Conference of European Churches Bioethics Consultation (Part I)

5 January 2013

On 25-27 April a scientific consultation on the subject of “Human Enhancement: Moral, Religious and Ethical Aspects from a European Perspective” took place at the European Parliament and the monastic centre Notre-Dame du Chant d’ Oiseau in Brussels. The consultation was organized by the Bio-Ethics group of the Church and Society Commission of the Conference of European Churches (CEC) in collaboration with the Bureau of European Policy Advisers (BEPA), the Science and Technology Options Assessment of the European Parliament (STOA) and the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community (COMECE). Taking part were European MPs, officials of European institutional organizations and the European Churches, representatives of the Churches, as well as specialist scientists from prestigious educational and research institutes in the European Union.

The Orthodox theological input was provided by Metropolitan Emmanuel of France, who, as Chairman of the CEC presided over the beginning of the consultation, Stavros Baloyannis, Professor of Medicine at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, permanent member of the bio-ethics committee of the Conference and the undersigned, as representative of the Church of Greece. The Office of the Delegation of the Church of Greece to the European Union was represented by Dr. Konstantinos Zorbas. A paper was also read by Anestis Keselopoulos, Professor at the Theological School of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, who had been invited as a speaker but was prevented from attending.

Before the presentations of the specialist speakers, Metropolitan Emmanuel, in his opening address noted the need to seek a basis for an ethical approach to the enhancement/improvement of human nature by artificial means in the Biblical understanding of humankind and, in particular in the narrative in the book of Genesis, as regards the attitude we should have towards the tree of knowledge and the tree of life. His Eminence closed his address with the following suggestions/ exhortations:

• A pursuit of knowledge which is balanced and moulded from a reverence for the mysteries of life, with a full understanding that issues of knowledge and life are interconnected and in their very essence cannot be separated.

• An acknowledgment that humanity is composed not merely of physical components, but consists also of a soul, mind, emotions, and spiritual attributes which, like life and knowledge, cannot be separated from the whole being.

• A recognition that we are all created beings and as such are capable of being deceived when desiring to increase our knowledge.

• The reality that we cannot know all things, but can be enlightened by examining ancient and contemporary knowledge in an integrated manner.

• The power of prayer and meditation in guiding us to make recommendations that will benefit humanity over time.

• A sobering recognition of our humility in making these recommendations.

• A comfort in the knowledge that there is forgiveness for humanity when they miss the mark.

This was followed by Professor Keselopoulos’ paper which was read by Professor Baloyannis. Keselopoulos made the distinction between plastic and cosmetic surgery with genetic engineering in cells for enhancement and attempted to link each of the applications to separate ethical problems. He spoke about reconstructive surgery in positive terms, given its therapeutic nature. He distinguished it from cosmetic surgery, concerning which he said it has a different kind of ethical problematic and gravity, noting the commercialization of the enhancement. He also referred to the interventions in psychological and intellectual characteristics, which he judged to be especially problematical, since they involved an intervention by technology in the freedom of the human will.

The fact that the consultation began with theological positions from the Orthodox sphere signalled a particular direction for the following discussion, which could not depart from the theological dimension of the issues. The questions and positions of many of those attending were indicative of the fruitful thinking which the Orthodox views provoked from the very beginning.

There followed the papers by specialist scientists from the spheres of biophysics, biotechnology, neurology and psychology.

The first was presented by Professor Dekker, of the Dutch University of Delft and concerned the artificial enhancement of human potential through collaboration between nanotechnology and biology, from which the new branch of nanobiology has arisen. He noted the risk of the mechanization of human life. He mentioned that a person has a bodily entity, but as a being is not exhausted by this. He took as a fundamental moral principle human dignity, as proclaimed, and observed that it should remain inviolate He did, nevertheless, acknowledge the inability of conventional ethics to provide answers and suggested the need for a review of the ontology of the person.

The second paper was by Dr. Roland Kipke of the University of Tübingen and dealt with the improvement and reinforcement of psychological characteristics through targeted pharmacological means (neuro-enhancement). Research is being carried out into the enhancement of memory, concentration, managing self-control, and self-esteem. The basic aims of technical, pharmacological intervention on the human psyche are the improvement of self-awareness, self-realization, self-efficacy and coherence of life. So far these have been goals of the scientific method of psychology, which is called self-formation. The speaker compared, and to some extent equated, the psychological method with pharmacological intervention in ethical terms. He did, however, point out that, while the first is mild, the second is clearly an intervention and, for the moment we are not in a position to evaluate the side-effects. The main question posed during the discussion was whether, and to what extent, such an intervention promotes or vitiates human freedom.

