Immortality for sale: the ethics of a multi-billion dollar biotech industry

Science fiction is great. It creates all sorts of worlds where the imagination is invited to run wild, fantastical ideas about future civilizations can be entertained, and then, as the last page is turned, the mind gently touches back to earth. What happens though, when the rabbit hole sends you not into some strange ulterior reality, but your own? Suddenly, just like that, we turn the page and there is no future in the story. It is now.

We are standing on the threshold of a world only imagined a few decades ago, even years ago. What was the fictional stuff of Hollywood movies is now the serious matter of our time. We are confronted with asking urgent questions about the kind of future that is upon us. We must ponder what kind of dramatic changes to civilization we have actually conjured up. How will our existence be defined as we enter, what many are wanting to call, this ‘biotech century’?

A colleague of mine brought to my attention an initiative begun by a Russian entrepeneur, Dmitry Itskov. This person has assembled an array of scientists and philosophers to help him fulfill his ambition of offering immortality to people, by transferring conscience to a non-biological carrier. On the website promoting this initiative, Itskov presents this offer of immortality as the way to move humanity beyond the suffering of its flawed existence. He presents his solution to the problem of sinful man in altruistic fashion:

“A large-scale transformation of humanity, comparable to some of the major spiritual and sci-tech revolutions in history, will require a new strategy. We believe this to be necessary to overcome existing crises, which threaten our planetary habitat and the continued existence of humanity as a species. With the 2045 Initiative, we hope to realize a new strategy for humanity’s development, and in so doing, create a more productive, fulfilling, and satisfying future.” (1)

To be clear, Itskov is envisioning not just the continuation of the human species, but the actual creation of a neo-human species, one that by the 23rd century will have the capability:

– to realize expansion into outer space – humanity settling in the near and distant cosmos, unlimited freedom of movement in the Universe, liberation from the need to live in just one specific place – on planet Earth (“Earth is the cradle of mankind, but one cannot live in a cradle all one’s life”. K.E. Tsiolkovsky);

– to realize full control of reality by the power of thought and will, the possibility to self-organize, order and complicate space, and by creating complex unequal systems, to make new worlds;

– to create a personal Universe controlled by the mind for every neo-human being;

– to realize control over the course of personal history by the power of thought, going as far as to complete all historical process in a point of singularity (end of history, contraction of time). (2)

At the top of this website is posted a large “Immortality Button”, with the following instruction; “Click this button to start the development of your personalized immortal avatar”. It sounded inviting, so I did.  I was then led through a series of brochure pages highlighting the options for my custom avatar. Eventually, I was brought to a questionnaire to determine my ‘eligibility’. Unfortunately I didn’t get past the fourth question, as it asked me if I was ‘disposed of $3 million’. I guess I’m out of luck with becoming immortal – at least this way.

However, according to the ‘member-meter’ next to the registration button, apparently over 43,000 people are keen to be part of this initiative – and presumably have no issue with the personal financial cost. This of course raises the question, who are these people, and why are they willing to put up so much money for this? The fact is, this initiative is only one of a dramatic influx of ambitious projects fueled by the fascination of the potential of biotechnology. For the most part, the stated motives for these various initiatives are altruistic, even as they differ in scope of ambition. Just recently Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, announced the financing of a brand new biotech center in California called, The Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, with the mandate of “developing the means to eradicate all human diseases by 2100”.(3) Under similar calls toward human progress, since 1990 the US and other governments have uncritically financed a large portion of biotech research development.(4) At the same time, public investment has paled in comparison to the amount of money private investors have been recently putting into these initiatives.(5) Again, the ethical question is, why? Has the private sector embraced altruism? Is it now becoming the benevolent benefactor to human progress? Are we finally seeing the social benefit of economic capitalism?

Unfortunately, one would be naïve to think so, for there is little evidence in our current global capitalist system that indicates investors are motivated by anything other than profit.(6) The fact is, the potential consumer demand for biotech products is like nothing we have witnessed before. Two well noted Christian ethics professors, Glenn Stassen and David Gushee, wrote an incisive commentary on the burgeoning biotech industry in their seminal book, Kingdom Ethics. The rest of this article will closely follow their ideas.

