Technology and Religion

By on March 30th, 2013 in Ethics, Societal Impact, Topics

Religion is part of society, and so an appropriate consideration for SSIT in some ways.  The March 23 Wall Street Journal (WSJ) has an article on “Researchers Grow Human Organs in Lab” (also titled “Science Fiction Comes Alive”)  This article outlines the emerging capability to take an organ from a cadaver, remove the unique human cells (cartilage structure remains), and then grow from “adult” stem cells of the patient a new organ on this scaffold.  Neat technology, it will save lives, and extend lives — at least for folks who can afford it in countries where the technology is available.

But that is not the light that turned on in my brain, it was triggered by a different association. There are ethics and there are morals, I will let others address the distinctions (I suspect one is that there are moral decisions that are unethical.) There are institutions that debate and define moral codes — typically religious institutions.  As we roll the technology forward, it creates an ongoing challenge for these institutions to incorporate this into their moral frameworks.

A simple example is abortion, some religious institutions consider this immoral, and in some cases, unacceptable even if the mother will die.  Since some forms of birth control may interfere with a fertilized egg (which is considered an abortion by some), there is an opposition to all forms of birth control, even by religious groups that accept some forms of birth control — the morning after pill is one example, but IUD’s and other devices may also fall into this category    In some sense, all of this has been easy — but it is going to get more difficult.

I’ve just finished listening to a non-fiction book by Alexander McCall Smith, not on Botswana’s #1 detective, nor even on Botswana’s criminal law; but entitled: “Creating Humans: Ethical Questions where Reproduction and Science Collide“.  Smith, a bioethics expert, raises many good points in a very methodical way, with the one focal point of “creating humans”.  One question is the ethics of In-vitro selection of a baby, including the selection of it’s bio-chemical typing, to create stem cells that can save the life of a sibling (or parent).  This does not entail “throwing away” the new child, but embracing it into the family.  He tries to sort out the issues given that the parents needed to uses In-Vitro methods for an additional child in any case, and some selection would be needed to avoid the new child from also carrying the defective genes affecting the older child.  But one can envision many other variations that he rejects as unethical in some cases.

Again some religious groups will reject all forms of in-vitro fertilization since some percentage of the eggs will be viable and disposed of — possibly considered an abortion.  But, notice how we are moving the dialog from procedures that affect the implanted embryo to ones that occur outside of the human body.  The stem cells may be fetal from a child that goes on to live a full life , or generated from a patient’s own cells. And all of this is the tip of the iceberg.  We can fully expect DNA level activities that occur interior and exterior to the patient.   Consider how adherents of the Christian Science religion (which defers most or all medical care to prayer) would feel about aerosol distribution of an anti-viral agent to prevent spread of a pandemic in public places such as an airport.  Presumably they would be required to violate their religious convictions to travel — or perhaps would not even be aware of it. (Arriving planes in New Zealand use similar methods to protect against soil borne pathogens.)

What we will face over the next years are two, not trivial trends.  First, religious and other moral guidance institutions will be hard pressed to develop informed decisions about the acceptability of new technology the rate of innovation & introduction accelerates.  Second this will run an interference pattern with medical care (at least).  Individuals who end up (perhaps unconscious) at  an institution that enforces a moral code different from their own may find they are at a sever disadvantage from that hospital’s refusal to consider certain medical options.  Or they may find that the procedures applied are already, or soon to be, declared unacceptable by their moral mentors.

The next generation of medical alert bracelets may need to disclose moral preferences along with restrictions on care, or requirements for secular medical treatment facilities.

Here is an international question beyond my  knowledge — what medical care and/or other bio-chemical considerations or limitations exist in the diverse cultures of the world?  How do the variations of “society” where you live deal with some of these issues?