Human Life is Sacred
Not the Gratification of Someone's Desire
by Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks
We have had enormous debate recently on genetically modified food. I want to talk about something else, namely the prospect, which will be very real in future decades, of genetcially modified human beings.
There is no doubt that the discovery of DNA and the decoding of the human genome are among the most exciting advances ever made in human knowledge. Their potential benefits are vast.
There is the prospect that, through genetic screening and gene splicing, we may be able to cure genetic conditions such as Huntington's chorea, Tay-Sachs disease, cystic fibrosis, maybe even Down's syndrome. But the question is, will we know where to stop, will we be able to draw the essential line between the therapeutic and eugenic gene surgery?
Let me give two examples. There is a famous Jewish teaching which makes its appearance at the end of Steven Spielberg's film Schindler's List and it says: Whoever saves a single human life is as if he had saved an entrie universe.
That same passage from rabbinic teaching tells us why. It says: If a human makes many coins in one mint they all come out the same, but God makes many people all people in one image, in His image, and yet they all come out different. In other words, the sanctity of life is rooted in the uniqueness of the human person.
Imagine in 50 years, a couple whose child, God forbid, dies young. Could any of us blame them for asking a doctor to create a clone of their lost child? I couldn't blame such a person, and yet what would happen in a culture where such things become possible?
What becomes of our concepts of love and loss, of the sanctity of human life? If persons are no longer individuals but genetic types that can be replicated at will, what then become of our central ethical values?
That is a hypothetical example, but here is something that happened quiet recently.
An Italian businessman and his Portuguese wife already had two children, both through surrogacy. They decided they wanted a third and that they wanted it to be male, tall, athletic and blond.
They went to an agency in Denmark who found them a sperm donor in the United States and an egg donor and a surrogate mother in Britain. The surrogacy was performed in a surgery in Athens and after 21 weeks the dreadful thing happened, they discovered that instead of a boy which the parents had commissioned - had ordered - the surrogate mother was carrying twin girls.
The couple demanded that the surrogate mother have an abortion. She refused. Instead she waited until the twins were born and looked for a couple to adopt them. She eventually found a lesbian couple living in Holywood, where the babies are now raised by a nanny from Puerto Rico.
Now what ae those children if not commodities who have been produced to order, even to design specification, and then traded across the world? is that what human life will come to? Who are the parents of those children?
What story will those children tell themselves to explain how they came to be in the world? Does this not threaten our most fundamental moral axiom of all - that persons are ends in themselves and not means, that they are sacred and not gratifications of someone's desire?
If the concept of the sanctity of life is simply a tribal relic of our civilisation, it is some kind of advance to see humanity as simply electro-chemical brain processes.
So if I see a certain dehumanising of the economy, see a certain dehumanising in the medical or in the genetic engineering processes as well. I see ourselves deconstructing the bases on which happiness rests, which include, number one, an environment where I am valued for the way I am, not for the way I vote, nor for what I wear, and not for what I spend. Where - number two - my life is sacred. It is not there as a means to someone else's end and it is not terminable because of shortage of medical resources.
The third base is the story that tells me the history of my society, a part of whose continuing narrative tells me who I am and what I am called on to do.
Those things were once embedded in our culture but have become less accessible today.
This page was created on 24 January 2001
Last updated on 24 January 2001
Reproduced with Thanks