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Thomas A. Shannon

WPI Professor of Religion and Social Ethics

An interview by Vicki Sanders

Professor Thomas Shannon, a pioneer in the field of bioethics, participated in the Human Genome Project; he received the first grant to examine the relationship between religious issues and genetics. He is the author of more than 25 books, among them Made in Whose Image? Genetic Engineering and Christian Ethics, and has been a professor in the Department of Humanities and Arts since 1973.

As a bioethicist and a Roman Catholic, do you have a particular lens through which you scrutinize genetic engineering, eugenics, the Genome Project and the like?

Yes, I look through a 2,000-year tradition of reflecting on moral questions, so what I bring with me is a long history of thinking about many of these topics. I also am part of a community that's engaged in a lively debate over them.

Does your perspective put you inside or outside the mainstream of ethical discussion?

I understand myself to be within the tradition. I do push it a lot and I'm trying to articulate the contemporary relationship between the growing edge of the tradition and science. It gets harder as time goes on. The questions are becoming more complicated, and science is developing so rapidly that the implications are not clear. It takes a long time to think this stuff through, and we don't have that luxury anymore. By the time you think about a new development, five more are coming along.

How did your interest in religion and ethics lead you to medicine and the sciences?

It was happenstance. I did my graduate work in social ethics--my thesis was on the just-war theory--but when I began teaching at an engineering and science college, other problems caught my interest. Bioethics was a developing field and I recognized how critical the issues were. Also, UMass Medical School was being built here. Had I not been at WPI, I probably wouldn't have gotten involved in this field, or at least not deeply.

People are living longer. What ethical issues does this raise about the quality of life and preserving life with technology?

The key ethical issue is, does intervention benefit the patient? If you can show it does, fine; if not, after a couple of weeks, you should stop. The process is often incremental; one procedure leads to another and another. All of a sudden you're deep in a technology-driven situation. Stopping a technology is difficult because the specialists administering it get committed to using it. Stopping seems like failing the patient.

You've written about prevention from an ethical standpoint. What does prevention have to do with ethics?

Prevention benefits the population at large rather than a targeted group or an individual. Bioethicists need to integrate the concepts of social justice and the common good into thinking about healthcare. How can we restructure both healthcare and society to change some of the physical outcomes? We must move beyond discussions about, say, removing life support and look at things like heart disease caused by obesity or lung cancer caused by smoking.

What is your ethical concern about human cloning?

I don't have an ethical problem with cloning as a reproductive technology or with using it to generate embryos to obtain stem cells. Ethically, the major problem is that cloning doesn't work and it certainly isn't safe to use for reproductive purposes. But people with money will do anything they want and some scientists will too. Regulation won't solve that problem because people can move offshore. My hope is for a core of ethical scientists who will say no.

As our understanding of the human genome grows, we may have more ability to shape the genetic makeup of children. Are we in danger of opening the door on an era of designer babies?

It opened 30 years ago with amniocentesis. We can chose a child's sex now, and we can eliminate fetuses with particular diseases. But the assumption that genetics controls everything is a bankrupt idea. The mythology is, if you clone Michael Jordan, the progeny will grow up to be great basketball players. However, one's genetic profile isn't a total predicator of what the person will be like. What happens to the couple who pays $50,000 for eggs from a tall, Ivy League female athlete with an SAT score of 1,500 and the kid turns out not to be so smart or good looking, and doesn't like sports?

Are there opportunities at WPI to influence the ethical sensibilities of future scientists and engineers?

All students here have to minor in the humanities, which adds dimension to their perspective. When they hit the Interactive Qualifying Project, they are required to look at the interaction of technology and society and think about the implications. For example, I have a group of students using their IQP to determine if animals should be used in research. These kinds of projects open up new horizons for students.

Vicki Sanders is a free-lance writer and editor who lives in Brookline, Mass.

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