When does science cross the line of morality?

Lara Cooper.

Science is advancing; things that were once only the subjects of science fiction are becoming a reality. Nobody can deny the advantages of scientific advancement, and the majority of developments and research should undoubtedly continue. Nobody is going to say we should stop pursuing a cure for cancer, for example. However, have we reached a point where the products of some developments start to cross the line of right or wrong? Should some things remain in science fiction?

At opposite ends of human existence, this topic has captured the interest of the nation. At birth the ethical issues surrounding ‘designer babies’ is commonly discussed, whereas at death the development of cryogenic freezing, in the hope to re-awaken the dead, is a recent branch of science. Both areas have caused controversy and raised questions about their morality and the ethics of carrying out such practices.

In November 2016 the death of a 14 year old girl hit the headlines due to her decision to have her body cryogenically frozen. She took this decision in the hope that one day, a cure for her cancer would be found and she could be brought back to life and cured. However, her parents were initially split over whether to allow their daughter, known only as JS, to be frozen after death. The case was taken to the high courts, once again plunging the issue of scientific ethics and morality into the focus of the nation.

JS requested that after her death, her body was to be put on ice and flown to a facility in the United States of America where the process of cryogenic freezing would be carried out.

Writing to the court that would try her case JS said:

“I don’t want to die but I know I am going to…I want to live longer…I want to have this chance.” [5]

Cryogenic freezing involves cooling the body immediately after death to just above the freezing point of water, before injecting the body’s vessels with a cryoprotectant solution to prevent the formation of ice crystals. The body is then kept in a tank of liquid nitrogen at approximately -196°C [1].

Cryonics are surrounded in controversy, primarily because there is currently no proof that the bodies will be able to be ‘re-awakened’. However, a number of ethical issues have also arisen. JS’s father was initially opposed to his daughters wishes and expressed concerns over the implications on her life should she be brought back in the future.

The Cryonics Institute, based in Michigan, USA, states that the fundamental goal of cryonics is to give people ‘a second chance at life’. The institute is based on the belief that future developments in technology and science will allow for the revival of frozen patients, provided that the cooling process was begun as soon as possible after legal death, before irreparable damage is caused to the brain.

However her father was sceptical:

“Even if the treatment is successful and she is brought back to life in, let’s say, 200 years, she may not find any relative and she might not remember things”

“She may be left in a desperate situation – given that she is still only 14-years-old – and will be in the United States of America.” [2]

These are valid concerns for any person, and that person’s family, who wish to be frozen after death. The question is raised about whether it is right, morally, to allow the freezing of human beings whilst there is currently no concrete scientific evidence to suggest that it will work. Is it okay to be giving these individuals potentially false hope?

In the case of JS, the judge eventually ruled that only her mother, who supported her decision from the start, would be allowed to make medical decisions concerning her daughter’s body, and thus JS’ body was indeed frozen. However, the judge said that he made the decision relating to a dispute between her parents, and not the issue of whether cryogenic preservation is right or wrong. [2]

Bioethicists suggest that a number of mental health issues such as depression, brought about by isolation and loneliness are very real risks for the awoken individuals. After all, they will be brought back into a changed and unfamiliar world, friends and family from the time of their death will have died in the meantime. More practically, with no knowledge of the ‘new world’, by what means will they survive? Particularly in the case of a child, who will be responsible for, and hold guardianship of, her? [3]

Scientifically, there is no evidence that the process of re-awakening can be completed. The Cryonics Institute itself admits that currently they do not know whether phase two of the process – the re-awakening of a frozen subject – can be successfully completed. Whilst they hope that science will advance enough in the future, there are no guarantees. [4]

The scientific method usually demands that any trials on humans are only carried out subsequent to successful trials on animals. This has not been the case for cryonics. Whilst attempts have been made on the preservation of mammals, there have been no successful revivals from the temperatures at which human bodies are stored. [3]

How, with all the uncertainty and lack of concrete evidence behind cryonics, are a select number of institutes allowed to charge large amounts for what may be just false hope? Even if it does work, is it worth it for the implications on the ‘re-awakened’ new lives?

Whist re-awakening the dead is no doubt an exciting prospect, perhaps it should be left for Hollywood to explore for the time being.

The judge in JS’ cryopreservation case noted that this was a new type of case that presents science to lawyers, suggesting that with the continuing developments, science could be finding itself in the midst of courtrooms a lot more frequently in the future.

An issue that has been particularly prevalent in legal discussions is the complex topic of designer babies – essentially the genetic modification of embryo DNA. The issue around this is made especially complicated by the fact it can be taken in many different directions.

‘Saviour Siblings’ are a particularly controversial result of ‘designer babies’. A saviour sibling is a child whose DNA is engineered to be genetically identical to that of an existing sibling. This is most commonly carried out when an older sibling is suffering from a fatal illness that requires cell or organ transplant.

Films such as ‘My Sisters Keeper (2009)’ have portrayed just some of the ethical issues behind this practice, and particularly focus on the rights of the saviour child. Several moral issues are brought into focus: is it right to bring a child into this world for the sole purpose to save another? The simple fact in many cases is that the second child would not exist if it were not for the first being sick. From the moment of birth the donor child is just that – a continual donor. In the UK a parent is responsible for a child’s medical well-being until the age of 16. [6] That’s 16 years within which the donor child has no rights towards his/her body, unless a doctor feels strongly enough that a decision is not in the best interest of that child. Is it okay to bring a child into the world to essentially be a ‘cell farm’ for 16 years?