Stassen and Gushee begin by sounding the alarm at the growing dominance of biotech products in our global market:

“The biotech industry would not be awash in investor money were there not an expected demand for its products. Clones, genetically engineered embryos and stem cells are potential products all related to fundamental aspects of human desire or human need, such as the quest for health and success, the easing of suffering, the reproduction imperative and even the desire for immortality. The biotech industry both stimulates consumer desires and responds to market demands of those who can afford to satisfy them. It is hard to bet against an industry that speaks to such primal human concerns, especially when the consuming public has been so exquisitely trained to seek happiness through the marketplace.” (7)

Immediately following their analysis of the biotech industry, Stassen and Gushee warn us of the dangerous ramifications of the marriage between capitalism and biotechnology:

“Yet where shall it end? Daniel Bell argued in the 1960s that the “cultural contradictions of capitalism” would ultimately be self-devouring, as the unleashing of a consumerism impatient with any restraints would ultimately destroy the cultural virtues needed to sustain capitalism itself. Now we have reason to wonder whether it is not just a particular society but humanity itself that will finally be devoured by the unintended consequences of laissez-faire biotechnology – the ultimate vicious cycle.” (8)

These insights are what prompts Stassen and Gushee to raise very serious ethical questions regarding biotechnology; Are there limits to the means for biotech innovation? Are the benefits restricted to the privileged few? Are decisions that could significantly alter the nature of human existence being made without the consent of all humans? An equally critical question is, how far will we change the nature of human being through biotechnology? At the same time, people have questioned what kind of a response a morality based on ancient Scripture could offer, that is so far removed from these issues. To put it simply, what could Jesus possibly have to do with biotechnology?

We will address each of these questions in order, and in doing so will hopefully answer the final question of how Jesus speaks to these issues, which appear to be defining this emerging generation.

  1. Are there limits to the means for biotech innovation?

This question relates to the moral principle of the dignity of the human person – the foundation principle of all Christian ethics. Indeed, one of the most controversial issues related to the biotech industry is the means by which genetic research is being conducted. Basically, there are three ways scientists procure the necessary stem cells to use in biotechnology: the removal of stem cells from an adult organism, the blood of the umbilical cord or placenta obtained at the time of birth, or stem cells removed from fetuses.(9) It is no secret that the most valuable genes for research are those found in the most primary embryonic cells. In order to retrieve these cells, of course, one is essentially destroying the embryo, unless they are retrieved from a fetus that has died of natural causes. The destruction of embryos for stem cell research is seen as morally problematic by scientists among both religious and secular communities, as it questions how we value the inherent dignity of every human being. The EuroStemCell organization of independent scientists and educators across Europe, funded by the European Union commission, states the issue in succinct terms:

“Embryonic stem cell research poses a moral dilemma. It forces us to choose between two moral principles:

  • The duty to prevent or alleviate suffering
  • The duty to respect the value of human life

In the case of embryonic stem cell research, it is impossible to respect both moral principles.To obtain embryonic stem cells, the early embryo has to be destroyed. This means destroying a potential human life. But embryonic stem cell research could lead to the discovery of new medical treatments that would alleviate the suffering of many people. So which moral principle should have the upper hand in this situation? The answer hinges on how we view the embryo. Does it have the status of a person?” (10)

Regarding their last question, the view of the Catholic church is fairly clear. In the words of Scott Kline, a Catholic professor of ethics, the Magesterium believes that “the human person’s dignity must be preserved from the moment of conception to natural death. It is a violation of the embryo’s dignity to destroy it, even if its destruction might eventually lead to a greater good in the future…” (11) This would, of course, include the indirect means of attaining embryos and fetuses through abortion. However, Kline also points out that the Church’s official teaching, by defining human personhood according to ‘the moment’ of conception, raises a theological question; does Scripture actually tell us when a ‘person’ begins to exist?

Christian bioethicists are camped in three different schools of thought regarding what ‘moment’ defines human personhood. One school of thought holds to the traditional idea of the Catholic church, called the genetic school, which regards the human person existing “the moment in which the embryo has a genetic composition that is different than the mother’s” (12) However, there is a second school of thought, called the development school, which argues that it is problematic to equate an embryo with a person who has a soul. They largely base their argument on the phenomenon of ‘twinning’. It isn’t until the sixteenth day of development that an embryo may divide and create identical twins. So, when does the ‘ensoulment’ of the identical twin actually occur? Consequently, this development school suggests that while embryonic life should still be respected, we need not equate that life to a human person. (13)

