Medicine and life science professionals are constantly working to help others. However, attempts to help can lead to terrible abuses. This is why the Church must place its highly developed moral tradition at the service of those who turn to medicine and the life sciences for help.
A French Catholic geneticist, Jerome Lejeune, discovered the cause of Down Syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes intellectual disabilities. Having discovered its cause, he hoped that science would be able to ameliorate its effects. But he was terribly dismayed by what in fact occurred. Today 92% of children diagnosed in utero with the disorder are killed before birth.
An American Catholic surgeon, Joseph Murray, performed the first living organ transplant. This was a most laudable development and has helped save countless lives. However, it has also led to a robust illegal trade in human organs.
A man in New York needs a kidney. His physician contacts a broker in Israel who contacts his supplier in Manila. The man in Manila goes into the slums and finds a healthy young man and pays him, perhaps, $1,500 for his kidney. The organ is flown to South Africa where the New York man receives it as a transplant. The American has paid $75,000 for his kidney. The man in Manila has one less kidney and can suffer medical complications because of a lack of follow-up care.
The Medical Daily reported in 2013 that the illegal organ trade generates annual profits between $600 million and $1.2 billion. That same article pointed out that wealthy patients can pay up to $190,000 for a single kidney. The leading recipient nations of these organs are the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Israel and Japan. The nations from which these kidneys come are referred to as the “donor nations.” It would be more accurate to describe them as the “exploited nations” since they include impoverished countries in South America, Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe.
Attempts to overcome infertility is another area of medicine that has sought to help others. In vitro fertilization is a technique by which human eggs and sperm are placed in a petri dish with the hope that fertilization will occur. If embryos are engendered, they’re placed in a woman’s womb to grow to full term. Usually three embryos are implanted and the remaining ones are frozen in liquid nitrogen for future use, experimented upon or discarded. If all three embryos successfully implant, which can be dangerous for the mother, the physicians engage in “fetal reduction.” They determine which of the children are least robust and then kill them. The attempt to engender life and overcome infertility has resulted very frequently in the destruction of life.
In 2013, it was reported that in Great Britain alone, 1.3 million embryos were discarded in the 21 years since records were kept. More than 3.5 million embryos had been engendered and only 7% led to live births. Of the embryos created, 839,325 were put into storage for future use and 2,071 were stored for donation to others. A further 5,876 were set aside for scientific research. Roughly 200,000 persons have been born through IVF in England. But one can only be appalled at the incredible waste of human life that results from a procedure that engenders 3.5 million human beings but which finally leads to only 200,000 live births.
IVF has also led to surrogacy by which a woman who has already borne children will be fertilized by the sperm from the husband in an infertile marriage or will have someone else’s embryos implanted. Again, this looks like an act of altruism to help those in need but often leads to exploitation. It’s worth noting that in the U.S., 20% of the surrogate babies born each year are carried by military wives — a group that actually represents less than 1% of the female population of childbearing age. Their husbands are often away for extended periods and military pay is very low. These women often need the additional money for their families, and so the practice leaves them vulnerable to exploitation.
Human beings have the potential for good because we have been created in the image and likeness of God. But they also have the inclination toward evil because of original sin. This is why the world needs the sure guidance of the Catholic Church’s Magisterium, which had warned against all these abuses of what should have been good developments.
DR. JOHN HAAS is president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center.