Expanded Reason Congress – Round Table: “Biology and biotechnology at the service of the human question”.

Maureen Condic. Assistant Professor of Neurobiology at the University of Utah School of Medicine, with an adjunct appointment in the Department of Pediatrics and winner of the 4th Annual Expanded Reason Awards with Human Embryos. Human Beings. A Scientific and Philosophical Approach.

Carter Snead. Professor of Law and Director of the Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame and winner of the 5th edition of the Expanded Reason Awards with What it means to be human: the case for the body in public bioethics.

The fourth round table of the Congress focused on biology and biotechnology at the service of the human being. The moderator of the round table, Javier Galán, professor at the UFV and assistant director of the Degree in Biomedicine, stated that technological advances are an opportunity to improve human life by curing diseases, but they also open controversy about their nature and the transgenerational impact of these technologies.

Carter Snead pointed out by videoconference that the human being permeates all areas of knowledge and that, therefore, they all have to ask themselves the anthropological question. In his opinion, the law should aim at human flourishing, even more so in the area of bioethics. In particularly controversial issues, such as abortion or euthanasia, the treatment of public bioethics must be at the height of these vital conflicts, respecting what the person is. His experience at the UN has led him to stress that it is not possible to defend an individualism that does not question itself about an original truth and does not adopt a complete vision of the person, so it is necessary to protect society from the risks it faces: “We are incarnated, we are fragile bodies and sociopolitical individualism loses the sense of this vulnerability”.

One of the first topics discussed at the round table was the application of a new genetic engineering tool (CRISPR) that makes it possible to modify the genome to correct genetic alterations responsible for serious diseases. Applied to the field of biomedicine, Maureen Condic pointed out that the novelty lies in its gene-altering mechanism with little work and greater precision, since it takes weeks to do what used to take years. Alarm bells are ringing over the use of human embryos, as these are destroyed and a person’s makeup is changed.

In November 2018, news broke of a genetic modification experiment on two babies to make them immune to the HIV virus. Luis Miguel Pastor, professor of cell biology at the University of Murcia and president of the Spanish Association of Bioethics and Medical Ethics (AEBI), has considered that this experimental decision did not have a discernment about the common good: “The instrumental reason must be conjugated with others and identity is a limit, you cannot modify what defines the human being”. The professor regretted that medicine does not respect the dignity of persons on these occasions.

Condic attributed this to the fact that there is no decisive information on the influence this tool has on people. After the intervention with these babies, a study was published that revealed a 21% increase in mortality. “We don’t know what we are doing, there are many types of mutations and the negative effects cannot be anticipated,” he remarked. In 2020, it was published in the journal Nature that widespread changes introduced in the genome of animals are not what was intended in almost half of the cases: “It was immoral to apply this technique in humans.” For L.M. Pastor this affects the therapeutic principle because it generates greater harm: “There is a methodology and ethics that must be respected, sometimes you want to be the first and you have to get used to taking steps when there is evidence such that you can act with reliable data”.

On the other hand, M. Condic has addressed the cases of cytoplasmic sperm injection in which it has been observed that they have many health problems in adulthood. “It was done for money and sympathy for couples who desperately wanted children,” he lamented, “society did not want to say no to those who wanted a child and now there are hundreds of thousands of people with a procedure that has impacted their health.” L.M. Pastor insisted that doing studies a posteriori goes against good professional practice.

There are those who support experimentation with embryos to refine the technique, but M. Condic has objected that the research enterprise cannot only rely on what has been learned with animals to apply it to humans. And Prof. Pastor warned of the objectification involved in generating a human being in an environment alien to his or her dignity.

On the other hand, on interspecies chimeras, known as hybrids between animal and human, especially with pigs and macaques, which consist of taking an animal embryo and proceeding to inject human cells for its development, M. Condic has explained the challenges involved: cells from two animal species have been a useful and ancient technique for the purpose of testing in a healthy animal and knowing what genes do in a complicated environment, but if human cells are introduced for the study of diseases an entity without a clear ontological status is created, reason enough to say not to do it. Also, for an animal to contain human eggs and sperm is a problem, since there would be a human embryo inside a mouse. And, on the other hand, animals that have a contribution of human cells in the nervous system have brains that grow larger and will dominate the animal system by being more intelligent, altering its behavior. In short, chimeras, in his opinion, are a useful technique, but the nature of the entity is unknown and the fact of incorporating cells, both in reproduction and in the brain, raises serious ethical and philosophical problems. J.M. Pastor pointed out that one would not know when one has a different whole by changing the parts, and the procurement of organs for transplants is still an imprudence. For M. Condic this is outside the field of experimental philosophy because it is impossible to know where the animal begins to stop being human or the other way around.

On the subject of abortion, Carter Snead has spoken remotely about his contribution to the trial that is reviewing its legalization and that changed the law in the USA. In his opinion, it does not come from the constitutional text and everything is reduced to the future threat referred to by a woman who gets a law to repel the intruder, but they are not two strangers fighting and violence against each other cannot be authorized, since protection involves providing care during life, as well as creating networks and communities of support. M. Condic has given some keys to establish a sincere debate on the human embryo: there is a differentiating element which is freedom and the embryo is a scientifically proven human being, a thesis that he defends in his book.

Regarding a possible legislative change, L.M. Pastor stressed the importance of removing the debate from a religious plane: “It is not that science allows us to conclude, but it provides the necessary condition to apply the ethical argument of not killing the innocent, whether it is more than 8 weeks old or less, it is an illicit and deplorable action because it is violent”. In his opinion, decriminalization has led to the generalized impression that a right is being established, when it should be limited to health issues, and furthermore, clandestinity can lead to the death of many women.

Carter Snead has also recognized the difficulty of working in an interdisciplinary way, but has presented it as the only way to offer a complete vision and increase the understanding of an open reason. M. Condic validated the need to listen, not from the expert’s point of view, but from the humility required by mutual respect. She is convinced that in the COVID context it was recommended to follow science for questions of all kinds because it gave useful tools for combat, but its power cannot prevail, but rather a cross communication that anticipates advances before a virus emerges, otherwise the price of suffering will be terrible and there will be an unfounded bowing to this science. J. M. Pastor also called for knowledge of the limits of each plane of reality, since there are decisions that are political or ethical and science can only go so far: “There can be no confusion in wanting to base on science that which is not in its scope, scientific evidence is necessary, but not sufficient”. In this sense, he warned against a scientism that wants to be scientific but cannot say anything or does not believe anything that science does not say: “Science gives a lot of data that philosophers can integrate with tradition and thought”.

In the questions time, the complexity of gene therapy and its variables or collateral effects came up. M. Condic considered that popular culture has spread in movies beings with transhuman identity with a romantic idea that lacks understanding of evolution, however, it is the scientists closest to evolution who have raised the alarm. J. M. Pastor focused on the capacity of the postmodern human being to transform the world and go deeper into nature, in order to be precisely what man is in fullness, since the consequences of transhumanism are key at the ethical level.

The last question focused on the reduction of the human being to genes, although M. Condic ruled out that this is something common in the scientific community, since they are only one part due to their different effects and it is not possible to believe that a situation can be improved by changing only one part. Understanding health in terms of genes, as J. M. Pastor concluded, cannot be shared and it is necessary to understand that the genome is only one part of the unity of the organism.

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