(Crux) Theologian Gerald McKenny: Biotechnology cannot transcend God’s ultimate purpose

Camosy: In this video you suggest that one of your central questions as a theologian is how we should respond to our vulnerabilities and limitations. Why and/or how did this become a central question for you?

McKenny: When I began studying bioethics in the 1980s, advocates of patient autonomy were still trying to establish it as the fundamental bioethical principle while others, in response, were trying to reclaim a Hippocratic focus of medicine on the patient’s good. I agreed with both but thought that they ignored that when people turn to medicine it is because in one way or another they are face-to-face with their vulnerability. Medicine should respect autonomy and serve patients’ good, but it is first of all a ministry to humans in their vulnerability. Around the same time, the Human Genome Initiative and human gene therapy were getting underway. There was a lot of talk, in retrospect unrealistic, about how genetic knowledge and technology would push back at our creaturely limits, giving us new abilities and so on. So, I began to think about medicine, biomedical research, and so forth as a way we respond to our vulnerabilities and limitations. And that is of course a way of thinking about it that is, or should be, theological.

What do you say to Christians who argue that God made us with vulnerabilities and limitations and we ought not to defy God’s will in using biotechnology to address them?

Like all creatures, we are finite, and like all living creatures, we are dependent-on each other, on our environment. To be finite is to be limited, and to be dependent is to be vulnerable, so these are features of our nature as created by God and should be accepted as such. But acceptance of some aspect of our creaturely nature does not necessarily mean keeping it just as it is. For one thing, some of our present vulnerabilities and limitations are due to sin and are not part of our nature as God created it. To mitigate the effects of sin is not to defy God’s will.

Also, we know that our nature will be perfected in eternity, and some people think we can, in modest ways, anticipate aspects of that perfection now, through biotechnology. But more broadly, much of what people want to do with biotechnology – improve cognitive or perceptual functions, increase muscular strength or agility, live longer – aims at attaining certain states that we perceive as good, as fulfillments of our nature as God created it. If these states really are true human goods (of course, that’s a big “if”!) then it might well be God’s will that we pursue them, assuming we don’t harm people or violate their autonomy in doing so. They would make us a little less limited or a little less vulnerable than we were. But we will still be limited and vulnerable: Still creatures.

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Posted in Ethics / Moral Theology, Roman Catholic, Science & Technology

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