13 March 2008

The sins of science

Cosmos Online
Scientists have received special attention this week in the Vatican's 21st century update to the seven deadly sins. But could these new pronouncements end up stifling important ethical debates, rather than advancing them?
The sins of science

Modern sin: Perhaps the forbidden fruit was genetically modified, and that's why it was bad. Credit: iStockphoto

The Catholic Church has made history this week by updating the traditional list of seven deadly sins. The 21st century addendum to the sin list was reported in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano and includes: genetic modification; carrying out experiments on humans; polluting the environment; causing social injustice; causing poverty; becoming obscenely wealthy and taking drugs.

It’s pleasing to see the Vatican moving with the times and updating its list of mortal sins. In the egalitarian spirit of the age, it seems only fair that those who fail to confess their involvement in causing social injustice should also burn in hell alongside those who engage in pride, envy, gluttony, greed, lust, wrath and sloth.

Morally debatable?

Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, the head of the Vatican body which oversees confessions, elaborated in an interview to the The Times of London that “you offend God not only by stealing, blaspheming or coveting your neighbour’s wife, but also by ruining the environment, carrying out morally debatable scientific experiments, or allowing genetic manipulations which alter DNA or compromise embryos.”

As a bioethicist, I must admit that I’m somewhat bemused to learn that merely carrying out “morally debatable” scientific experiments is enough to jeopardise scientists’ eternal souls. This curious pronouncement rather obscures what are serious ethical issues about genetically modifying organisms or experimenting on embryos. These are the issues on which I’d like to see more rather than less debate.

I, myself, wonder about the wisdom of the vast uncontrolled experiment currently being carried out on the global ecosystem through the release of genetically modified organisms.

There are also challenging analogies between the ethics of creating embryos to extract stem cells and the ethics of the (hypothetical) creation of human beings, genetically modified so as never to develop a central nervous system and incubated in artificial wombs, with the intent to harvest their organs. On the other hand, given the number of human embryos that nature discards as a result of early miscarriage after natural conception, perhaps the destruction of embryos is less of an ethical quandary than it first appears.

Resolving these questions – and others like them – will require a detailed and serious ethical debate in which the claim that these activities might be morally wrong could only arise as a conclusion and cannot serve as a premise.

Selfless science

It is also important to acknowledge that if scientists really are “putting their souls at risk,” they are, for the most part, doing it for the sake of the rest of us.

In particular, the stem cell and human embryo research that the Vatican views as “modern sins” are motivated by the desire to mitigate the very real evils of sickness, injury, and infertility, which still haunt humanity. One might ask whether more people will suffer as a result of stifling research into these areas than will suffer if they go ahead. Perhaps suppressing important scientific research should be added to the Vatican’s new list of sins.

In the rare cases of scientific enquiry where scientists are not putting the greater good of society first and motives are arguably more mixed, the old sins of pride and avarice are usually implicated. But, declaring whole areas of research “sinful” may threaten the development of beneficial technologies while at the same time obscuring the role played by more familiar vices, precisely when we should be conscious of them.

Scientists, ethicists, and others concerned about social justice and the future of the planet, however, should welcome the efforts of religious figures and organisations for bringing attention to some of the profound ethical challenges we face today. The Vatican’s list of modern sins does have the significant virtue of highlighting the social and environmental impacts of many choices that we make. However, compared to “ruining the environment”, “causing poverty”, or “the excessive accumulation of wealth”, the sins that Bishop Girotti would encourage scientists to confess seem pretty small fry to me.

It is good to see the Catholic Church attempt to engage with 21st century moral issues. However, I hope it doesn’t backfire by stifling important debate on contemporary issues in science. To flag genetic modification and experiments on humans as serious issues is a good thing, but to call them sins and leave them at that might be a serious disservice to advancing wellbeing for all humanity.

Rob Sparrow is with the Centre for Human Bioethics at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

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