With Due Respect

Controversial consequences of biotechnology

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The interesting “tsika”  among celebrities and common folks alike during Yuletide was the dawning biotechnological age, especially stem cell therapy, as the modern “fountain of youth” to arrest aging and to regenerate body organs. Many stem cell clinics and specialty centers now abound, offering stem cells extracted from sheep fetuses, or from the very patients themselves, or worse, from aborted pregnancies.

Altering genetics. The aim is to enable our body and its many organs to repair themselves, or to accept new parts made from animals, or other people, or harvested from the patients’ own regenerated cells and tissues. Or sometimes from metals, plastic or other inanimate manufactures.

But the new biosciences and biotechnologies go beyond mere physiognomy; they delve deeper into health, well-being, and longevity, and affect all human endeavors. While, basically, they involve the repair and regeneration of worn-out body parts, they also plunge to in-vitro fertilization, reproductive cloning and genetic modification of humans, animals and plants.

They also extend to hair-width electrodes that carry electronic impulses to the motor cortex of the brain detectable by computers, making it possible to bypass spinal injuries and help paralyzed people move their arms and legs again. And mutate them to superbionic humans!

By improving physical prowess, healing diseases, relieving pain, enhancing beauty and cloning individuals, the new sciences can change demographics, population densities and economic indicators. Moreover, by tinkering with human behavior, they also trigger societal, political and juridical implications.

Verily, humankind is on the verge of being able to alter history radically by modifying genetics and producing new ways of substituting and enhancing natural birth, health, well-being and longevity. Of course, all these have controversial consequences as they produce major challenges to human development, politics, religion and ethics.

And of course, the law. The new sciences can also be sources of new causes of action and defenses in criminal and civil cases. As a scientist-lawyer, Dr. Franklin Zweig, averred many years ago, “My genes made me do it” can scientifically become a “respectable claim in criminal justice proceedings.”

On another level, genetic tests can be used to prescreen appointees or candidates to public office considering that, as reported by Time magazine on Dec. 24, 2012, the new sciences can arguably show a predisposition to Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, diabetes, autism, violent behavior and other defects and illnesses.

Our Supreme Court, as early as March 8, 2001, in Tijing vs. Court of Appeals already acknowledged, with some reservations, the most elementary of the biotechnologies, the use of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) test to determine identity and parentage.

A year later, in People vs. Vallejo (May 9, 2002), the Court more firmly said, “When a crime is committed, material is collected from the scene of the crime or from the victim’s body… This … is then matched with the reference sample taken from the suspect and the victim.”

Saga of Carmina. Here is an example of how biotechnology can have novel consequences. Imagine a married couple, Pedro (a Filipino) and Marie (an American), who were told by their obstetrician that Marie was incapable of conceiving and carrying a child in her womb.

Researching on the Internet, Marie learned of somatic cell nuclear transfer, or reproductive cloning, which involves the extraction of the cell nucleus (containing DNA) from a skin or mammary tissue and its insertion into an egg cell whose original nucleus had been removed. Despite the objection of her husband, Marie went to Hong Kong with her friend, Katerina (an Italian), married to Juan, a Filipino doctor.

In a Hong Kong clinic, a cell nucleus was extracted from Marie’s skin and inserted into her egg cell that had earlier been denucleated. The resulting zygote, or fertilized egg, was thereafter transferred to the womb of Katerina who became the surrogate carrier of the developing fetus. After nine months, the baby, named Carmina, was born in the Philippines.

Questions: Who is the mother of Carmina? Marie from whose cells she originated? Or Katerina from whose womb she was physically carried, nurtured and born? Does she have a father? If so, who, Pedro or Juan? Is she legitimate or illegitimate? Whose surname will she carry? How can her filiation be established? Will a DNA test sustain her identity and parentage? Since she bears the chromosomes solely of Marie and her parents, is Carmina not the sister of Marie, and therefore like her, the daughter of Marie’s parents?

Who should exercise parental authority over her? Who should have custody over her as a baby? Are Pedro and/or Juan obligated to support her, even if they objected to the process of her conception and birth? Is Carmina a Filipino? If so, is she a natural-born citizen? Is she entitled to vote and be voted to public office?

These questions have far-reaching implications. And the answers can be as varied as there are people who may care to respond. For one thing, there are no specific laws or Supreme Court decisions that definitively answer them.

My point is that scientific and technological innovations produce consequences that impact on humankind. And readers can make their own opinions, from various perspectives: scientific, legal, religious, philosophical, sociological, cultural, or simple common sense.

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