a human or not?
I ask mankind: Quo vadis … whither goest thou? Old-fashioned – but will someone listen? 9 Nature in her gracious plans meant every living form, be it plant, animal or man, to be »unique«; that is, no two forms are identical – not even identical twins, because they are only mirror images. But man wants to create identical life. Now it is only for scientific studies. There may come a time when humans are cloned for other purposes – maybe military. If we could clone the most effective aggressive soldiers to create an efficient army! Today there are breeders who produce most vile pit bulls for their ferocity. Why not an efficiently cloned army? Then of course the waiting period of about 18 years when the clones can be recruited will have to be scientifically reduced – compressed into a shorter period. So far we in India have one distinction. We are the only country, to my knowledge, that uses genetic information for sex-biased genocide, or rather, infanticide.
10 All this may sound melodramatic and imaginary. But there are scientists like Dr. Davor Solter of the Max Planck Institute in Freiburg, Germany, according to whom, »If we would forbid ourselves to genetically manipulate human cell lines, then we must concede that we are weak and stupid.«
11 I ask mankind: Quo vadis … whither goest thou? Old-fashioned – but will someone listen?
polylog: Forum for Intercultural Philosophy 6 (2005).
Online: http://them.polylog.org/6/ccl-en.htm
ISSN 1616-2943
external linkSatya Nilayam: Chennai Journal for Intercultural Philosophy 7 (2005), 113-115.
© 2005 Author & polylog e.V.


Lakshmi Chettur Herring is a human geneticist in Cennai (India) and now retired.
Dr. Lakshmi Chettur Herring
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