The mental implications on the entire family are unimaginable. Parents are often forced to choose between the well-being of one child over another, constant medical procedures cause both mental and physical stress to the donor child – however, without the procedures the likelihood is that the older, sick sibling, will die. Is it fair to put the responsibility of a sibling’s life upon the shoulders of a young child, essentially robbing them of the chance of a normal childhood?

However, the euphoria that the saviour sibling must feel if they do manage to do just that, save their brother or sister’s life, cannot be denied.

Despite heavy moral arguments against this practice, saviour siblings are currently legal both in the UK and the US.

Continuing with the medical theme, the screening of embryos for genetic diseases has become commonplace during procreation via IVF. It is especially common when the woman is considered to be of advancing age, or when it is known that one or both parents are carriers of a particular genetic disease.

During IVF a number of embryos are created which are then screened for diseases of which the parents may be carriers. Only embryo’s that do not carry genetic disorders will be implanted. However, this is not simply a case of not wanting a child with a genetic disorder – embryos with abnormal chromosomes will often fail to successfully implant within the womb and often lead to miscarriage. It is extremely rare for a chromosomal abnormal IVF baby to be carried through to full term. [7]

The embryos are assessed through a process known as PGS – Preimplantation Genetic Screening – which essentially involves screening the embryo to check that it has a normal number of chromosomes- 46. An abnormal number of chromosomes is a key indicator of genetic disorders. Down syndrome, for example, is caused by an extra copy of chromosome 21.

For cases in which the parents are known to be carriers of a particular gene, a different process, PGD – Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis – is carried out. This process involves removing a cell from an embryo and testing it for a specific condition to ensure the baby will not have – or be a carrier of – the specific condition. [7]

The main ethical issue associated with PGS and PGD is related to the discussion around the quality of life of children with genetic disease. Whilst some conditions are undoubtedly debilitating, individuals with less serious conditions are known to lead happy and fulfilling lives. Therefore, is it right to rule embryos with these conditions unacceptable for implantation?

The discussion around embryonic screening is often closely related to that of abortion limits. The abortion limit in the UK is 24 weeks; however abortion can be carried out later than this date if it is known that the baby will be born with a severe disability. [8]

On one side of the fence, choosing to implant only embryos with ‘standard’ chromosomes is seen to reduce the likelihood of any suffering to the future child – it would be unfair to bring a child into this world only to face a life of pain and suffering.

On the other hand, several groups regularly argue that discarding embryos – and fetus’ – with a disability says something about today’s society, that we simply discard what we consider not perfect. Isn’t choosing to only continue with ‘healthy’ embryos just another way of designing our babies?

IVF, like any area of science, is advancing rapidly. In fact, it was announced in December last year that the UK’s fertility regulator has approved the receipt of applications from fertility clinics to offer the controversial procedure of creating an embryo with DNA from three individuals. [9]

The treatment, known as Mitochondrial Replacement Therapy (MRT) is a further step in the quest of producing babies free of genetic disease. The therapy is offered to women who are at risk of passing on mitochondrial disease – a life threatening condition – to their future children. Children affected often die young due to the extreme complications associated with the disease. [9]

The procedure involves replacing the unhealthy mitochondria from the mother’s egg with healthy mitochondria from another woman. However since the mitochondria are simply parts of a cell, the resulting child will have 46 chromosomes from its mother and father. The donor woman will have no legal rights to the child.

The concept is revolutionary, and has raised ethical and moral issues that have never had to be previously considered. The genetic engineering will affect every cell in the embryo and thus meaning that changes made will be passed down the baby’s future children and along their hereditary line. Since there are currently no individuals born through this technique old enough to re-produce, we do not know how any negative side effects of the treatment will affect future children, grandchildren and so on.

However controversial, MRT provides hope to hundreds of women who have previously not been able to conceive, or not been able to face passing on the disease to future children.

Ignoring the ethical questions raised, the medical advantages presented by engineering embryos to be genetically healthy are unquestionable. But we do not live in a world in which we can simply ignore the ethics, and essentially at the end of the day who gets to decide what is right or wrong?

In the eyes of the law, genetic screening and engineering for medical reasons is legal. Genetic engineering because you would like a girl rather than a boy, blue eyes rather than brown, is not. Whilst these alterations are achievable with today’s science, simply designing a child to have desirable characteristics is considered wrong, and remains illegal.

However, whilst the law dictates what you can and can’t do, in terms of ethical responsibility, personal choice is everything.

With the constant and rapid advancement I ask, when is it too far? When does the development of science surpass protecting humanity ethically, morally? When do we get to the point of doing things ‘just because we can’? At some point, I believe, we need to stop, take a look, and think about what really matters to us. Our children are our children, blue eyes or not. And our lives all, one day, come to an end.


[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/0/23695785

[2] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/cryogenically-frozen-teenager-terminally-ill-cancer-a7424036.html

[3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-38031428

[4] http://www.cryonics.org/about-us/

[5] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/11/18/cancer-girl-14-is-cryogenically-frozen-after-telling-judge-she-w/

[6] http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Consent-to-treatment/Pages/Children-under-16.aspx

[7] http://www.advancedfertility.com/preimplantation_genetic_diagnosis.htm

[8] http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Abortion/Pages/Introduction.aspx

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/dec/15/three-parent-embryos-regulator-gives-green-light-to-uk-clinics

When does science cross the line of morality?

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