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The Headless Frog

The Headless Frog
Michael A. Gillette, Ph.D.

This document and the ideas presented herein are the intellectual property of Bioethical Services of Virginia, Inc. and may be used and reproduced only with proper citation.

At the risk of spending one month too many on the same topic, I can't help but comment one more time on the issue of genetic engineering and cloning.

The reason that I cannot resist this topic is that since I last discussed the issue, a new and alarmingly interesting development has taken place. According to an AP news story that I read on October 20, 1997, British scientists have been successful in creating a frog embryo without a head. This headless frog is important because it was created by determining exactly which genetic code produces the instructions to cause the head of the animal to be created, and that genetic code was shut off.

An embryologist at Bath University in England was quoted in the article as saying that <Instead of growing an intact embryo, you could genetically reprogram the embryo to suppress growth in all the parts of the body except the bits you want...>

From an ethical point of view this development in genetic technology is significant. Although we are still quite some time away from genetically engineering spare body parts, the likelihood that such techniques will be developed seems high. We must, now, prepare ourselves for the ethical issues that will emerge as this technology is improved.

In the most recent three Practical Ethics, we discussed a set of ethical arguments that can be made regarding the generation whole people by artificial means. The experience with the headless frog creates a new possibility -- that of creating only partial persons, or specific organs. This creates a stronger basis for the arguments that I discussed last month, which I called the argument from commodification and the argument from direct harm.

According to those arguments, one moral problem with cloning and genetic engineering is that it creates an attitude in our minds regarding clones that they are commodities to be bought and sold. This changes the way that we look at our children, and introduces a dangerous attitude concerning our offspring. These arguments also maintain that we will directly harm the clones by creating them. The weakness in these arguments is that they assume that we will regard things that are not commodities as if they were, and there is little evidence to prove that assumption.

If, however, we change the objects that we create by genetic engineering so that they really are commodities and not persons, then the argument becomes somewhat stronger. What attitude should we take toward a human body that is intentionally created without a head, and therefore without a brain?

One could argue, for instance, that creating a human body without a head is not a moral problem because a person's personhood (the characteristics that make a person morally valuable) is a function of brain activity. If you create a person who does not have a brain, you aren't really creating a person at all. You may be creating a partial human body, but that kind of person is just like a brain dead human and has no moral standing. Since dead people cannot have rights, and this creation is brain dead, it cannot have rights either.

While this line of reasoning seems sensible on one level, it begins to beg a series of questions of specific interest in the fields of mental health and mental retardation. Most of us would not find it immoral to culture skin cells in order to treat burn victims (we do this already). It is a small step from growing skin in the lab for grafting to growing a kidney in the lab for transplant. Supposing that such technology may someday be available, why not grow organs in large numbers and solve the transplant shortage problem completely?

If it isn't wrong to grow organs in the lab, how could it be wrong to grow a cluster of organs in the lab? Perhaps it would be economical to grow kidneys hearts and livers all at once. If that works out well, it might be even easier to grow the pancreas, skin, and corneas at the same time. Before we know it, it will make sense to create entire bodies for donation, except for the brain. We would be careful to stop the brain from growing since that is where we get consciousness, personality, and rights. No brain, no consciousness, no personality, no rights.

This is where the moral problem begins. If a person can be thought of as having no rights if he has no brain, does it follow that people with less brain function or altered brain function are no longer the same people, and perhaps not people at all? Should we believe that they no longer have rights or that their rights are less forceful? How will we draw the line between people who have rights and those who do not? Will the practice of producing spare parts in bodies without intellectual functioning cause us to begin to view people who already exist but who have limited intellectual ability as another good source of spare parts? This is precisely the slippery slope that would impact most, the people in society who are least capable of making an intellectual argument on their own behalf. It is precisely the sort of slope that threatens the clients who rely on us for many of their basic needs.

I am not suggesting in this article that our clients are less than fully human, or that there is no way to differentiate between the moral status of an organ growing in a fish tank and a person with mental retardation. I believe that significant differences do exist that make clear the moral differentiation. What I do wish to point out, however, is that continued development of cloning and genetic engineering technology forces us to examine what we consider a person to be, and how we understand the basis of their moral value. We must define, carefully and as a society, just who among us has rights and why. And when we determine which types of science will be allowed and which will not, we must do so in a way that clearly protects those who have moral standing..


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