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Notre Dame Bioethicist Foresees Manufactured Sperm and Eggs–Soon



Diane Montagna - published on 03/25/15

Exclusive Interview With Carter Snead

ROME — It won’t be long before two women can have a baby of their own, with no biological contribution from a man at all.

So says Carter Snead, director of the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame.

Snead, who once served as general counsel to the President’s Council of Bioethics under George W. Bush, said that at the current rate of developments in reproductive technology, sperm and eggs may soon be created from human skin cells.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, says Snead, who together with the Center is trying to re-inject Catholic values into science and bioethics. 

Snead was in Rome for the center’s medical ethics conference. He sat down with Aleteia for a wide-ranging interview exploring the threat of euthanasia, which he said is based on eugenics; how reproductive technologies are diminishing the virtue of adoption, and Notre Dame’s efforts in maintaining its Catholic identity and his hopes for the Center of Ethics and Culture. 

What is the mission of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture?

Its purpose is to share and transmit the richness of the Catholic moral and intellectual tradition both on campus for students, faculty and staff, and to assist the leadership of the university in promoting the Catholic identity and mission of Notre Dame. But we also have an external dimension to our mission, which is to project Notre Dame’s voice into the public square in the name of authentic human dignity and the common good. 

Every year Notre Dame also sends students to the March for Life. This year we sent 700 students. The Center for Ethics and Culture, among other things, pays for most of that. Fr. [John] Jenkins, our president, was there, so it is a great way that the Center and Notre Dame and its fantastic students can bear witness to the great good of human life in a public way.

Tell us about the Medical Ethics Conference being held here in Rome.

Every year we bring a number of physicians and other healthcare providers, many of whom are Notre Dame alumni, to come and spend the week in Rome. This is a special year as it’s our 30th anniversary, and every five years we do it somewhere other than Notre Dame in South Bend. So it’s in Rome this year. It was in London five years ago. The conference is an intensive series of lectures and small group discussions to give these physicians an opportunity to reflect more deeply on the human and ethical dimensions of the area they pursue in their vocation.

What were the principle hot-button issues you covered this year?

The bookends were two lectures: we began the conference with a lecture from John Keown from Georgetown University, who was a Fellow with us at the Center for Ethics and Culture this year. He gave a talk about euthanasia and assisted suicide and offered an international overview of the state of play of the law, and the public policy there. I think that’s a very significant area of concern that is becoming more so as the years go on. There’s a huge movement afoot to liberalize the laws, to permit euthanasia and assisted suicide, and that’s deeply problematic because it will endanger very vulnerable populations through fraud, abuse, duress and mistake. A legalized regime of euthanasia and assisted suicide will almost certainly result in a substantial number of involuntary and even non-voluntary mercy killings, and the people who are most at risk are those who are on the fringes of society: the elderly, those suffering from dementia, minorities, the disabled.

Those on the “peripheries," as Pope Francis would say.

Yes, exactly. In fact, it’s interesting because euthanasia and assisted suicide is an unusual topic within bioethics because it doesn’t easily map on to the political spectrum. Obviously, with the life issues, abortion and so on, generally in the US there is a pretty close correlation between someone being pro-life and someone being more politically conservative. For better or worse, that just happens to be the correlation in our politics right now. But with respect to euthanasia and assisted suicide, at least in the United States, you still have folks who would identify as liberal or progressive who are still opposed to the notion of physician assisted suicide and euthanasia.

In 2012, there was a state referendum in Massachusetts trying to legalize assisted suicide and Ted Kennedy’s widow, the Boston Globe editorial page and Ezekiel Emmanuel who was one of President Obama’s top advisors on healthcare all came out against this initiative. 

Ezekiel Emmanuel has a very important and potent way of framing the problem. He said that, basically, what you’re doing if you legalize assisted suicide or euthanasia is this: you’re going to benefit a very small slice of the wealthiest and most able people to take their lives when they want to, at the expense of — and at the risk of — an entire sea of vulnerable people who are going to be coerced into euthanasia, who are going to be euthanized “in their best interests” when they can’t speak for themselves, or when they don’t have someone who’s lobbying for them trying to advocate for them. 

So I’d say that euthanasia and assisted suicide is one of the gravest threats we’re facing right now. There’s a renewed political effort to legalize and promote it in the United States and in other parts of the West as well, and Europe. 

Where is the push coming from?

