Juan Masia, SJ (Professor at Sophia University, Tokyo)   

I have chosen the title "seimei no shouhinka" as the keynote for the present series of essays. "Seimei no shouhinka" refers to the trend to turn life into a mere object of exchange, an item of commercialization, that is to say, to consider life merely as a commodity to be sold or bought at a given price. This utilitarian outlook on life lies in the background of many social problems caused by the new technologies.

Life issues are, as Pope John Paul has frequently repeated, social and cultural issues. In the curriculum of some universities we can find that medical ethics, business ethics and political ethics are dealt with separately as if they were different subjects or disciplines. But, in fact, these three fields of research and education are intimately connected. Life issues are, at the same time, socio-economic, socio-political and socio-cultural issues. The crisis of our technological age is both a crisis of life and a crisis of culture.

Let us take just an example from the recent research project about deciphering the human genome.

The Human Genome Project is expected to provide information about the cause of many inherited diseases, as well as to make it possible to practice accurate genetic tests for diagnosis. But, on the other hand, the therapeutical means to cure such diseases are not expected to develop at the same pace. If the criterion for decision is merely the economic reason of low-cost, the tendency to favor abortion in cases where a prenatal diagnosis gives a negative prognosis for a diseased fetus will obviously increase.

Besides this economic utilitarian reasoning, there is also a cultural change of outlook which influences these decisions. We find a tendency among many people living in industrially advanced societies to use the genetic technology in order to get the most "perfect child", l' enfant a la carte, as the say in French, or "konomi no akachan" in Japanese.

There is also a political problem; namely, the governments relying on the help of the new technologies may take those decisions. For instance, the US Congress Office of Technology Assessment, about twenty years earlier than the recent developments, reported: "New technologies for identifying traits and altering genes make it possible for eugenic goals to be achieved through technological as opposed to social control" (US Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, Mapping Our Genes, 1988).

This reminds us of the utilitarian reasoning behind the Nazi eugenic policy. But we should remember also that eugenic mentality was already spread among people before the Nazi period. Actually at the beginning of the 20th century there was a great eugenic movement in the United States, United Kingdom and Germany. Many laws were passed to sterilize involuntary persons with illnesses such as mental retardation, alcoholism, epilepsy etc. In 1927 the US Supreme Court decided that the involuntary sterilization of the mentally retarded was constitutionally acceptable based on utilitarian philosophy. Such an eugenic mentality still survives in many people. Are we aware of the presence of such a mentality both in the Japanese culture and in the criteria of its political leaders?

One of the main ethical concerns about the Human Genome Project is the "profit motivation" behind the drive to accelerate research. In fact, pharmaceutical companies will develop treatment for diseases. Obviously, researchers will try to patent any potentially useful knowledge about genes as soon as possible, in order to sell this knowledge to drug companies. Japan is also in a hurry not to be behind the US or the UK in this race. The legislation about the use of cloning technology (passed last year in the Diet, without much public debate) has to do with this problem. We will deal with it next time.

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