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ZiF Research Group

Challenges to the Image of Humanity and Human Dignity by New Developments in Medical Technology


Convenors: Jan C. Joerden (Frankfurt (Oder)), Eric Hilgendorf (Würzburg), Felix Thiele (Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler)

With the rapid advancement of medical research, particularly in the field of medical technology, the traditional perceptions and models of ethics no longer suffice. The potential of in vitro fertilization, even the 'manufacturing' of human beings ('Homunculus') and of human-animal mixtures ('Minotaurus') has always been a common theme in literature and mythology. However, there was never a time in history when these myths had the potential of becoming reality. This has changed in recent years. Now we can and must consider not only the possibilities offered by in vitro fertilization and the corresponding ethical and social challenges, but also those posed by seemingly utopian medical engineering, including: (1) Genetic engineering (germinal choice technology) aiming to 'improve the human program' (so-called enhancement), (2) The (therapeutic or even reproductive) cloning of humans, (3) Predicting medical conditions through genetic analysis, including methods of individualized pharmacological therapy modified to the individual's genetic features (pharmacogenomics), (4) The opportunities of avoiding serious (genetic) diseases, but also for selecting certain phenotype characteristics (hair color, sex, intelligence, etc.), especially within the scope of in vitro fertilization and preimplantation genetic diagnosis, (5) Creation of chimera and hybrids for the sake of scientific research (fusion of human and animal cells, possibly even with ability to grow and develop) and for finding cures for diseases (an example being the use of animal brain cells in the treatment of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease), (6) Creation of embryonic stem cells through the cloning of other stem cells or 'reprogramming' of adult cells, (7) Breeding human cells and tissue structures, or even whole organs, through means such as therapeutic cloning, (8) The possibility of introducing nanobiotechnology in the fields of medical diagnosis and therapy, (9) Creation and use of man-machine interfaces not only for (temporary) organ replacement, but also for permanent performance enhancement particularly of sensory organs, (10) Research and monitoring of brain functions, or even altering brain functions (such as so-called brain pacemakers as therapy for Parkinson's disease), (11) Continuously improving organ transplants, eliminating connected distribution problems and the risk of commercialization, but also the chances and risks of xenotransplantation.

It is quite apparent that these and other technical advancements raise a series of ethical challenges, which have been dealt with only rudimentally and are far from being solved. This concerns not only the widespread and well-known problem of limited resources in the field of medicine and the injustice of inequitable distribution that goes along with it, but also the preliminary question as to whether it is ethically acceptable in principle to develop and then use these kinds of medical technologies. A topos often referred to in the context of this question is that of the protection of human dignity, which has frequently been discussed not only since Immanuel Kant's writings on legal and moral philosophy. It is reasoned, for example, that so-called enhancement or cloning infringes upon the principle of human dignity and that the mechanical manipulation of the brain or the connecting of human and animal cells when creating chimera are also not compatible with this notion.
Beyond that, some of the newer technological possibilities raise even more serious questions concerning the fundamental applicability of this human dignity argument. One example is trying to determine if the combination of a human with an animal (chimera) is an infringement of the principle of human dignity. This is highly questionable if only because it is unclear if the being generated from a merging of human and animal cells can be the bearer of protections of human dignity, since by definition it does not consist of purely human cells, but represents a blend of human-animal elements. This problem does not arise only when considering the somewhat remote possibility of creating a viable being through such a procedure, but-on the basis of an understanding of granting human dignity even to early stages of human development-in the issue of merging animal cells or parts of such cells with human forms of life within their early stages of development. Perhaps the category of a certain image of humanity worthy of protection plays an even more important role here than in the context of justifying the prohibition on killing early stages of human development. To some extent, this problem already occurs in the context of xenotransplantation as well. Similar questions are posed by the possible merging of man and machines to form cyborg creatures of a new kind, as envisaged, and to some extent already practiced, by bionanotechnology and other man-machine-combinations.

The goal of the research group is to investigate on the basis of traditional concepts about the image of humanity and human dignity whether these concepts can be applied to modern medical-technological developments, and if they are still suitable for guiding us in finding answers to the corresponding ethical questions. Additional concepts may well have to be added in order to facilitate an even more appropriate assessment of this area.