The papers continued the next day on the premises of the European Union, with the Italian Euro-MP, Vittorio Prodi as moderator. Initially, two projects, entitled “Human Enhancement” and “Creating the Perfect Life”, were presented by members of the Science and Technology Options Assessment of the European Parliament (STOA).

In the first, by Dr. Christopher Coenen of the University of Karlsruhe, the term “human enhancement” was defined as “any modification aimed at improving individual human performance and brought about by science-based or technology-based interventions in the human body”. A distinction was made between non-enhancing interventions (restorative or preventive), therapeutic enhancements, and non-therapeutic enhancements. There were four in-depth case studies: (gene therapy and gene doping; designer babies; pharmacological enhancement (Ritalin); and deep brain stimulation, (DBS). It was emphasized that discourse on human enhancement has to be seen in broader societal contexts and trends such as the medicalization of social problems. The speaker praised the contribution of religions, and particularly Christian theologians and Church leaders, to the visionary discourse on human enhancement.

The next speaker was Dr. Rinie van Est, of the Rathenau Instituut, who set out at the beginning of her presentation four revolutions in the sphere of science and technology which occurred in the 20th-21st centuries: the biotech, material cognitive sciences and information revolutions. Developments in these four scientific fields have led to convergence and co-operation. The convergence is expressed in two ways. On the one hand, biology becomes technology and, on the other, we have the opposite, with technology becoming biology. This is how the two megatrends have arisen in the realm of biotechnology.

The first has to do with the introduction of technology into living organisms, in breadth and depth, through genetic intervention and alteration, the creation of organisms with a synthetic genome, the creation of synthetic organs and tissues through genetic engineering, and technical intervention in the brain functions and those of the nervous system in general. The second megatrend in today’s techno-scientific revolution has to do with the creation of technological products whose functions, reactions and characteristics will resemble forms of living organisms, by imitation.

It is recognized that some of the aforementioned developments are already familiar by name in some societies, but others are completely unheard of. In both instances, societies place their hopes, but also express their reservations, worries and moral queries. The desideratum was felt to be the protection of human dignity at all costs. Other challenges and regulatory practices were also tabled, such as safety, privacy, bodily integrity and informed consent. Finally is was stated that a challenge was being issued to fundamental concepts of human identity, such as living and non-living, sickness and health and brain and machine, the interaction between the person and the machine. Bioethics is being called upon to shift its interest from the purely biological sciences to this new convergence of fields, which is giving rise to more, and more complex issues.

The discussions which followed dealt with positions taken by the sides of bioethics and religions.

Dr. Maria Nuñez, Professor at the Ramon Lull University in Barcelona attempted a general bioethical and critical review of all the facets of the issue of human enhancement. She highlighted the need to distinguish between treatment, improvement and enhancement. She noted that knowledge per se does not constitute or produce ethics, which is why there is always a need for limits to be placed upon its use. She stressed in particular the social character of bioethical issues and the need for solidarity with the socially and economically weak. She noted that it was folly to invest enormous sums in research aimed at the enhancement of human characteristics while ignoring the basic health requirements of large section of the human population. “Et sans oublier la SOLIDARITE avec les plus démunis de nos societies”.

The Chief Rabbi of Belgium, Albert Guigui, presented the Jewish position in a paper entitled: “Sciences, valeurs et judaïsme”. He based his speech on the Biblical view of humankind and the Genesis narrative in the light of the Talmudic tradition. He claimed that God did not create a world that was completely perfect, in order that people could become perfect within themselves and the world could become perfect through them. Thus, any action on our part and, in this instance, any ethical decision on the issue of bioethics should be taken with the criterion of the extent to which it allows people to live the best possible life close to God. The basic requirement for scientific progress is not to contribute to the destruction of creation, but to allow, through its use, those who are in need to be helped. “La Bible s’oppose à toute recherche scientifique dont le but final ne vise pas la construction et le progrès de l’humanité”.