Postmodern Antihumanism and Genetic Technology
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Postmodern Antihumanism and Genetic Technology
Postmodern antihumanism and the contemporary genetics industry are two powerful currents that form a potentially menacing rip tide against which proponents of human dignity must struggle. We consider key forces directing genetic research and the genetics industry, and how postmodern anthropological assumptions increasingly encroach on bioethics and biopolicy.
Scientists are for the most part extremely antagonistic to postmodernism because of its assault against reason and the postmodernists accusations that science is a tool of Western cultural imperialism.[endnote 9] However, naturalistic materialism, the dominant view among secular scientists, shares in postmodernisms antihumanism, creating a dangerous consensus among intellectuals today. Consider the remarks of Robert Haynes, president of the 16th International Congress of Genetics,
For three thousand years at least, a majority of people have considered that human beings were special, were magic. Its the Judeo-Christian view of man. What the ability to manipulate genes should indicate to people is the very deep extent to which we are biological machines. The traditional view is built on the foundation that life is sacred. . . .Well, not anymore. Its no longer possible to live by the idea that there is something special, unique, even sacred about living organisms.[endnote 10]
Whether biological machines or cultural constructs, naturalism and postmodernism strip humanity of all intrinsic value and leave postmodern culture with no meaningful frame of reference to address the pressing bioethical issues of our day.
One assumption driving the frenzy to map the human gnome is that all human behavior is of genetic origin. Things that in previous times were attributed to environment or moral choice are now being attributed to genetics. High profile scientists exploiting front page journalism have claimed to have discovered the genetic basis for a host of controversial behaviors and characteristics, including alcoholism, homosexuality, promiscuity, IQ and violence. Serious scientific doubt about these claims are commonly given little attention, leaving the public with the impression that science is on the verge of solving some of societys greatest problems.
Aside from these more explosive social issues, there are areas of research and technology where individuals may feel a more personal stake. This is where postmodern constructivism is particularly dangerous. For example, as genetic screening becomes more of an option for potential parents, we can expect to see further erosions in the value of human personhood. Dr. Harvy Lodish of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts states,
By using techniques involving in vitro fertilization, it is already possible to remove one cell from the developing embryo and characterize any desired region of DNA. Genetic screening of embryos, before implantation, may soon become routine.[endnote 11]
Beyond “reproductive consumerism,” economic and social pressure may well turn the possibility of genetic screening into a social obligation. After all, some will be prepared to argue, “if we can prevent another alcoholic from wasting valuable economic resources, it seems that we ought to”. Or, some may say, “who wants the trauma of raising a homosexual child if it could be avoided?”
Important market forces are also at work in the genetics research industry. Billions of dollars can be gained through the commercial marketing of genetic material. And scientists have been quick to seize the opportunities. Since 1971, corporations have put on a no holds barred legal battle to patent human life. In that year, General Electric researcher Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty sought a patent for a microbe synthesized in the lab for the purpose of cleaning large oil spills. After nearly a decade of legal bantering, the United States Supreme Court sided with, Chakrabarty. Life forms could be considered “human inventions,” thus patentable by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO). This case began a slippery slope toward the inevitable patenting of human life.
In 1987, the PTO widened patent rights to include all life-forms on earth, including animals.[endnote 12] Human beings were exempt from the ruling, citing the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution prohibiting slavery. However, the ruling had significant shortcomings. Kimbrell notes, “. . .under the PTOs 1987 ruling, embryos and fetuses, human life-forms not presently covered under Thirteenth Amendment protection, are patentable, as are genetically engineered human tissues, cells, and genes.”[endnote 13] Corporate America won the right to own, use and sell all multicellular creatures, including human.[endnote 14] While a storm of pro-life protest resulted in the withdrawal of NIH requests for public funding for the use of human embryos in genetic research, it is still legal. Human life has now become a commercial commodity as billions of dollars enter into the global genetics market. The PTO is now flooded with applications for patents on hundreds of human genes and gene lines. Kimbrell warns, “[a]s patenting continues, the legal distinctions between life and machine, between life and commodity, will begin to vanish.”[endnote 15]
Human genetic engineering has been suggested for all kinds of medical and social applications. But as practical demand for human tissue increases, the value of human personhood in a postmodern culture experiences a corresponding decrease. As of 1990, there were over three hundred law suits against doctors by parents or children claiming a new species of injustice with strange constructivist language: “wrongful life” and “wrongful birth.”[endnote 16] Translated, these euphemisms mean that life is not protected by an unalienable right, but by arbitrary decisions based upon socially acceptable characteristics. Along these lines, noted ethicist H. Tristram Engelhardt uses the expression, “injury of continued existence,”[endnote 17] a disturbingly similar notion to the Nazi concept of “life unworthy of life.” In todays world of genetic mapping and gene therapy, we hear terms such as the “commodification of life,” and “the human body shop industry.”[endnote 18]
We are witnessing the depersonalization of human bioscience language:
As body parts and [genetic] materials are sold and patented, manipulated and engineered, we also are seeing an unprecedented change in many of our most basic social and legal definitions. Traditional understandings of