There is an even broader theological view, called the social constructionist school, which argues that the idea of ‘personhood’ is a theological concept rather than a biological ‘event’. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all differ in when they recognize human life as a ‘person’. As Kline explains, there are some pro-choice Christians “who base their arguments on Genesis 2:7, which states: ‘then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.'”(14) The interpretation here, of course, is that the organic physical body became a living person at the point of its first breath. However, this view is hard to reconcile with God’s pronouncement later in Scripture of His careful conception of each person even ‘before the mother’s womb’ (Jeremiah 1.6), which is related to St. Paul’s affirmation in the New Testament that human beings were created ‘before existence’ to fulfill a unique purpose in life. (Ephesians 1.4-5,11, 2.10)

So, where does this confusion over ‘personhood’ leave us? Most ethicists agree it is dangerous to ignore the essential connection a human person has to embryonic life. Regardless of how one makes the distinction between life and personhood, there is no question that the ‘magic’ moment of human personhood happens in a way that speaks to the mystery of life itself. As a result, without conclusive evidence of when and how human personhood is defined, our moral responsibility is to ensure the dignity of life in all forms.

Moreover, the issue of how genetic research is done, and whether human life is sacrificed for the greater good, is not the only moral issue facing the biotech industry. Even among those living, who truly benefits?

2. Are the benefits restricted to the privileged few? Are decisions that could significantly alter the nature of human existence being made without the consent of all humans?

Perhaps the strongest argument against the unregulated growth of the biotech industry would be based on the moral principles of solidarity and preferential option for the poor.

We must not look at biotechnology through rose-coloured glasses, ignoring the harsh reality of the socio-economic context in which it is being developed. Our world is controlled by a laissez-faire political economy that continues to permit morally dubious practices by private as well as government agents. Lobbyists of powerful biotech companies continue to push for unregulated practice of embryonic stem cell research, despite scientists, philosophers and physicians speaking against it.(15) The danger in all of this, of course, is that the same humans exploited and marginalized by our current economic system will become even more vulnerable to the exploitations of companies forging ahead into this new ‘frontier’ of economic growth.

What are ways the biotech industry is already exploiting the poor and marginalized?Already we have witnessed the terrible detriment biotechnology has had on small scale farmers around the world, due to the monopoly biotech companies have on patents of genetically modified seed. One might argue that the industry of agricultural and human bio-genetic industries are two separate issues – except for the fact that Monsanto, the largest holder of patent agricultural seeds in the world, is now controlled by Bayer, the fifth largest pharmaceutical company in the world, with annual revenue over $46 billion. (16) Needless to say, this marriage of two biogenetic giants has huge implications for the global economy as the control of genetic patents falls increasingly into the hands of a corporate monopoly. (17)

Jesus would have appreciated Aristotle’s notion of ethics as a disciplined practice toward the fulfillment of the good, as opposed to a mere set of beliefs about what is right or wrong. To that end, Jesus modeled an ethics based on the moral convictions of justice and compassionate love. With regard to genetic therapy for instance, the potential injustice of a system that permits genetic enhancements is brought to light when we see the practice through lens of the poor and marginalized.

In a book called, From Chance to Choice: Genetics and Justice, a group of bio-ethicists argue that the purchase of ‘narcissistic excellence enhancements’ should be prohibited by law. If not, we are in danger of creating a two-tier system of genetic evolution, which will irreparably separate the have’s from the have-not’s. Eventually, the practice of genetic enhancement would open the door to human cloning, which would radically alter the economy of human reproduction and natural genetic origin. The danger of such practice being controlled by people who are not accountable to any just or compassionate moral system is tremendous. Stassen and Gushee state the danger in clear terms; “Cloning turns procreation into manufacture by enabling the selection in advance of a total genetic blueprint. Things are made but people are begotten.” (18)

3. How far will we change the nature of human being through biotechnology?

This leads us to the third question Stassen and Gushee raise; do we have any idea where this is taking us? Are we in danger of losing the very essence of what it means to be human? The irony is not lost to a number of scientists and political leaders, that our efforts to create the perfect human being may send our species to the edge of extinction. Even as excitement over the potential of biotechnology mounts, there still remains a great deal of uncertainty about its future. Currently most governments are at a standstill, uncertain of how to proceed. Again, Stassen and Gushee incisively define this moment in which we stand; “[Governments] seem to be pausing for a moment at the brink, waiting to hear any reasons as to why they should not plunge unrestrainedly into the remaking of humanity.” (19)

