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Jewish World Review July 11, 2001 / 20 Tamuz, 5761

Robert W. Tracinski

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The real Brave New World -- MANKIND has reached another technological milestone: a patient in Kentucky is finishing his first week of life sustained by a self-contained artificial heart. One of the most vital functions of a living being, a function often associated with the essence of life itself, is now being performed by a product of advanced medical technology: the plastic and titanium AbioCor heart.

This heart is the result of decades of research and represents the solution of crucial technological problems. Unlike the Jarvik 7 heart first introduced in the 1980s, the AbioCor has no external connections (no wires or tubes penetrate the patient's body), which can hinder mobility and provide an opportunity for infection. The AbioCor does not need wires because it is recharged by an ingenious device that transmits energy through the patient's skin. The AbioCor is also capable of automatically matching its pump speed to the patient's level of activity, giving him the energy necessary to lead a normal life. The heart cannot sustain heavy physical activity or exercise -- but that is merely the next technological problem to be solved.

To appreciate the magnitude of this achievement, consider that 700,000 Americans die of heart failure each year; of those, as many as 125,000 could be helped by an artificial heart like the AbioCor. A cure for AIDS -- which would surely garner more praise and media attention -- would not save one-tenth as many American lives.

And the AbioCor is just in its first trials. Based on this experiment, we can look forward to many improvements on the artificial heart -- to the point where it may help hundreds of thousands of people to live longer, better, healthier lives.

This is an event that deserves to be celebrated in its own right. It belongs with such examples as the first words spoken on the telephone or the first human steps on the moon, as a symbol of the power of the human mind and the enormity of man's technological achievements. But the artificial heart deserves even more attention amid the recent debate about advanced biotechnology, cloning and genetic engineering, and the dangers of a "Brave New World" with Frankenstein-like scientists trying to "play G-d."

By referring constantly to these science-fiction images of the alleged "dark side" of scientific progress, opponents of biotechnology have tried to excuse themselves from the necessity of dealing with real scientific facts.

Some scientists, for example, are working on using human stem cells to grow cloned replacement organs -- transplants that would be genetically identical to the originals and therefore escape rejection by the body's immune system. The benefits for those who now die while waiting for a transplant, or suffer the side-effects of anti-rejection drugs, is incalculable. But thanks to years of bombardment with science-fiction scare stories, opponents of this kind of research expect it to strike you as eerie and ominous.

But why focus all of these complaints on cloning, genetic engineering and stem-cell research? If we're concerned about the supposedly "unnatural" and "dehumanizing" effects of medical technology, what could be more "unnatural" and "non-human" than a heart replaced, not by a flesh and blood copy, but by a machine?

In reality, however, nothing could be more human. Man's intelligence is his greatest attribute. It shapes every aspect of his life and allows him to reshape his world. Human beings have no fangs, no claws, no great speed or strength or agility. Compared to animals, we depend on our reason to survive. Our minds are our natural tools of survival -- just as fangs, claws and speed are tools of survival for animals. When man builds a fire, invents a steam engine, or creates an artificial heart or a genetically engineered replacement organ, he is not "tampering with nature." He is being true to his nature.

As for the motives of the scientists, the best statement comes from Dr. Laman Gray, one of the surgeons who implanted the AbioCor heart. Success, he said, is "when we have made (the patient) better. Success is when we have helped somebody." Something is good if it improves human lives -- now that is the essence of a pro-human outlook.

The AbioCor heart represents the reality of advanced medical technology. It is part of a real-life brave new world -- a world in which man uses the highest faculties of his mind to prolong and enhance his life. Let us move bravely forward.

Comment on JWR contributor Robert W. Tracinski's column by clicking here.

07/03/01: The child-manipulators
06/19/01: The scientist trap
06/11/01: The National Academy of Dubious Science