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February 8, 2013
by Jennifer Lahl
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side bar side bar side bar side bar side bar side bar side bar side bar side bar side bar No, this is not a tabloid headline you read while waiting to checkout at the grocery store or something you might read on Craigslist in their Help Wanted ads. This was a casual comment by Harvard University's prestigious geneticist, George Church, made in a recent interview for Germany's Der Speigel magazine.

Needless to say, Dr. Church caused a media firestorm with this request. Now he claims he was just speculating and was not making a request. His new book, Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves, has a mention of bringing back Neanderthals. To accomplish this it is simply a matter of fact that an "adventurous woman would be needed" to carry the baby. But just how far-fetched is this idea? In 2009, scientists in Germany reconstructed the Neanderthal genome and boldly proclaimed that with these new technologies (and $30 million) they could produce a living Neanderthal. Fast-forward three quick years and all that seems to be missing is a willing woman to be the surrogate. I suppose the artificial womb will eventually suffice, but it's still not ready for prime time.

If Dr. Church isn't inclined to clone a Neanderthal and implant it into a woman's womb, I am sure there are many who would be. It's not be far-fetched to imagine a woman willing to sign up to gestate a Neanderthal clone, given society's proclivity to reality TV and sensationalism, even if only for their 15 minutes of fame. Truth be told, I'd welcome the chance to interview this adventurous woman for my upcoming film on maternal surrogacy.

As scientists pursue this technology in hopes of resurrecting an extinct species or of dealing with endangered species, one has to wonder what limits should be placed on this new science? What are the moral criteria that will be used in making these decisions? And who gets to decide? Our world today faces unprecedented technological changes. Staggering developments in biotechnology offer increasingly greater control over discomfort, disease, death—and over our very selves. But for all the promise of these pursuits, potentially de-humanizing problems emerge, like the ones we can foresee in this new development.

What is the role of medicine here? Clearly, we have long forgotten the deep roots of the Hippocratic tradition in medicine—first, do no harm—in breaking one of society's most cherished covenants between physician and patient. In this bizarre case, both the pregnant surrogate and the Neanderthal baby would be patients and both would be harmed.

Culture would be harmed as well. The definition of Homo sapiens is blurred, nearly beyond recognition, as we conduct scientific research on human beings, molding them according to our will. This scientific breakthrough would threaten to abolish our own humanity as warned by C. S. Lewis in his great essay, The Abolition of Man.

Make no mistake—my position is not anti-technology or anti-progress, but rather one of questioning progress simply for progress' sake. Again, what are the ultimate goals, the ends and purposes of this biotechnology and medical progress? Cloning a Neanderthal and impregnating a woman with such a clone is not progress. We must advocate for and demand progress based on rigorous and fact-based biotechnologies and medical therapies that honor and secure human dignity rather than undermine it. We must insist upon virtuous character in both the scientist and physician, and recognize the limits of the natural moral order, which promises us a truly human future, deeply situated in the dignity of the human person.

How undignified it is to treat a woman as a mere tool to gestate a scientific experiment. Have we have worked tirelessly for hundreds of years, advocating for the rights and protections of women and children, only to see stunts like this that strongly degrade the intimate beauty and gift of pregnancy and childbirth, done for novelty and celebrity masquerading as progress?

Biotechnology must reject such freakish carnival sideshow attractions. Instead, we must covenant to practice medicine, biotechnology, and all other sciences with fidelity to one another's mutual dignity. In the words of Dr. Paul Ramsey, one of the pioneers of bioethics, biotechnology should become "a community of moral discourse".

There are countless examples of real breakthroughs and real advances that promote and protect human dignity, all for our common good. These advances allow for human flourishing where the boundless scientific imagination is free to soar not only at the laboratory bench, but also the patient's bedside.

Consider just two examples. Dr. Joseph Lister's pioneering work in understanding antiseptics led to better patient outcomes because of decreased wound infections. The brilliant and courageous Madame Curie's, whose discovery of the theory of radioactivity and the early uses of isotopes in treating tumors led to improved cancer treatments and better radiological imaging for diagnostic purposes.

Dr. Church's announcement is not in the tradition of Lister or Curie. When an announced breakthrough looks and feels like a cheap tabloid magazine headline, you can bet it is not an advancement of true human progress.

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about tothesource
We live complex lives. We strive to sort out priorities that sometimes conflict or seem incompatible. A moral framework is needed to help us understand the reality around us. Our Judeo-Christian heritage provides a framework to help us comprehend the choices we make and the conflicts that arise over them. It is not only the main source of our spiritual values, but also many of the secular values we depend on.

tothesource is a forum for integrating thinking and action within a moral framework that takes into account our contemporary situation. We will report the insights of cultural experts to the specific issues we face believing these sources will embolden people to greater faith and action.
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that features informed opinion on current cultural issues.
  Jennifer Lahl
Jennifer Lahl, is founder and national director of The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network, an organization working to shed light on the bioethics issues within our culture that most profoundly affect our humanity, and advancing the voice of a morally responsible science that respects the inherent value of humanity and that celebrates its beauty and complexity. Lahl couples her 25 years experience as a pediatric critical care nurse, hospital administrator and senior-level nursing management, with a deep passion to speak for those who have no voice. Lahl's writings have appeared in various publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, the Dallas Morning News and the American Journal of Bioethics. As a field expert she is routinely interviewed on radio and television including ABC, CBC, PBS and NPR and called upon to speak alongside lawmakers and members of the scientific community, even being invited to speak to members of the European Parliament in Brussels to address egg trafficking. She is founding director of Every Woman First and serves on the North American Editorial Board for Ethics and Medicine as well as Board of Reference for Joni Eareckson Tada's Institute on Disability.
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