While anniversaries give cause for celebration and thanksgiving they also give pause for reflection and fresh insight into the precise nature of the event which is being remembered. Indeed, without memory and reflection there is a real risk, not only of losing our way, but also of missing the miracle of life along the way.
This year, 2003, marks the fiftieth anniversary since the discovery by Francis Crick and James Watson of the three-dimensional structure of DNA – the chemical substance found in every living cell. This discovery unlocked the mystery of how the DNA molecule carried the genetic blueprint of life as well as how this blueprint is replicated and passed on. Of itself a molecule of DNA is not independent life but rather is the foundational building block of life.
The discovery of the structure of DNA has, in turn, led to other developments such as DNA profiling – the unique identification of the individual; the mapping of the Human Genome; the reality of improved diagnosis and new possibilities of cure for chronic diseases. Unlocking the mystery of DNA, and the opportunities that this has led to, is undoubtedly part of the splendour of scientific and biological truth. A further splendour is our ability to manipulate DNA, but only ever with a concomitant requirement to do so in ways that are morally and ethically beneficial.
Even after fifty years our imaginations remain captivated by the wonder of this journey of discovery and the capacity that scientists have for the pursuit of scientific truth. Nevertheless it is both sad and ironical that while we have enhanced our sense of "wonder and reverence" for DNA, there has been an increasing reluctance to show the same reverence for the unique human expression of DNA in the embryo and foetus. This ethical inconsistency does not seem to matter to the many groups in society who take various stands on issues to do with the use of our new genetic knowledge.
This year further marks the thirtieth anniversary of the 1973 decision made by the Supreme Court of the United States to legalise abortion in its landmark "Roe v Wade" decision. This decision was based on the notion that a woman had a constitutional right to privacy which took precedent over the right to life of the unborn child. In making this decision the Supreme Court Judges were also accepting in principle the notion that an individual's choice could override any responsibility the State had in protecting the unborn child. Currently, in both the United States of America and in New Zealand, approximately one in four of all pregnancies end in abortion.
In our own legislation in New Zealand the rationale for legalising abortion was the preservation and promotion of the physical and mental health of the mother. This rationale made the right to life of the embryo or foetus a lesser consideration, which in practice has resulted in the abrogation of this right. Yet research into the effects of abortion is increasingly revealing that the reasoning behind the legislation is flawed.
Rather than abortion preserving and promoting the physical and mental health of the mother, research has highlighted the serious physical, spiritual and psychological harm that results for women from abortion. Such harm is readily acknowledged by those who are actively involved in providing abortions. For example, Dr Christine Forster, former Chairwoman of the New Zealand Supervisory Committee has stated: "Every woman I have seen who has had a termination has a difficult time subsequently. They have a grief process and sorting out time to go through. It certainly doesn't leave them unmarked and I have never met a woman who has had one who would want to go through it again of her own free will."
It has long been known that the manner in which the father responds to the news of his partner's pregnancy has an enormous effect on her decision to keep or abort the baby. More recently there has been a growing awareness of the long-term effects of abortion on the child's father. Research shows that the pain and remorse that some men carry upon learning of their child's abortion is as profound as that experienced by their partner.
The sad reality is that the legacy of abortion on demand not only destroys the life of the unborn child, it also adversely affects both women and men. It is this truth which charts the course to true freedom in this area, not legislation which offers little restriction on abortion. This relationship between truth and freedom is something that has long occupied the attention of Pope John Paul II, most notably in his encyclical letter Veritatis Splendor – The Splendor of Truth.
The year 2003 also marks a lesser-known anniversary, namely, the tenth year since Pope John Paul II published this important encyclical letter. In it he speaks about truth as enlightening and shaping our intellect while simultaneously guiding our actions and search for God. Truth is like a prism which helps us to rejoice in the developments of science and knowledge, and in the capacity that men and women have for wisdom. Truth also exists to orient the pilgrim in his or her search for understanding questions which are of ultimate significance.
Veritatis Splendor emphasises that real freedom only comes about when we make choices that are in conformity with the deepest truths about what brings lasting human fulfilment. In our Catholic moral tradition we call upon various sources of wisdom as a means of being able to reference our personal and communal choices.
Without these reference points, and unless we take the opportunities to "re-member" and "re-collect", many of the deeper moral and ethical insights that are so essential to the discovery of truth and freedom give way to immediacy so that pragmatism becomes the only source of ethical wisdom. Pope John Paul II describes such a scenario as the "complete sovereignty of human reason" above all else. Frequently this is because reason has been separated from the collective memory and other traditional fonts of wisdom. When this is combined with an overemphasis on individualism then personal autonomy inevitably comes to be seen as the ultimate expression of human freedom.
In our growth in wisdom and in our search for truth and freedom the celebration of an anniversary is a profound gift. Not only does it provide a natural time to reflect on the questions that matter most in our lives, it also provides the impetus to allow the truth greater reign and scope within our hearts as we contemplate the ultimate meaning of things.
The discovery of the structure of DNA has helped us recognise the deeper truth and mystery in the beauty of life. May the anniversary of this wonderful discovery lead us to contemplate even more deeply our links with the Author of life and also strengthen our ability and desire to live by them.
Rev Michael McCabe, PhD
The Nathaniel Centre