Play asks the ethical questions that need to be asked

By  Moira McQueen, Catholic Register Special
  • January 29, 2007
Theatre review: Chimera

Chimera is an engaging play about a topic which is rarely dealt with in theatre. For that reason alone it is well worth seeing, but it is also well acted and well staged, thought provoking and topical.

chimeraWritten by former MP Wendy Lill, Chimera serves as a timely reminder of how our laws really are shaped and passed. It also reminds us we had better be involved in that shaping if we want to uphold certain values. It takes a specific sort of awareness to be active in the debate on biotechnology and ethics, and we have no reason to believe that our politicians are best left alone to get on with it.

The play is called Chimera because it involves the question of whether or not we should create beings composed of a mixture of cells from two different species. The story begins with a justice minister who has to approve new regulations concerning experimentation on human subjects. In this context the question of chimeras arises.

An Opposition MP questions her about experiments he has learned are being done on primates using human embryonic stem cells. His concern is the sanctity of life and the use of human embryos for stem cell research. He is trying to draw the minister's attention to the fact experimentation which combines the DNA of humans and animals together is not allowed in Canada. More importantly, acceptance of this practice raises questions with serious implications for humanity.

The Opposition MP is presented as a rather dowdy, older figure, representing a small constituency with little influence. He constantly sends out press releases about his ethical concerns, but even the smallest of small town papers do not share his sense of urgency. The audience wonders, do the editors even realize what is involved in these issues?

The justice minister is young, attractive and clearly ambitious. It soon becomes clear she pays more attention to her departmental briefings (which amount to PR hype: "Remember — smile!") than to the details of proposed legislation. She stumbles in the House trying to reply to questions about the dangers in mixing species and admits she does not have a clear understanding of the implications of the bill. She asks for a review, and a senior scientist is called in to help explain the issues.

The same scientist has already appeared, acknowledging to a reporter that she has been injecting human embryonic stem cells into the brains of primates — ostensibly to find a cure for autism. She is not at all concerned about the use of embryonic stem cells, nor about the legality of her work, claiming that, as a scientist, her purpose is to advance the cause of learning in order to help humanity. At one point she refers to the embryo as a "potential" human being, using pro-choice terminology which absolves people from recognizing the embryo as a human being with potential.

A second-rate reporter is the key figure and the main link among the characters. He wonders why the opposition MP's questions are not being fully answered by the minister and attacks the minister's competence. The convenient fact that he knew her from school seems to fuel the reporter's campaign, perhaps because she is successful and he is not. He hopes that this human/animal research question will be the big story that will restore him to his former prominence.

Eventually the reporter advises the MP that no one listens to him because his claims about the sanctity of life are too predictable. He tells him to change tactics — try to find a loophole in the bill to further disconcert the justice minister.

The MP discovers the law forbids injecting human cells into animals, but not the other way around. He asks why this matter is not covered.

Again the minister seems nonplussed, but the Justice Department wants the bill passed — quickly. The nuances of the legislation do not seem to matter. Everyone is in a hurry, families and personal lives are at risk, careers are at stake. The implications for matters such as the ethics of experimenting with embryonic stem cells are clear: who cares? Just pass the legislation and move things along. There is a lot more to be done.

Word leaks out that the Opposition MP, a former teacher, used to teach creationism. His scientific credibility is attacked in the House, to the delight of the justice minister and the scientist. We discover later the information is passed on by someone with a vested interest in animal/human embryonic research in other countries, and other companies' money has been funding the supposedly pure scientist's work.

Meanwhile, polls show reaction in Canada is hostile to the suggestion of forming chimeras. The informer (who is also linked with university and commercial research interests in human/animal experimentation) now fears the success of international research could be threatened, and so, to protect these other interests, he makes sure the scientist's funding is withdrawn.

By the end of the play the moral standing of just about all the characters is shot to pieces. By her own admission, the scientist had undertaken clandestine research with human embryonic stem cells as much in the interests of gaining a Nobel Prize as to find a cure for autism. The Opposition MP is moderately successful. He has at least alerted people to what is going on in parts of the scientific community. The justice minister approves the bill despite her misgivings, confidently assuring the country that humans will be adequately protected (and also assuring her successful career). Her assistant achieves his goal, which is simply to have the bill passed quickly — regardless of moral distinctions. The reporter ends up feeling disillusioned about everyone — the minister who changes nothing in the bill, the scientist who has been bought, the parliamentary assistant for whom ethical concerns are not part of the job and the university connection who protects business interests above all else.

Chimera raises many questions and shows there are two sides in this type of ethical debate. The sides are fairly well balanced, but closer reflection shows arguments are weighted against the embryo protection side. Religious views are portrayed as being small-town and narrowly focused, and therefore largely ineffective in a sound-bite oriented, secularized society with no fixed values about the dignity of human life. Most of the characters are portrayed as being morally adrift and no one ever really discusses the value of embryonic life, or even human life. They are all too busy looking after their own interests, choosing values that favour scientific renown, political success or financial benefit over protection of human life.

We need the older Opposition MP figures, and we need investigative reporters, but most of all we need to ask the sorts of questions that Chimera raises.

Chimera is playing at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre until Feb. 11.

(McQueen is director of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute in Toronto.)

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