A group of concerned scientists in London, describing themselves as “a secular, independent public interest watchdog group”, have developed a news site called the Human Genetics Alert. Amidst the moral ambiguity currently driving the industry, these scientists put forward clear ethical norms for the use of biotechnology in human genetics:

  • Genetic research should be driven by genuine need rather than commercial imperatives or social and cultural prejudices
  • Genetic technologies must be applied in away which does not exacerbate existing social inequalities, or create new ones
  • Social problems should not be subjected to “genetic fixes”
  • People must not be seen simply as determined by their genes
  • The public must be able to democratically control human genetics (20)

These norms are remarkably consistent with the principles of Jesus’ ethics. The challenge of course, is to guide the biotech industry toward a just and egalitarian outcome. In order to do so, Stassen and Gushee argue that Christians must first affirm the positive benefits of genetic research. Christians, they contend, “are called to advance transforming initiatives that go as far as possible to meet the human needs at stake”, while calling the industry to account when the dignity and integrity of our human being is compromised in any way. (21)

4. What does Jesus have anything to do with biotechnology?

In short, everything. Jesus, himself fully human, experienced every dimension of our physical existence. He experienced what it means to live through triumph and torture, friendship and betrayal, surprise and disappointment, hunger and contentment, labour and homelessness –  essentially every experience a human goes through from birth to death. Moreover, his last hours were marked by incredibly severe suffering and humiliation, the kind few human beings (thankfully) have  experienced. In light of this, Jesus’ moral authority on issues pertaining to our physical nature is just as legitimate as his teaching on spiritual reality. In fact, as will be pointed out below, Jesus did not separate the spiritual from the physical – both are an inextricable part of the human being.

With that being said, as well as everything that has been stated above, here are three ways Jesus speaks directly to the heart of the moral issues that biotechnology raises. Hopefully, by the end we will see that his moral vision for humanity remains just as relevant today, and in light of our evolution as a species, perhaps even more so.

a) Jesus taught us to have a deep reverence for our physical bodies

Jesus affirmed the human experience is at the same time both physical and spiritual. In fact, Jesus’ moral vision reflected a deep reverence for our physical bodies. We were, after all, created in the ‘image of God’ – what is referred to theologically as the imago Dei. This refers to that moment, in the very beginning, when God took earth and shaped it in the form of our human bodies, and then breathed life into our lungs. This ancient Hebrew story, of course, is shared alongside many other indigenous myths that affirm our experience that the sacred mystery of our soul is inextricably connected to our earthly being.

Indeed, for Jesus, the essence of being human is the experience of physical existence. We are not angels, we are not ethereal beings with only abstract relationship to the material world around us. We are in every way a part of creation. Indeed, from his own perspective, the apostle Paul, himself a Jewish pharisee and scholar, taught followers of Jesus in Rome to appreciate that the future of creation and humanity is bound together in one single destiny. (Romans 8.18-23)

b) Jesus taught us a way to live beyond the vicious cycles of human selfishness and greed

The themes written large through the narratives of ancient Hebrew scripture, and highlighted by Jesus’ life and teachings, without question remain relevant to our human story today. The 19th century French critic, Jean-Baptiste Karr, once remarked, ‘Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.’ Jesus looks at our world today and sees the same enduring problems humanity wrestles with in each generation. No matter the technological progress and scientific developments, and the subsequent alterations of our worldviews, they remain tragically distorted by our narcissistic tendencies and insatiable hunger for power.

With regard to the emergence of this ‘biotech century’, we can see the increasing influence of libertarian and utilitarian convictions, which push forward the values of autonomy and human progress, while at the same time diminish the responsibility we have to the minority and marginalized. Indeed, as Stassen and Gushee argue, there is a powerful collective that is pushing for ‘the largely unrestrained pursuit of biotechnology as a matter of individual and reproductive liberty’.(22) This agenda is now pushing the limits of human life itself, suggesting the time has come for humanity to strive for immortality through the means of science, achieving our inevitable evolution past homo sapiens, to what Gregg Easterbrook has termed the homo geneticus (‘the genetic man’).(23)

