Next pope will face bioethical challenges unforeseen 27 years ago
By Nancy Frazier O'Brien
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) -- When Pope John Paul II was elected to the papacy in October 1978, the world's first test-tube baby was not yet 3 months old and a young woman named Karen Ann Quinlan remained in a New Jersey nursing home, breathing on her own two years after her parents won a court battle to remove her respirator.
It would take three years for the first test-tube baby to be born in the United States and four more after that before Quinlan, fed through a nasal gastric tube, would died of pneumonia.
As complicated as those bioethical issues of life and death seemed at the time, Pope John Paul II's successor will face a vastly more complex series of questions and challenges, according to Catholic bioethical experts interviewed by Catholic News Service.
Today, up to a million test-tube babies have been born worldwide, with questions just surfacing now about their long-term physical and emotional health. And the latest debate about the "right to die," in the case of the severely brain-damaged Terri Schindler Schiavo, involved withdrawing food and water, leading to her death from starvation and dehydration 13 days later, on March 31.
"By the time (Pope John Paul II) became pope, we were already dealing with abortion, and euthanasia really took hold during his pontificate," said John Haas, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia.
But the bioethical questions that will confront the next pontiff will be much more scientific and technical, as stem-cell research involving human embryos gains greater acceptance in many parts of the world and various gene therapies permit the creation of "enhanced" human beings -- children with characteristics desired by their parents, athletes able to perform unheard-of feats and seniors whose bodies defy the aging process.
Haas said the issue of embryonic stem cells will present "a profound problem for Catholics in terms of doing molecular research." With research involving cells line derived from embryos "happening everywhere," he added, "We might be blessed if no therapies develop from embryonic stem cells" and more scientists turn their attention to adult stem cells, which have achieved some therapeutic successes in humans.