Well Being

Genetics Interview #20: Rebecca Taylor of Mary Meets Dolly

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One of the aims of the Genetics and Health interview series is to present different viewpoints on genetics. And today's interview with Rebecca Taylor of Mary Meets Dolly is definitely a little different than most of what you'll encounter. Typically, science blogs are written by atheists or people who don't have a strong religious belief. And even if writers are devoutly religious, they maintain strict separation of church and science.

Not Rebecca Taylor. As you can see, she's not afraid of speaking out about her strongly held Catholic beliefs. And she's not afraid of speaking out about science. That makes a lethal combination and I, for one, respect her for it.

1. You're a clinical laboratory technologist in molecular biology at a Catholic hospital. Are there certain molecular diagnostics that are available at secular hospitals but not at the hospital you work for? For instance, in an episode of Boston Legal, a young woman was not offered a particular treatment (ok, it was abortion after a rape) because she was taken to the emergency room of a Catholic hospital. Would procedures like preimplantation genetic diagnosis be out of bounds at your hospital?

At my Catholic hospital we provide many of the same prenatal and genetic tests many secular hospitals offer. In general, genetic tests are amoral. Most genetic tests are neither ethical nor unethical. They simply provide information. The ethical dilemmas that surround genetic testing come from how that information is used. Those decisions happen outside the laboratory, in doctors' offices, genetic counseling centers, abortion clinics and insurance company boardrooms.

My hospital does not offer in vitro fertilization (IVF) however. The Church holds that IVF is contrary to the dignity of the human person. Catholics believe every child is meant to be conceived out of love for love. A child from the union of a man and a woman is begotten, not made, a gift from God. And while the children produced by IVF in a laboratory are no doubt precious, they are often not seen as the gifts they truly are, but instead as man-made products or commodities.

This is apparent, I believe, in the relatively new technique preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) where a single cell is taken from each IVF embryo and genetic tests are performed. Sometimes, PGD is used to select embryos that are a match for a sick older sibling who needs a transplant. The embryos that are a match and can donate to their older sibling are implanted and those that are not a match are frozen, donated to research, or discarded. One BBC News article called these children “spare part babies.”

Most often PGD is used for testing embryos for genetic disorders. Genetically “defective” embryos are discarded and only the genetically “desirable” embryos are implanted. The Catholic Church holds that PGD is unethical not only because extracting the single cell for testing puts the life of the IVF embryo at risk, but also because what starts as a choice to have the perfect child soon becomes the duty to have the perfect child. There are more and more bioethicists suggesting that with IVF and preimplanatation genetic diagnosis available, it would be unethical for any couple to have a genetically defective child. (Can you say Gattaca?)

So no, preimplantation genetic diagnosis would not be offered at my hospital and I am thankful that my employer would never ask me to perform such testing.

2. You are definitely not shy about expressing your feelings on controversial issues, such as the embryonic stem cell debate. Have your beliefs ever made it difficult for you to conduct experiments or other work in the lab? In what ways do you think you've taken a different research/career route than peers?

It is not easy to sound off as nay-sayer to human embryo-destructive research. I definitely have made choices in my career based upon what I am and what I am not willing to do, as everyone has. I would never work on human embryos or fetal tissue obtained from an elective abortion. I purposely have tried to stay away from the genetic counseling aspect of the field and have worked at staying in the lab performing the actual testing. In my current position, there are some sticky gray areas especially concerning carrier screening of pregnant women. In every case where I have had a question whether or not the work I was doing was ethical, I have consulted a Catholic bioethicist. Luckily, I have never had to remove myself from a project or any experiment in the lab because of my Catholic beliefs.

I think it is important to note that this question is not just relevant for me or other Catholics. This is a very pertinent question for anyone thinking of entering the genetics or genetic engineering field. Everyone has to decide what they are and are not willing to do, and make choices on research and laboratories appropriately. Are you willing to perform experiments on animals? Are you willing to clone human DNA into rabbit eggs? Are you willing to experiment on human embryos? I could imagine nothing worse, career- wise, than working hard to get into a lab, but not looking into the kind of research that is done there, and then realizing that one is morally opposed to doing the work that is required.

3. In the August 2005 inaugural post of Mary Meets Dolly, you say that you started the blog to “provide Catholics with solid, pertinent resources and clear, plain commentary.” In what ways do you think the presentation of genetics and science needs to be different for Catholics vs. non-Catholics/non-religious people?

Catholics are just as confused about the ever changing world of genetics and genetic engineering as the average individual. But where Catholics are at a disadvantage is that many priests the average Catholic looks to for guidance on these issues are confused themselves or are not able to keep up. In addition, Catholic scholars who are well-versed in new developments can be hard to understand. I started blogging to try and remedy this problem.

I believe there are two “camps” in the Catholic community regarding science. First there are those that are knee-jerk against any development in genetics and genetic engineering citing one aspect of the faith to paint all of it as unethical. A good example is that most Catholics know that the teachings of the Church are against human cloning both for reproductive and research purposes. They therefore automatically assume that cloning of animals is also wrong. The Catholic Church has no problem with the genetic engineering of plants and animals as long as it is done responsibly with the betterment of mankind in mind. An example would be the genetic engineering of crops and livestock that would provide more abundant quality food to the hungry. Another example is in the area of stem cell research. Many Catholics are not aware that the Church supports many kinds of stem cell research. The Church is opposed only to research that creates, manipulates or destroys human life, namely embryonic life.

The second “camp” of Catholics are those that think that genetic engineering in humans is perfectly acceptable as long as the embryos are not implanted. These Catholics have fallen into “the end justifies the means” trap because they do not understand the Church teaching on the sanctity of human life.

So I do believe that I present advances in the genetics and genetic engineering for Catholics differently than I would for a secular audience. First, I present the science in a way that I hope anyone could understand. Then, I research Church doctrine and Catholic scholars and evaluate the ethics by applying Church teaching and make a judgment as best as I can (I am no theologian) on whether the research is ethical or not.

But, in no way do I think this process should be restricted just to Catholics or the religious. Science is inherently amoral. Science asks a question about the physical universe and then methodically searches for the answer. Whether or not research is ethical is a judgment that needs to come from outside of science. It needs to come from philosophy, theology, history and law. It is a judgment that I believe we cannot leave up to the scientists. We all need to decide at what point research into genetics and genetic engineering has crossed the line and become unethical. Do we want to allow human cloning even for research purposes? Do we think the creation of animal-human chimeras is ethical? Do we want to support research on aborted fetuses? We need to think about what kind of research we want to go on in our local hospital or university and what kind of research we are willing to pay for with our tax dollars.

4. The science blogging community is generally not religious with some being outright anti-religion, e.g., PZ Myers at Pharyngula. How do you feel about that? Do you think there's hope of there being a truce or a balancing of viewpoints between the two sides?

I am very aware that the scientific community in general is not religious which is why I am very grateful to Dr. Lei and the Genetics and Public Health blog for stepping outside the norm and interviewing someone in the genetics field who is overtly religious. I have no problem with the anti-religion science crowd as long as I am not dismissed as a “know-nothing religious fundamentalist” simply because I am a Catholic. I would never think to ask a colleague, before they present their results, whether they are a Baptist, or a Hindu or a Muslim or an atheist for that matter. We can all agree on the scientific facts. Where we may disagree is on the implications or ethics of the research and that is a discussion we can have in a thoughtful and respectful manner. For example, we should all be able to agree that a new, genetically distinct, human organism is created at conception, namely a human embryo. Where we disagree is whether that embryo should be protected or not. That is not a question that science can answer.

I am hopeful that there can be a dialogue between the religious and non-religious regarding the new advancements in genetic engineering. As long as we do not engage in euphemisms and redefinitions of scientific terminology and refrain from hysterics and ad hominem attacks, I think there is a lot that can we can learn from each other.

5. The genome revolution is/will be the big news of the century. In what ways do you think we should be cautious? Jubilant?

I know there is much to be jubilant about regarding the genome revolution! In my blog, I have tried to convince Catholics that the “Human Genome Project” is not a dirty little phrase. I am excited that every day I can test people for disorders with genetic causes like Factor V Leiden and Hereditary Hemochromatosis and give them information that they can use to keep themselves healthy. I am excited that every time we find a mutation with DNA sequencing that has not been previously reported that we are adding a piece to the huge puzzle of genetic disease. I look forward to the day when our medications are prescribed not on a trial and error basis, but with each individual's genetic make-up in mind.

But with the infinite possibilities to help mankind, genetic information may be abused. I am afraid that we may be revisiting the devastating school of thought called eugenics. We must be cautious. We have a challenge to not define ourselves by our genes. We need to remember that all human life is valuable, even that which is considered “genetically defective.” It has been estimated that 80-90% of babies that are diagnosed with Downs syndrome prenatally are aborted. Anyone who has known someone with Downs knows how tragic a statistic this is. I think it is a symptom of a society that has once again embraced the idea that there is such a thing as “good genes” that need to be passed on and “bad genes” that need to be eliminated. That kind of thinking in the early 20th century led directly to the Holocaust. I hope that in this genome revolution we do not lose our humanity to technology and we remember our history so that we are not doomed to repeat it.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, Rebecca. The world is made up of different people with different beliefs and I like that we're all free to express ourselves.