Omaha, Nebraska
Spring 2000
Volume 11, Number 2

Kevin T. FitzGerald Gives Lecture on Genetic Manipulation

Eugene E. Selk
Associate Professor of Philosophy

On December 7, 1999, Rev. Kevin FitzGerald, S.J., spoke on "Will Genetic Manipulation be Good for You?" at Creighton University. FitzGerald broke down his topic into three questions: What is genetic manipulation? What is its end? And for whom is it good?

Genetic manipulation

FitzGerald focused on one type of potential genetic manipulation - the possibility of manipulating the mis-match repair system which is part of the DNA replication process. In the process of DNA replication, a special system checks the new strand of DNA to see if it is correct. This might be viewed as a kind of spell-check. But there are limits to this checking. The checking system will see the copy of an inherited deleterious gene (e.g. for cystic fibrosis or sickle cell anemia) as correct since it matches up with the original.

Techniques have now been discovered which can fool this checking system and find the deleterious gene. An RNA-DNA "chimeric" molecule has been invented which can fool the spell-check and potentially correct such deleterious mutations. The therapeutic possibilities of using this RNA-DNA chimera are now being tested on Amish children in Pennsylvania. The Amish have a high incidence of Crigler-Najjar Syndrome. It is ironic that the Amish, who have eschewed technology in order to protect their religious practices and community values, have, by community choice, volunteered to be subjects for this experiment in gene manipulation. They have done so because they believe that this therapy does not in any way threaten their religious and social values. Indeed, they believe that it will enhance them.

A completely different kind of genetic manipulation is being pursued commercially by the company Chromos. Its goal is to produce artificial chromosomes. If they function properly, these artificial chromosomes might be used in medicine to displace or compensate for deleterious genes.

To what end?

If we ask what is this all for, the most obvious answer is to cure disease. But this raises a number of thorny questions. What if one is a carrier but does not have the full-blown disease (e.g. cystic fibrosis is an autosomal recessive and accordingly the carrier does not develop the disease unless both parents have the recessive). Being a carrier of some autosomal recessive genes has advantages. Carriers of cystic fibrosis have greater resistance to typhoid fever, and carriers of sickle cell anemia have greater resistance to malaria. Hence, in certain areas of the world, eliminating these genes could result in an increase in the incidence of these diseases.

Recent medical evidence indicates that some people are actually resistant to HIV. We all have different resistances to different diseases, and this has survival value for the species over the long run. A gene pool which is highly homogenous is more vulnerable to extinction by a catastrophic disease or an assault from the environment.

In a normal population, approximately one in fifty people have perfect pitch. If almost everyone had perfect pitch would we regard the few who do not have it as deprived or even diseased?

Some respond to these kinds of questions by claiming that our concept of health should be based strictly on good science. But what is good science here? Does it mean taking two standard deviations from the norm in each direction and treating this group as healthy and everyone outside of these deviations as unhealthy? This would mean that very intelligent persons are unhealthy.

Another approach, the one which Fr. FitzGerald favors, is to adopt a broad and dynamic view of human nature. This, of course, is not easy. Fr. FitzGerald suggested four different ways people think about human nature.

  1. Static - adopt a view of the way we think humans have always been. This is problematic in view of evolution. Plato’s view of human nature may have been based in part on the biology of his time.

  2. Scientistic - appeal to scientific data for one’s view of human nature. But to take this approach alone is also filled with difficulties. Science offers many different views of human nature. Sociobiology views all human actions as driven by survival and the perpetuation of genes. A physiologist may view humans as complex physico-chemical processes and nothing more. Science can tell us much about humans but it cannot justify a particular view of human nature.

  3. Dualistic approaches - science tells us about the body; philosophy and religion tells us about the soul. But then why limit soul to humans? Some defenders of animal rights wish to extend rights to non-human animals, and researchers in artificial intelligence might argue for computer rights.

  4. Libertarian-marketplace-autonomous approach - autonomy is what is most distinctively human. We are "choice-making machines." Individual choice is an expression of human personhood. The weakness of this approach is that it neglects communitarian values.

Fr. FitzGerald favors a fifth alternative to these views of human nature which he calls a "dynamic" approach. To tell us what is human, we need to create a dialogue between equal partners - between science, philosophy, theology, and literature. This approach is difficult to formulate and to apply, but it is the only one which completely reflects the complexity of human persons.

Whom will genetic manipulation be for?

In the Special Olympics held in Chicago a few years ago, one of the runners fell. The other competitors in the race stopped, picked up the fallen runner, and they all finished the race together. What kind of a race against disease do we wish to run? Do we want a few or many winners? In short, whom will genetic manipulation be good for? The Christian answer is: those in need.

Fr. FitzGerald’s goal in this talk seems to have been to show the complexity of questions about genetic manipulation. These questions involve issues of moral good and human nature. Although he did not claim to have many answers, he did observe that at least the Catholic health care and medical research communities are asking the questions, and this is more than can be said about some other communities in the health care and research arena.

Fr. Kevin T. FitzGerald holds a doctorate from Georgetown University in molecular genetics and is finishing another doctorate from Georgetown in medical ethics. He is presently an assistant professor in molecular genetics and medical ethics at the Loyola University Cardinal Bernadin Cancer Center. The talk was sponsored by the Science and Religion Dialogue Project, the Center for the Study of Religion and Society, and the John Templeton Foundation.