It’s a good question…I don’t quite understand what motivates it. Honestly, there’s the principle of autonomy: the idea of self-determination and the ability to choose the manner of one’s death is normative grounding of this movement. Although originally, historically, the movement of this push for assisted suicide and euthanasia had a very eugenic foundation. It actually wasn’t about autonomy and freedom. It was about “putting down” undesirable members of the human family. Basically, it was about culling the herd, improving the race, and taking people whose quality of life didn’t rise to the appropriate level and dispatching them. 

In fact, in the 1920’s there where these two social scientists — Hoche and Binding — who were the architects of what became the Nazi eugenic movement, even they themselves weren’t Nazis, which is something important to remember.

They were from Germany. They were the architects of Hitler’s eugenic program. But again, they didn’t frame it in the kind of race-based ideology that the Nazi movement embraced, but rather a kind of eugenic — a kind of nihilistic paternalism. The phrase they used was: “life unworthy of life." It was the title of their book. And the idea was there are certain people whose living conditions are so diminished because of disability or illness or age, that there’s no warrant to continue their life, and in fact you should take affirmative steps to end their life.

Leon Kass, my former boss and mentor on President Bush’s Council on Bioethics gave an extraordinary lecture at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. explaining how it wasn’t Nazi ideology that led to the Nazi medicine and the horrible crimes against humanity by Nazi doctors. It was this kind of eugenic impulse that pre-dated that, that Hoche and Binding were responsible for. 

[So] that was the first bookend lecture of the conference. In terms of the challenges we face, Gil Meilaender’s talk was focused on assisted reproductive technology and the obvious natural human impulse to have children, especially those couples that are infertile seeking technological assistance in circumventing their infertility. 

What are the dangers of this? 

Now we have all sorts of permutations of the assisted reproductive technology’s practice, where you have the so-called “three parent embryos” from mitochondrial transfer, you have surrogacy. And as we see stem-cell research proceed, along with other genomic innovations we’ll see the possibility of creating sperm and egg from skin cells of a human being.

So, for example, imagine the following thing: imagine two lesbian partners who would like to have a genetically related child. And you take the skin cells from one of the women and use either the typical cloning technique or you could use the induced pluripotent state technologies and modify her skin cell into becoming a pluripotent cell, i.e. a stem cell, and undifferentiated cell, and then tease that cell into becoming a sperm cell. They’ve done this in mice.

Then you take that sperm cell, from the woman’s skin cell, and you use it to fertilize her partner’s egg. And then you have a baby that would be genetically 50% of each of the two partners.  

Is this currently happening? 

Not in humans yet. But it’s not far away. They’ve been able to do it in animals. So it’s pretty extraordinary. And Gil is concerned that his argument about the nature of children and how they are made has fallen on deaf ears in a lot of instances. 

I think that it’s still worth making the argument that children are gifts. They are not projects. And the more technical mastery you introduce into that process by which children come into the world, the more you convert them into being a kind of object of their parent’s will, and that’s not good. So I think assisted reproductive technology especially augmented with genomic knowledge is something that we really need to mindful of going forward as well. 

Gil Meilaender, a Christian ethicist from Valparaiso University, talked about adoption in his lecture. Could you share with us his points on adoption and reproductive technologies?

Yes, I really appreciated Gil’s remarks about adoption, about the importance of adoption and the importance of avoiding an emerging problem. Some people, in their haste and in their zeal to oppose assisted reproductive technologies, or surrogacy and anonymous sperm donation and so on, or those who wish to oppose same-sex marriage, adopt a kind of argument based on biological kinship. They almost have a reductive attachment to the notion of biological kinship and biological parentage that would undermine the appropriate understanding of spiritual adoption, which is what Gil was talking about.

You hear people say: you shouldn’t make a child without a dad. You shouldn’t make a child who comes from an anonymous sperm donor, or you shouldn’t create an institution of marriage that’s open to same-sex couples because the children that come into that situation will be missing one parent or the other parent. There are arguments against all of those practices that don’t depend on a reductive understanding of kinship and biological connection. But once we hitch our wagon to that particular argument, it takes us into places that, as Gil said, are quite problematic and call into question the legitimacy of adoptive families, which we shouldn’t do.

I think Gil made a beautiful argument, saying at the heart of Christian theology, and at the heart of our connection to God, is the concept of adoption and the role of sonship and daughtership when it’s not your original posture. [Adoption] is actually a loving choice. It’s a way of giving these children a loving family in a way that she wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do. 

