In the fantasy novel That Hideous Strength, a young social scientist, hoping to break into the inner circle of the prestigious National Institute for Coordinated Experiments (acronym: NICE) discovers that the goal of the institute is to eliminate organic life. Filostrato, a physiologist who hates trees, explains to the young man why he also prefers artificial birds. Consider the improvement. No feathers dropped about, no nests, no eggs, no dirt.
Filth and shame come from organisms, Filostrasto says. And now that we have evolved enough to separate our minds from our flesh, we can create artificial bodies to inhabit and not have to deal with all the mess. What are the things that most offend the dignity of man? Birth and breeding and death.
Although it is true that humans can run from themselves by repressing the spiritual and succumbing to the flesh, C. S. Lewis warns us of the opposite tendency: running from ourselves by rejecting our bodies, especially our vulnerabilities in conception and death.
Our animality disgusts usits bodily functions, its humble beginnings, its diminished endings. We are ambivalent about our need to nurse and the urgency to defecate. We long to control and deny our animality; at its worst presentation, we want to eliminate it: no more aging, no more dwindling and drooling, no helpless dependency. These are the most terrible things that could happen to us, are they not? To be diapered and cleaned by another? To be utterly helpless like an infant, like someone awaiting death? What a shame.
Our contemporary culture makes C. S. Lewis look more prescient than Nostradamus. We may not have succeeded in dominating nature, but we are becoming masters at wielding control over our own bodies, especially in how we breed and die. We are in the process of first disengaging ourselves from members of our species who are at the margins, especially if they have no brain power. Then we can treat their bodies, now depersonalized, as things to exploit. It is psychologically easier to experiment on blobs of protoplasm and heart-beating cadavers than on a conceived or profoundly wounded human person. This change of labels will help us orchestrate our plans for good births and good deaths, for eugenics and euthanics.
The loaded word here, of course, is good. It often suggests perfection, full flourishing and even enhancement. And certainly our impulse to heal and extend our lives falls under those criteria. Every act of self-improvement or improving our children does. But if that alone is our notion of goodness, it collapses every good thing or act into its usefulness, efficiency and performance.
I agree with Thomas Aquinas, who held that the good of all goods, without which there could be no other good, is existence itself, ultimately the One who is Existence. There is also the good of the entire parade of species and kinds, among which are humans, living organisms that also have personal endowments. Being a person is an intrinsic good. It is not reducible to performance or utility. Our primary response to such a good is not to use it but to respect and honor it, both for its existence and for the kind of being it is.
In this context, enhancement and prolongation of the human life span are good only if they respect and honor the good of being a human person. They are bad if they require us to reject and despise what we are.
Therapeutic cloning of beings that are human, but destined for early termination, is allowed in the United Kingdom. Belgium and Holland are close to legalizing euthanasia for unpromising infants. In the United States, the Academy Award-winning film Million-Dollar Baby evoked a sea of sympathy for a young woman who wants to be killed because she is a quadraplegic. Physician-assisted suicide will be the subject of the next political battle in California. Embryonic stem cells can be created for the purposes of enhancing our conceptions and births. Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis allows us to terminate embryos that have been declared undesirable, whether for genetic or sex-selection reasons.
The speculation of some ethicians who argue that fetuses and humans in a vegetative state are not persons because they have no brain performance is fed by our culture’s distaste for our essential human vulnerability.
We cannot change the human genome without changing every last one of us. There will always be the imperfect ones, unless they can be eliminated. But we may, indeed, be able to create hybrids, preferably with more efficient brains than ours. We may further weed out our imperfect brothers and sisters and prune away our imperfections. With assisted reproduction for some and discouraged reproduction for others, we may well fulfill the dreams of Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, who coined the word eugenics for our controlled future, but it will be a nightmare for humanity.
These are particularly poignant reflections for Christians, especially at the time of Holy Week and Easter. We are created by a God who did not shun our flesh but embraced it, even its wounds and dying. He covered himself in the shame from which we flee. This was a redemptionbut not to make us invulnerable before life and impervious to mortality. It was to glorify our wounds by the power of love and transform our death with the force of faith that God still wills, as ever, to enter our human nature. The sad question is this: Will human nature even be around to say the welcomes?