Edmund D Pellegrino. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The Immortality Pill: a Disastrous Illusion

What is happening in the world of medical inquiry? A discussion with the Chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics Edmund Pellegrino, who warns that science’s indiscriminate use of biotechnology will inevitably lead to eugenics.
Marco Bardazzi

The scenario he drew for the jam-packed auditorium at the Meeting was one that certainly does not leave viewers indifferent. “In the scientific world, there are those who are working toward a new creation of life, those who are studying ways to change our species, utilizing technology to ‘improve’ man, in the belief that God didn’t do a good enough job.” Edmund Pellegrino has dedicated his life first to medicine and then to the ethical interrogatives raised by medical research. His warnings have the authoritativeness that derives from being the Chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics. Even though in Rimini he was speaking in a personal capacity as a scholar, it has a certain effect to hear a description of what’s going on in the world of research from the man who is one of the main advisors of President Bush on bioethics. Pellegrino shared ideas with Giorgio Israel (La Sapienza University, Rome) on the topic of “Bioethics and the Search for Happiness” in a meeting moderated by Giancarlo Cesana. Traces asked him to speak further about the issues he dealt with in the auditorium.

We’ve begun using procedures such as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, which serves to create embryos in the laboratory and implant in the mother’s uterus only those that meet certain requisites. Are we heading toward eugenics?
Surely. We are already on that road. When we think of practices such as the one you cited, what else are they? We want perfect babies, with no defects, so we won’t have any problem raising them. You make a selection, and then if you don’t get what you expected, you can always abort. It is a very dangerous reality. Genetic type interventions have positive and negative aspects but, in any case, if we use our knowledge to harm the fetus, with abortion or other means, we are taking action that on the ethical level is wrong.

At the Meeting you spoke of “the search for happiness.” But do we have the right to pursue for ourselves, through research, virtual immortality?
Using the term “right,” we enter into legal territory, and there is no legal right to immortality, nor is it thinkable that any government should establish it. The use of techniques that lead toward the search for immortality has more to do with ethics than with law. If you pursue your immortality and each person aspires to his or her own, the impact on society will be disastrous, because the type of technology we’ll end up using is extremely dangerous. The hope for immortality is the greatest illusion of the human race. There are those who see in biotechnology a way to attain happiness, perhaps at the cost of destroying embryos for the research. Technology opens a great many doors that should never be opened and that, once opened, should be shut immediately.

There is an increasingly widespread tendency to define the scientific method as capable of explaining everything…
There is a very strong tendency, which, for that matter, is nothing new, to think that the human being can be understood only in terms of chemistry and physics. Watson and Crick [the British scientists who discovered the structure of DNA] held that this is everything we need in order to comprehend man; we don’t need God. For those who look at humanity from another perspective, however, this method is totally inadequate. But the scientific world is ever more divided between those who claim an anthropology that sees us as mere matter (so that man is simply a higher organization of matter) and those who assert that there is more to take into consideration. This division is sharpening, and forms the basis for all the current discussions on bioethics. My position is that reasoning just in terms of chemistry and physics is an entirely inadequate method—there are so many aspects of human life that are not measurable with a scientific approach of this kind, that it can’t be the only way of knowing reality.

You asserted that in the physician-patient relationship, you cannot deal with ethical questions without taking into consideration the “final questions,” and that physicians today are pressured into making decisions when these questions have yet to be answered. Could you expand on this reflection?
What does it mean to be human? What is the dignity of the human being? What is the purpose of human life, and what is its destiny? There are those who deny that there’s anything special in being human. But you can’t use technology wisely if you don’t first understand the purpose. We are profoundly divided in our judgment on man, but many in the world of bioethics acknowledge now that we can’t take another step until we first answer these questions.

There has been a lot of discussion about topics such as embryonic stem cell research, abortion, euthanasia, and regenerative medicine. What is the quality of this debate?
Many bioethics experts are becoming politicized, in the deleterious sense of the term. They claim to decide what is right or wrong and to translate this decision into immediate action, making it law. This holds for both conservatives and liberals. We are passing from dialectics, which is an intelligent examination of a problem, to polemics. There’s wrangling and name calling, and because of this we’re losing our ability to carry on a coherent discourse.

There was quite a stir about President Bush’s choice to use his veto power for the first time since he’s been in the White House, specifically on an issue of bioethics, blocking the law passed by Congress to extend federal funding to embryonic stem cell research. It’s a topic particularly close to the President’s heart…
It is very important that the President take a question of this kind so seriously. He did absolutely the right thing in using his veto power, because, as we know, that kind of research presupposes the destruction of the human being in the very earliest stages of its development. President Bush acted wisely, ethically, and with humanity.