The other thing is this reductive emphasis on kinship and biologically having a child of your own, and this is really what Gil’s final argument was, that Christians are not obsessed with the idea of having a child of your own in terms of blood lineage. Because that obsession leads someone to assisted reproductive technologies. “By whatever means necessary, I’m going to have my kid,” as opposed to building your family through adoption. 

Notre Dame came under some fire for allegedly not maintaining its Catholic identity, especially in light of President Obama’s visit in 2009. What’s the status now of Notre Dame’s Catholic identity?

I love Notre Dame and there’s no place I’d rather be. And I came to Notre Dame because of its Catholic identity, and I know that’s true of all my colleagues in the Law School. And if you look at Notre Dame, I think the future is bright, and I’m optimistic about Notre Dame’s enhancing its status as the flagship university of the Church.

And that’s really what motivates us at the Center for Ethics and Culture. What we’re trying to do is to help Notre Dame, both on campus for students and faculty, staff and leadership, and off campus through our partnerships with the Church and other entities all over the country. What we want to do is to help Notre Dame realize its responsibility to be a genuinely, authentically, unapologetically Catholic institution of higher learning. And I think it is that. Certainly we want to hold ourselves to a higher standard, but I think if you look around the country at other universities — now there are other small Catholic liberal arts colleges that are doing great work — but if you’re talking about a big Catholic research university, it’s not a contest. Notre Dame is genuinely and consistently committed to its Catholic faith. 

Do we make mistakes? Yes, of course we do. Do we make big mistakes? Yes. But I think if you look at the people we’ve hired in recent years, people who could be anywhere. Ask yourself this question: if you are at Harvard, or Yale, or Stanford, or Johns Hopkins, or Duke, or any of these other elite institutions, why would you come to Notre Dame as a faculty member? Why would you come as a lateral move from that place to Notre Dame? If you were one of the top academics coming out of your PhD program, why would you come to Notre Dame instead of an elite university with a lot of money in, and I’m sorry to say it, but a more beautiful part of the country than South Bend, Indiana?

You come to the University of Notre Dame because of what’s distinctive about it. And what’s distinctive about Notre Dame is that you come to be at the Blessed Mother’s university. 

That’s why you come. And of course, that means different things to different people, but the result is that it is ultimately going to be the pathway by which we realize our obligation as a kind of counter-cultural beacon for the Catholic Church. I’m optimistic about that, and I believe we can accomplish that goal.

What are the challenges to that?

Well, I think there’s a natural impulse to want to be accepted and embraced by the elite cultural norms. In some ways, this has been true of Catholics in America forever, that we’ve always wanted to be accepted. We’re tempted to downplay what’s distinctive about us. We’ve always wanted to be embraced by those whom we’ve regarded as our betters. This is not unique to Notre Dame, but in any context in which you’re trying to be excellent, there’s a temptation to diminish what’s distinctive about you and to try to play by the rules of your elite peers. 

I don’t think that’s ever been an effective pathway to greatness. Great institutions, great people, and this is actually true of [former president] Fr. [Theodore] Hesburgh who just passed away. Fr. Hesburgh didn’t care what the elites wanted. He said, “I’m gonna build what I’m gonna build,” because I know it’s the right thing to do. And [Notre  Dame founder] Fr. [Edward] Sorin was the same way. Basically great visionary people understand what they need to accomplish and they pursue it in a single minded way without regard to how others perceive them. And I think that if we’re looking around and asking how we’re being perceived, I think that’s going to be a limitation on our capacity for greatness. I think that you become great by blazing your own trail, by pursuing the pathway that you think is best, and obviously you want to be a participant with your peers who have different perspectives, and you want to join them in conversation and collaborate where possible. But the truth is we have to be comfortable with ourselves. We have to be comfortable with the fact that we do have a mission that’s different from any other university’s mission in the world, and to pursue it with energy and enthusiasm.

What are your hopes for the Center?

We want the Center to be the engine by which Notre Dame realizes its Catholic identity, both intellectually and through service, as well as through community. I think that we’ve been enormously blessed by having the support of the university, by having the support of partners in different initiatives we’re pursuing. I think that we’re going to accomplish our goals and continue full steam ahead.

Diane Montagna is Rome correspondent for Aleteia’s English edition.

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