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2016年8月19日 星期五

Designed Humanity? (預先設計的人類?)

Ever since medical science first started tinkering with various human parts like organs, scientists have dreamed of providing "cures" or replacement of human parts for known pathological defects by active intervention. They started off with the heart, then extended transplants to include kidneys, liver, lungs, pancreas, intestine and thymus. Having mastered various ways of combatting the difficulties of immunological rejection, they extend similar notions to tissues transplant. Nowadays, surgeons regularly perform grafting of bones, tendons" (musculo-skeletal grafts), cornea, skin, heart valves, nerves and veins etc.With the completion of the Human Genome Project "HGP" which started in 1990, scientists have been hard at work to synthesize some new and hopefully better human genome and in June 2016, they announced plans to do so under a project called "HGP-Write".

Whilst science ceaselessly advances, our thinking about human life has not kept pace. Especially in Western Europe and the Americas, ordinary people are still fixated with the idea that since human life is "created" by an omniscient, omnipotent and all perfect God, human beings should not tamper with the creation of life. Such thinking however, has curiously not prevented them from profiting from the alleged "interference" of human life created by the same God when they receive injections of various anti-biotics or having skin grafts and various forms of organ transplants. In Western countries especially America, because of opposition from powerful religious lobbies, there are still various restrictions against scientists experimenting with anything having to do with human "embryos", which theologians argue is a form of "life", tampering with which may amount to "killing/murder", something prohibited under existing laws and by their God. Christian theologians think that since life is created by God and since God is sacred, tampering with God's "special creation" of man amounts to an infringement of the sole and exclusive "right" of God as the eternal "Lord" of all human life and death, as if somehow human beings are God's possessions, the way a slave owner was deemed to have an "absolute right" over the life and death of the slaves he owned in former times. Hence we still find various religious lobbies in America and other European countries where Christian influence is still strong campaigning for "right to life" against women having legal abortions, although their pregnancies are "unwanted" because they are the result of a rape or some other form of unwelcome or undesired sexual assaults. What about the rights of the woman to determine whether or not she wants her body to be or to continue to be the instrument for the further development of that "thing" or collections of cells people have variously called "embryo" or "foetus" or "baby"?

When exactly does 'human life" begin? As a sperm? As an egg in a woman's ovary? As a  fertilized egg or zygote? When the zygote embeds/implants itself into the uterus wall of   woman's womb about  9 days after being fertilized? 6 weeks after fertilization, when the mother's male or female hormones start to mark the developing brain of the human embryo with its psychological tendencies to think and feel like a man or a woman when it eventually grows up into either a biological male or female? 3 months after fertilization, when the fetus has grown to about an once and begins to form about 20 teeth and can breathe the amniotic fluid in and out of its lungs and its pancreas begins to produce insulin? Or when the foetus is fully developed and starts taking its first breath of air outside of its mother's body immediately after its "birth"? When exactly is it legally and/or morally permissible to put an end to its further development? What does being "human" entail? A fully developed and functioning brain in addition to a fully developed body or merely the  potential to do so? The ability to distinguish what is "right" and what is "wrong"? Intelligence? Cognitive ability? Memory? Self-consciousness? Capacity to feel pleasure and pain, love, hatred, surprise,joy, fear, anxiety, hope, despair, anger, desire, longing, envy, jealousy, regret, nostalgia, shame, guilt, a sense of justice? If there is  something peculiar to human life which distinguishes it from other forms of life or beings eg. that of a lion, tiger, an elephant, a horse, an ox, a sheep, a rabbit , a monkey, a whale, a dolphin, a dog, a fish, a chicken, a duck, a goose, a tree, a flower, a stone? If so, why should that be the source of what we think of as its "intrinsic" value? Why shouldn't there be equality of value amongst everything which exists, without distinction? Why are we allowed to do all kinds of experiments on animals, bacteria and plants with impunity but not on anything we regard as "human"? What is "value" any way? What is the basis of such "value"? Isn't "value" merely what we subjectively think of as possessing the same, something entirely arbitrary just because we say so?

Whatever the answers to the questions above may be, according to an article in the latest edition of Scientific American, Kyle Orwig,a professor at the University of Pittsburg,
who has for some 20 years been doing research on the cell biology, especially "stem cells" located in the male testes which produce "sperms". Since 1994, scientists have already developed a "gene-editing tool" called CRISPR/Cas9 which allows scientist to alter the DNA of any organism, including humans with "unprecedented precision" and according to him, we are now ready to employ this technique on the human embryo to correct any known genetic defect eg. like one which makes a man infertile. In fact, in April 2015, the Chinese have already edited the genes of human embryos! In UK, it's already permissible to do a form of germ-line modification called "mitochondrial replacement therapy". According to Orwig, the kind of gene therapy that he has in mind will most likely be done in an "in vitro fertilization" "(IVF") clinic any time now.

Science is ready to take the matter of human destiny into our own hands ? We can remake ourselves if we want to. We can have "designer babies" in the near future, if we want to. Do we want to make an artificial and permanent addition to the human gene pool?  Are we ready for that? Even if we are, do human beings have the needed wisdom not to abuse such techniques brought to us by our cutting edge science? Those are questions our theologians, our philosophers, our medical researchers, our lawyers, our politicians, our governments and we ourselves will have to apply their minds to. If our gentic science continue to develop at its current rate, such questions will soon become more and more urgent as we blunder along further and further into 21st century.