The eclipse of human dignity

By  Donald Demarco, Catholic Register Special
  • March 28, 2008

{mosimage}Human beings have an inalienable dignity. This means that their dignity is an aspect of their being that cannot be removed. If people are treated in accordance with who they are, they will be treated with dignity. 

What I am calling attention to here is a moral principle founded on a human reality: we should treat people as if they had dignity because, in fact, they do. In practical terms this means that each human being, because he has dignity, is an end in himself and should never be treated as a means to an end. No human being should be used to serve the needs of another.

We do know, however, and with painful clarity, that human beings are commonly treated with little or no regard for their inherent dignity. The result is dehumanizing.

A new law has been proposed in the United Kingdom to regulate in-vitro fertilization. It is called The Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill, and has finished its passage through the House of Lords and will be debated in the Commons. As it stands, the bill contains several provisions that clearly violate the dignity of human beings.

One provision in particular that is drawing heated criticism is permission for the genetic modification of human embryos.

David King, director of Human Genetics Alert, attests that genetic modification, a procedure that most countries have already banned, represents the first time that any country has officially sanctioned genetic engineering of human embryos as the first step toward allowing human genetic modification.

The Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority has already granted a team of scientists research licences to create human/animal hybrids. These hybrids would be used purely for scientific purposes and then destroyed.

John Smeating, national director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, condemns this procedure in no uncertain terms: “It is creating a category of beings regarded as sub-human who can be used as raw material to benefit other members of the human family, effectively creating a new class of slaves.”

Scottish Bishop Philip Tartaglia of Paisley diocese calls the hybrid proposal a “twisted enterprise” and bemoans the continual state-sponsored attacks on unborn life.

Genetic engineering, human/animal hybrids, a class of slaves, attacks on unborn human life! These are disturbing images and hardly compatible with human dignity. Yet, these assaults on human dignity are freely chosen.

A professor of mathematics at a mid-western American university has said that since we now have the technological wherewithal to blow up the moon, we should do so. This exemplifies the “technological imperative” in a nutshell. In contrast to the “technological imperative,” that seems unstoppable, the “moral imperative” appears weak and ineffectual. Oliver Wendell Holmes was contrasting the power of evil with the power of good when he wrote the following limerick:

God’s plan made a hopeful beginning

But man spoiled his chances by sinning.

We trust that the story will end in God’s glory

But at present, the other side’s winning.

Christians, however, are not allowed such cynicism, though it is understandable that those who are keeping score are more than a bit worried. They are commanded to love each other, which includes defending the dignity of all human beings.

In the modern age of reproductive technology and genetic modifications of human embryos, Christ’s reference to “the least of My little ones” takes on a very special significance for our time.

(Donald DeMarco is a philosophy professor emeritus from St. Jerome’s University, Waterloo, Ont., and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary.)

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