Suffering genes

HumanChromosomesChromomycinA3We reckon medicine to be about the relief of suffering. It seems to me that Jews and Muslims are more enthusiastic about this than many Christians. Despite the holocaust, Jews embrace forms of genetic engineering. Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits reportedly advised against marrying into a family known to carry an inherited disease. This refreshingly honest attitude is not confined to genetics: Orthodox Jews accept contraception when a pregnancy is likely to threaten a woman’s health—something officially forbidden to most Christians. R M Green writes that Talmudic sages denounce the glorification of suffering, and prefer to forego future reward if it involves present agony. This is attractive! It’s as if over the centuries Jews have had enough suffering and want to minimize it in the future.

In Christianity, by contrast, there’s always been something of a suffering-is-good-for-you masochism. St Paul says as much. Some Christians seem to glory in suffering. Their aim is not to avoid pain but to embrace it. We all know people who make a virtue of enjoying ill health. ‘After all’, they say sanctimoniously, ‘Jesus knowingly goes to the cross, and in this suffering I’m imitating Our Lord, and present with those who suffer’. Pass the sick bag. The logical position for these people would be to eschew antibiotics, elastoplasts, analgesics, hip replacements—the lot.

And yet, and yet … I can’t pretend to be logical or consistent. Given our human ability to take a tool for good and turn it to evil ends, I’m ambivalent about gene therapy. My wife and I decided when we were both reproductively intact, now long ago, that we would not have amniocentesis when she was expecting, for the result would not change our minds about allowing the pregnancy to proceed to term. The practice of medicine is, at root, antibiological and antievolutionary, and you could say that all medicine is a form of genetic engineering in that helping the ‘less fit’ to survive and reproduce weakens the gene-pool. Despite the considerable benefits that genetic medicine can bring, our use of it indicates intolerance of imperfection and disability. And so does plastic surgery, bodybuilding, cosmetics, and obsession about weight. There was a time in my life when I fell victim to this as a ‘gym rat’. Now I see these as indicating a quest for perfection and immortality that is a perversion by the satanic advertising industry of a perfectly reasonable spiritual quest for wholeness.

Yes, I know, such agonizing is a disease of materialism. But I live in 21st century Europe and am confronted by such issues. Even so, perhaps especially so, there are boundaries to be laid down about what is and isn’t permitted by society, and what can and can’t be available at public expense. Who will draw these lines? Politicians don’t seem to want to, and neither do medics. Ethicists and theologians can twist anything to suit—and do. Herbert McCabe (1926–2001), a Roman Catholic priest, theologian and philosopher, is reported as saying ‘ethics is entirely concerned with doing what you want.’ Maybe we should remove all controls and let people do as they wish—at their own expense. I think not.

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