Jewish World Review July 10, 2000 / 7 Tamuz, 5760

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein


Can we map the soul? --- A BRAVE NEW WORLD is coming soon to a medical genetics emporium in your neighborhood. And it will end life as we know it.

The completion of the Human Genome Project means that we now have a roadmap of all the chemical pathways to human life. How we look, how strong or weak we are, how healthy or infirm – all of these are the product of chemical agents that are written into existence by the 3.1 billion base-pairs of the genetic code. We can now decipher the entire set of instructions, locating the genetic address for all the components of human life. Among other things, this opens up exciting new possibilities in medicine.

How is genetic technology different from conventional medical intervention? One way is obvious. Genetic engineering will, for the first time, make changes that will be transmissible to all future generations. Moreover, it will create new human capacities, which will directly lead to new expectations of how healthy and fit we wish ourselves and our offspring to be. Why settle for mediocrity if we can fine-tune our chemical instruction packages?

But what, you might ask, could be wrong with the increased knowledge that this new milestone in science brings us?

Quite a bit, argues ethicist Leon Kass in an incisive article in a recent issue of Commentary.

Recently, a father insisted that his ten year old daughter be given a preventive ovariectomy and mastectomy, because she happened to carry the BRCA-1 gene for breast cancer. How will we react when we find out that we carry a gene that predisposes us to Alzheimer's, or tells us that we are walking time-bombs for some incurable disease or personality disorder?

Part of being fully human, Kass proposes, is a freedom from knowledge, which allows us to hope and aspire without being burdened by "reality."

What will medical practitioners do when they discover problems lurking in an unborn child's genetic makeup? Some clinical practitioners already insist upon a commitment to abort in case of a negative finding, as a precondition to prenatal screening. In 1971, the incoming president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science cheerfully announced "the right of every child to be born with a sound physical and mental constitution, based on a sound genotype." Where rights exist, responsibilities cannot trail too far behind. Bentley Glass continued: "No parents will in that future time have a right to burden society with a malformed or a mentally incompetent child."

Thanks for sharing, Dr. Glass.

Chillingly, Kass tells us of a remark made by a physician in his own university to a group of medical students standing over the bed of an intelligent, otherwise normal ten year old boy with spina bifida. "Were he to have been conceived today, he would have been aborted." Kass warns ominously: "If scientists are seen in this G-d-like role of creator, judge, and savior, the rest of us must stand before them as supplicating, tainted creatures." That is worry enough.

The production of souped-up babies will also require extra trips to the medical technology shop to monitor and fine-tune. Procreation, once the most personal and intimate of activities, will become just another form of production, as we will shift its locale from the home to the laboratory.

As the demand for genetic gold rises, moral discretion will quite likely be steam-rollered into submission, and we will learn to justify a host of procedures dredged from the murkiness of moral ambiguity. How far can we be from "growing human embryos for experimentation, revising the definition of death to facilitate organ transplantation, growing human body parts in the peritoneal cavities of animals, [and] perfusing newly dead bodies as factories for useful biological substances."

Will we be tempted to revise our definitions of life and death to permit the farming of organic material from fetuses or harvesting them from the marginally living? Gene therapies thus far have modified only somatic cells, cells that do their thing and disappear with the organism. How long will it be before we get more ambitious, and try to change mankind in one fell swoop, by modifying the germ-line, or reproductive cells that will change the shape of all progeny?

Not long, if we listen to James Watson. The Nobel laureate who helped unravel DNA, he now proposes that we unravel a good deal more and just hope for the best.

Speaking at UCLA in 1998, Dr. Watson proposed that "some people are going to have some guts and try germ-line therapy without completely knowing that it's going to work." How to make this happen? No problem. "Don't ask Congress to approve it. Just ask them for the money to help their ... constituents. That's what they want. ... Frankly, they would care much more about having their relatives not sick than they would about ethics or principles," Dr. Watson said.

It will not just be ethics and principles that are discarded like the "excess" embryos of a fertility clinic, but the identity of homo sapiens. Princeton's physics eminence, Freeman Dyson, predicted last year that the introduction of modified germline cells would lead to groups of humans incapable of breeding with each other.

We will, in effect, become different species.

The most important loss, however, may be the human soul itself.

Many thinkers have long championed the position that absolutely everything – including the human spirit – can be reduced to material, whose shape and behavior are rigidly determined. The success of the genome project, effectively paring us down to an exact complement of particular molecules, will seem to play right into the hands of advocates of this position.

A 1977 statement by the International Academy of Humanism is revelatory:

"Some world religions teach that human beings are fundamentally different from other mammals – that human beings have been imbued by a deity with immortal souls, giving them a value that cannot be compared to that of other living things…As far as the scientific enterprise can determine, [however], human capabilities appear to differ in degree, not in kind."

As we become giddy with the success of seemingly unlocking all the mysteries of life, Kass warns us through a question. How will we protect ourselves "against the belief, trumpeted by contemporary biology's most public and prophetic voices, that man is just a collection of molecules, an accident on the stage of evolution…fundamentally no – things? What chance have our treasured ideas of freedom and dignity against the teachings of biological determinism in behavior… the belief that DNA is the essence of life, and the credo that the only natural concerns of living beings are survival and reproductive success?"

Belief in freedom of the will has always been recognized as essential within the orbit of religious thought, and intuitive and attractive outside of it. It always had its challenges, however, observed nineteenth century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. The awesome specter of death mocked our sense of independence. How free are we, if we ultimately lack even the freedom to simply be? Pithily, he wrote: "nowhere is there place for the moral "thou shalt" next to the physical "thou must."

Several of the Torah's commandments call upon Man to raise the banner of moral freedom aloft, to forever insist that we cannot be reduced to mere substance. Every encounter with death calls for immersion in a mikveh, a gathering of natural water that declares both our rebirth and our ability to freely make of ourselves anything that we will, as surely as water takes the shape of its container. And Man's dogged loyalty to the Voice of G-d proclaims to the world that within the soul of every Man is an irreducible spark of Divinity, which gives him his capacity to choose.

We can, and should, feel a sense of exhilaration at the completion of the genome project. It is a monument to the human spirit of discovery and understanding. At the same time, we will be courting disaster if we cannot at the same time fight for the nobility of Man, for his specialness and uniqueness.

If we do less, mankind might win the battle with weakness and infirmity, while losing the war with the banality of existence.

JWR contributor Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein directs Project Next Step of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. He holds the Sydney M. Irmas Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics at Loyola Law School. Comment by clicking here.


© 2000 Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein