Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Issues of medical ethics complex, but Church offers clear guidance
Story and photo by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the March 22, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)
Rebecca Taylor speaks to parishes and other groups about the Catholic position on various issues of medical ethics. (IR photo)
Rebecca Taylor’s official title at Spokane’s Sacred Heart Medical Center, where she has worked for three years, is Clinical Laboratory Specialist in Molecular Biology. Born and raised in San Francisco, with a few years along the way in St. Cloud, Minn., she and her husband, John, and their four children – ages 11, 7, 4, and 18 months – are members of Spokane Valley’s St. John Vianney Parish, where the two older children also attend school.
Taylor earned a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology from the University of San Francisco and worked for nine years at the University of California, San Francisco, prior to her family’s move to Spokane Valley where husband John, a Spokane native, works as a software engineer.
Besides her professional work in the medical field, Taylor has begun to give talks and workshops on the ethical issues of biotechnology.
Taylor says that she became active in the church with regard to biotechnology when she started doing research on stem cells and cloning.
“I began reading,” she explains, “and I came across information that most people don’t know about because the media don’t report it very much at all. I was talking to an older gentleman at a family party, and he seemed to know a whole lot about it. I was really surprised because I had never met anyone who knows as much about it as he does. Yet he was still shocked by some of the things I was telling him. He wanted to know where I had gotten all the information I had, and then he said, ‘Young lady, it’s not good enough to just read, you have to do something!’ I later found out that he was a former U.S. Congressman from California.
“The popes have been very clear on this,” she says, “that you are not the sum of your genes. We need to be treated as a human being, regardless of what our genes hold. We need to be respected. Eugenics is back, that’s the big thing, only this time it isn’t Nazis doing it.”
A major hot-button ethical issue in genetic research is the HPV vaccine. HPV (human papilloma-virus) vaccine is designed to immunize against certain sexually transmitted diseases, such as cervical cancer and genital warts which are caused by human papillomaviruses.
Texas governor Rick Perry made national headlines recently by ordering that Texas schoolgirls going into sixth grade in 2008 be inoculated with HPV vaccine. Some critics responded that Perry’s vaccine requirement encourages pre-marital teenage sex and tramples parental rights.
Others, such as medical oncologist Dr. Maurie Markman, vice president for clinical research at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, linked his response to extensive experience with female patients with cervical cancer. He told the Associated Press that his advice to friends and colleagues who ask about the vaccine for their daughters is simple: “Get them vaccinated. There is no other advice I can give. This is a profoundly effective cancer prevention strategy. My recommendation is very straightforward. It has nothing to do with politics,” said Markman. “I see what cervix cancer can do. I see the pain, the suffering. . .the negative aspects of this disease. The importance of preventing it I can’t possibly overstate.”
There has been no official church comment about the HPV vaccine, said Taylor. “The Catholic Medical Association says that the vaccine, in and of itself, is ethical,” she said. “Just because HPV is contracted sexually does not necessarily mean that a vaccination is unethical. They are fine with the vaccination as long as it is not mandatory. Also, parents and children need to be properly informed about the risks, efficacy, and so forth. I have three girls, and you just have to weigh the odds and do what you think is best.”
A genetic bill of rights is another important issue, she said.
“Congress has the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act that they are going to be voting on very soon,” she said. “What that basically says is that an employer or an insurance company cannot discriminate against an otherwise healthy person for a genetic predisposition to a disease. I do genetic testing in my laboratory, and some people are afraid to get the genetic testing because they’re afraid that their insurance company will drop them, or there will be some form of negative consequences from their employer, things like that. But the nice thing about genetic testing is that often if you know you have a genetic propensity for a certain disease you can prevent that disease from ever progressing. This is legislation that I feel is a long time coming.”
Taylor says that the only time genetic testing would be unethical would be in the case of prenatal genetic testing where the intent is to abort. “Prenatal genetic testing is fine as long as the intent is not to abort (if the test reveals conditions the parents or others would view as undesirable),” she explains. Genetic testing, she said, simply tells you if you have a predisposition for a disease, it doesn’t say that a person is definitely going to contract that disease. “Genetic testing is not something the individual initiates on his or her own,” Taylor said. “Almost always it is advised by a physician based on the results of a particular blood test.”
One of the more controversial issues in the field of genetics today comes from the fact that, Taylor said, “25 percent of the human genome has been patented and is owned by big corporations. But the Catholic Church says that it is not ethical to patent naturally occurring genes, which (companies) are doing. It is okay to patent a novel approach to testing that gene, or to modifying that gene, but it is not ethical to patent a naturally occurring gene, and it really does hamper us in our work of genetic testing, because we have to pay royalties to the companies that own the genes that we test. A quarter of the genes that I have naturally occurring in my body are owned by someone else!”
On the topic of stem cell research, Taylor takes every opportunity to point out that “the church really only opposes one type of stem cell research, and that is stem cell research when a human organism has to be destroyed. Everything else is fine. In my talks there are two teachings of the church that I use as ‘litmus tests’ to decide if something is ethical or not. The first is, does this research uphold the sanctity of human life? Are we treating human life at any stage like a commodity? And the other is, are we creating human life outside of marriage? – because that really does lead to treating human life as a commodity.
“We were told,” she continues, “that in vitro fertilization was going to be just about giving infertile couples children, but now we have half a million frozen embryos, and what do we do with them? We’re commoditizing them, we’re treating them as disposable biological material, and the church really saw that coming a long time ago. Those are the questions I look at when I look at a new technology or a new development. Are we creating human life outside of marriage, and are we destroying human life to get at a harvestable biological material?”
Besides speaking at parishes or for groups, her activism takes the form of a website – www.marymeetsdolly.com – where anyone can access many forms of useful information on Catholic perspectives on genetics and bioethics. “The name,” she explains, “comes from Mary, who is the mother of the church, and Dolly, the first sheep that was cloned from another adult sheep.” Taylor’s website, which carries the title “A Catholic’s Guide to Genetics, Genetic Engineering, and Bioethics,” includes a blog where she regularly leaves her personal thoughts and reflections on relevant topics.
More than a few Catholics, Taylor says, “have the feeling that the whole field of genetics is out of control, or a lot of it is unethical, or they have the sense that it’s all bad. But it isn’t. It is important for us to research and determine what is ethical and what is unethical, because we can’t just have a knee-jerk reaction against all of it. It’s very important that we embrace what’s good about genetic research, because in a very anti-Christian society, if we have a negative knee-jerk reaction against everything, it doesn’t really help our cause a whole lot. We need to embrace the biotechnology that’s ethical. What I try to do is be someone who can speak to the average person in plain English about all of this.”