The Personal Side of Biotechnology

I have just watched two television documentaries that touch on geneology, medical history in families, the role of genetics in the quality of life, and the idea of family in an increasingly biotechnologically-designed world. Yeah. Quite a mouthful.

The first is an upcoming CBC Doc Zone that I am currently producing a trailer for entitled “Biodad” as told by filmmaker Barry Stevens about his experience as one of the world’s first babies born thanks to reproductive technology.

The second is a PBS Frontline that aired earlier this week entitled “My Father, My Brother and Me” about Parkinson’s disease as told by journalist and Parkinson’s sufferer, Dave Iverson.

Both documentaries contain an autobiographical element where each man considers his father: Iverson watched his father suffer from the same degenerative disease he now struggles with; Stevens considers both his social father, the man who raised him, and the mysterious anonymous scientist who provided half of his genes.

Both men ponder the idea of family and genetics and their meanings. Iverson’s brother also suffers from Parkinson’s disease and the two of them discuss how their father deteriorated and ways in which they can currently improve their situation. Stevens begins his journey to find his biological father with his full-blood sister, only to discover along the way that they are only half-blood siblings.

They are documentaries of a candid sort, personal journeys that touch on issues that are usually covered in a purely factual manner are here explored through direct experience. Though the stories interweave the impact of genetics and physical failure, thier distinct focus becomes the questions that are raised by modern scientific research and technological capabilities that are on the cusp of not only repairing physical failures, but possibly altering the human body forever.

And through that idea of miraculous repair – that women and men can overcome all forms of infertility – that we may eradicate degenerative disease through the use of stem cells -brings into question certain ethical concerns.

Should sperm and egg doners be allowed anonymity? Are stem cells human life and is it sacred life? Looking at the very first stage of human life, the embryo, should scientists be allowed to use that organic life matter to develop the means to cure disease? Should women be allowed to sell their eggs for profit and should fertility labs be able to profit?

So, the real overlap in these two personal stories, lies in the debate over embryonic stem cell research and reproductive technology. I am not a religious person; however I cannot deny that there is a slippery slope to cloning, eugenics and the overall devaluation of human life.

The idea of selling my eggs, or having my partner fertilize another woman’s egg makes me queasy. The idea of adopting better suits my personal life philosophy should I chose to mother and should I not be capable of conceiving naturally. But can I condemn the lengths that people will go to in order to parent? I think of relatives of mine who are suffering from genetic and degenerative ailments and I am anticipatory for the results of stem cell technology – I would be thrilled to hear that Parkinson’s was cured. But do we consider the ramifications of altering the human body to such an extent? Not only should physiological issues be considred, but the larger social implications of an unnaturally extended life, or a child who is born from a 60-year old mother into a life with hundreds of siblings.

At every frontier, there is a choice to step across a boundary into new territory, but once that choice is made, there is no turning back.

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2 responses to “The Personal Side of Biotechnology

  1. An update on Canadian law regarding assisted human reproduction and stem cell research:
    http://www.cbc.ca/health/story/2009/02/05/f-reprotech.html

  2. I think you are touching on a lot of very interesting issues, most of them are ethical in nature. The topics of stem cell, reproductive technologies and ethics make me think of other current events, such as two recent high-profile births:
    the octouplet (?) birth to a single woman who already has 6 kids – was it ethical for the doctor to even implant her with any eggs (let alone that many) when she already has so many kids? I don’t care that she’s single if she has the social support she and her kids will need. But can she afford the kids? Why wasn’t she satisfied with 6? I can see people who are against contraception having 12 kids, but this is almost cruel for her and her kids.

    The second high-profile birth is that of twins to a 60 year old. I’m sorry, but I think that is also a selfish act on the part of the mother. And ethically is it right to allow kids to be born to parents who may be in a nursing home before they are out of elementary school. If you want to be a mother that badly, get over the fact that you won’t be pregnant – pregnancy does not make you a mother – it is the emotional and psychological self that makes you a mother. Many people are mothers and have never been pregnant, and there are many people who have been pregnant and could never be mothers. There are certainly enough children of those types of situations who could use a mother. So to me there are many ethical issues related with reproductive technology, the least of which are the two examples above. With genetics we could also talk about genetic selection and genetic screening of embryos – not simply for sex selection, but also to see if they are disease free or a donor match for a sibling. All sticky issues.

    As for stem cells, I think if they can be produced in a lab with donor material, who cares. It’s not like they were produced out of an act of love. Regulations and discussions like this about the ethical issues can prevent sliperry slope scenarios of human cloning (clone armies, etc.) from becoming a reality. Everyday we use our moral judgement and the guidance of others (policy, guidelines, regulations, etc.) to keep us doing the least harm while trying to do the most good.

    S

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