Remarkably, all of this hearkens us back to an equally fascinating moment in the biblical narrative, when human beings likewise were convinced they had the technology to defy the limits of their own nature and build a tower to heaven to ‘become like the gods’. This ‘tower of Babel’ remains a monument of the futility of human ambition in the face of our mortality. Today, just as he did in this time, Jesus challenges us to a transformative worldview through repentance of both reason and spirit, and to recognize that ultimately the good of all humanity is achieved by the perfection of moral thought, not the accomplishments of our inventions.

c) Jesus believed in the capacity of human reason

If the church, as the voice of Jesus in contemporary society, is to have any influence on the direction our human race moves forward into this ‘bio-ethic century’, it must appeal to the conscience of every human being. In this age of science, there is little relevance to religious authority, no moral high ground offered to the opinion of spiritual leaders. If Jesus were alive today, he would be fully fluent in the lexicon of human genetics, and be engaging every sector of society regarding this issue on its own terms.

Fortunately, Jesus leaves us an ethical language that speaks across ideological and cultural lines. He was clear and consistent in his philosophy of human existence. Jesus was quite prepared to contextualize his ideas into the vernacular of his listeners, applying metaphor and logic is it fit the moment. He was thoroughly comfortable engaging his critics through Socratic dialogue, challenging their own presuppositions without imposing his views upon them.

Conclusion

Today, as a new epoch in human history is emerging, the same must be done. More than ever, followers of Jesus must be prepared to enter the arena of public debate. We must show a genuine desire to affirm every endeavor to alleviate human suffering, and laud the ingenuity of the ones who are forging new paths to reach the goal. At the same time, we must speak with clear conviction for the need to maintain the dignity and integrity of our shared humanity. We must respond to the call to be prophets and advocates, in a way that Stassen and Gushee speak here:

“Human beings may not be manufactured, engineered, or destroyed; the vulnerable may not be experimented on or otherwise used without their consent; legitimate benefits of innovations may not be restricted to the privileged; and you may not make your decisions without the consent of the rest of humanity.”(24)

Perhaps, though, it is the words of one of the greatest technological innovators of our time that will call humanity back into the limits of our natural existence. In what turned out to be a prophetic moment, Steve Jobs addressed the graduates of Stanford University, in the midst of his battle with cancer, and spoke about the influence of death over his life. With no religious background or theistic worldview, it was human reason that brought Jobs to this profound appreciation of the human experience:

“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.”(25)

Jesus, I am sure, would agree.

(1) http://2045.com/articles/30869.html

(2) http://2045.com/articles/30869.html

(3) http://www.latinoshealth.com/articles/25350/20170211/facebook-s-mark-zuckerberg-priscilla-chan-hires-scientists-to-cure-all-diseases-microsoft-s-bill-gates-and-other-billionaires-aims-as-well.htm

(4) https://books.google.ca/books?id=r_BeBwAAQBAJ&pg=PA368&lpg=PA368&dq=bill+clinton+funded+biotech&source=bl&ots=pVsVQ2o8H_&sig=soGvAhoxUFnqPn_HLcMevAoPHhs&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiFy4Gkp5bSAhVC9WMKHQMSAlQQ6AEIUzAJ#v=onepage&q=bill%20clinton%20funded%20biotech&f=true

(5) http://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/biotechnology-market

(6) http://www.forbes.com/sites/corinnejurney/2016/05/27/2016-global-2000-the-worlds-largest-drug-and-biotech-companies/#286efd831d50

(7) Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, p.258

(8) Ibid..

(9) Kline, The Ethical Being, p.148

(10) http://www.eurostemcell.org/embryonic-stem-cell-research-ethical-dilemma

(11) Kline, p.148

(12) Ibid, p.149

(13) Ibid..

(14) Ibid, p.150

(15) http://www.gmwatch.org/, http://www.hgalert.org/

(16) https://www.tharawat-magazine.com/facts/10-largest-pharmaceutical-drug-companies-world/#gs.bpP9Fcw

(17) http://www.vox.com/2016/9/20/12988616/bayer-monsanto-dupont-dow-agriculture-mergers-innovation

(18) Stassen and Gushee, p.263

(19) Ibid., p.260

(20) http://www.hgalert.org/

(21) Stassen and Gushee, p.262

(22) Ibid., p.259

(23) Ibid., p.260

(24) Ibid., p.267

(25) http://news.stanford.edu/2005/06/14/jobs-061505/

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