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Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bioethics

Introduction

After two hundred years of the first publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the book has become an essential read for scientists. Indeed, the book is vital for realizing the responsibility behind scientific discoveries. Frankenstein tries to answer the question of whether humans should do anything just because they can. This question is actively discussed at present, as it has become the foundation of bioethics. On the one hand, some scientists believe that playing God is unethical and adverse consequences shall follow. On the other hand, researchers argue that the acceptance of human limitations is nothing but fear of the unknown that people should overcome. Even though science aims at building knowledge and understanding, its primary goal is to serve humanity. Therefore, researchers are to be responsible for their actions and think about the possible applications and implications of their studies.

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Frankenstein’s Monster

The famous epistolary novel, Frankenstein, discusses the consequences of humans trying to play God and create living creatures. The book describes a story of a scientist Victor Frankenstein, who successfully animated a body made out of pieces of human organs of different origins. After the birth of the monster, Victor becomes terrified by it and flees. The monster finds shelter in DeLacey’s house, where he learns to read and finds out about his creator from Frankenstein’s diary. Associating himself with the devil that was rejected by his creator, the monster becomes violent, killing many people. However, the monster feels even more miserable than Satan does, as the devil “had his companions, fellow devils, to admire and encourage him, but I am solitary and abhorred” (Shelley, p. 155). Victor dies trying to make up for his mistake and destroy his creation. The novel ends with the monster revealing his feelings that he was born for love and empathy while facing nothing but misunderstanding, violence, and rejection.

The central problem of the novel is whether a man should do something just because he can. Victor created the monster flowing his obsession without a clear purpose. His creation found no place in this world and became distraught, bringing fear and chaos to the lives of others. Thus, the creator was punished for taking no responsibility for his work, as there was nothing but pride motivating his actions. However, Shelley does not make it clear if the monster was distressed solely because the way he came to be was not natural. The monster states that he was wretched because all humankind sinned against him (Shelley, p. 275). Therefore, a reader may be left with the feeling that the primary reason for the monster’s nature was the lack of sympathy, education, and protection. If Victor taught his creation about what is right and wrong, cared for, and defended his “child” from the outside dangers, the creature may have become a healthy member of society.

Even though it is not directly mentioned in the book, Shelly hinted that the primary reason for the monster’s violence was trying to play God. The original title of the novel Frankenstein, the Modern Prometheus suggests that Victor is to be associated with Titan Prometheus who created the human race violating the sanctity of the heavens overseen by Zeus (Peters, p. 145). Therefore, the creator of the monster was punished by God for trying to interfere with the divine plan. Shelley warns the reader that technology may become a source of danger without thoughtful use. In short, scientists should not only think about what they want; they are to consider what is needed and what is right from the viewpoint of morality.

Bioethics

While the question of whether humans have the right to interfere with the sanctity of life is old as time, the book by Shelley can be considered a foundation for modern bioethics. The study discusses ethical issues emerging from advances in biology and medicine. It is concerned with basic human values such as the rights to life and health and the rightness or wrongness of developments in technology, healthcare, and biology (“What is Bioethics?”). The most critical question of the study is whether humans have the right to clone and use reproductive technologies. As these two matters can be thought of as an unnatural way to give birth to new creatures, the questions of bioethics are very close to the questions posed by Shelley in Frankenstein.

There are groups of scientists that support and oppose the notion that using technology to interfere with the sanctity of life is unethical. According to Peters, the core problem with genetic enhancement and cloning is that it destroys the appreciation of the gifted character of human powers (p. 146). In simpler words, genetics leads to the loss of the understanding of the divine nature of life and that only God has the powers to grant it. However, other scientists are sure that the polemics about the sanctity of life is caused by the unjustified fear of punishment (Peters 146). These people are sure that this feeling prevents scientists from taking responsibility for life and health (Peters, p. 146). Both of the viewpoints have their flaws, and therefore, the question cannot be answered universally. Instead, bioethics offers a framework that allows addressing every issue separately.

Cloning

Cloning of the first mammal has given rise to discussions of ethical questions among scholars. The president with the world-famous Dolly sheep suggests that scientists could clone and enhance human beings. Cloning people for reproductive purposes is considered unethical, which coincides with Shelly’s opinion. Asexual reproduction leads to distortion of the institution of family and brings confusion to humanity (Häyry, pp. 17-19). For this reason, cloning was prohibited in the majority of countries immediately after the success of Dolly.

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The area of disagreement lies in cloning for enhancement purposes since people could be cloned to grow stem cells. Cloning an embryo can save people’s lives by saving the stem cells for the future that can be later grown into any tissue fully compatible with the donor (Häyry, p. 16). However, it is unclear if this embryo is to be considered alive, and the use of its cells should be regarded as murder.

Reproductive Technologies and Genetic Screening

While the situation with cloning is relatively clear, assisted reproductive technologies (ART) and genetic screening are issues of heated discussion. ART allowed many families coping with infertility to conceive and give birth (Roy et al, p. 436). However, recent studies show that ART may raise the risk of many diseases that are associated with increased morbidity and mortality (Roy et al. 437). Additionally, genetic testing may be related to discrimination by insurance companies, employers, and society due to the fear of genetic diseases. Therefore, further research is needed to understand whether people should continue these practices.

Even though the question about ART is hard to address, analysis of ancient texts can give significant insight into the matter. Mahabharata, an ancient Indian Sanskrit epic, describes the cases of ART five thousand years ago. The most explicit examples of the phenomenon are the birth of Pandu and Dhritarashtra that were both artificially conceived (Kalra et al, p. 404). The descendants of Kuru were both impaired physically, as one of them was blind and the other was an albino. However, their birth was needed to save the kingdom of Hastinapura from having no ruler. Therefore, it may be concluded that ART can be used in cases of a clear need. However, people should not use ART when they please to do so since it can be dangerous both for the people born that way and for society. It is confirmed by the example of Gandhari’s 101 children that became the cause of millions of deaths. In short, Shelley’s claim that unnatural birth can be dangerous is confirmed both by the recent studies and ancient texts. However, ART can still be used in cases of emergency.

Conclusion

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein provides an explicit example of how playing God can be dangerous. Victor should not have created the monster, as he had no viable reason and right to do so. The questions discussed by Shelley are currently studied by bioethics and oppose cloning for reproduction, as it can bring devastation to society. The questions about reproductive technologies and genetic screening are still open for discussion as it requires additional research. Ancient Indian texts may incline modern researchers that ART may be a viable option for conceiving in emergencies. Technologies are meant to be used in case of need and not to satisfy desires and ambitions.

Works Cited

  1. Häyry, Matti. “Ethics and Cloning.” British Medical Bulletin, vol. 128, no. 1, 2018, pp. 15-21, doi:10.1093/bmb/ldy031.
  2. Kalra, Bharti et al. “The Mahabharata and Reproductive Endocrinology.” Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism, vol. 20, no. 3, 2016, p. 404, doi:10.4103/2230-8210.180004.
  3. Peters, Ted. “Playing God with Frankenstein.” Theology and Science, vol. 16, no. 2, 2018, pp. 145-150, doi:10.1080/14746700.2018.1455264.
  4. Roy, M.C. et al. “The Epigenetic Effects of Assisted Reproductive Technologies: Ethical Considerations.” Journal of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, vol 8, no. 4, 2017, pp. 436-442, doi:10.1017/s2040174417000344.
  5. Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Free eBooks. Planet eBook. Web.
  6. “What is Bioethics?” Bioethics and Culture.

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