We can but should we?

Monday, August 4, 2008

The battle of wills between science and ethics has been raging for centuries, and it looks like there is no end in sight. Researchers, by their very nature, will always want to push the boundaries to test theories or to find cures. Many times, the science will have progressed to a place far ahead of societal acceptance and a battle of wills ensues between progress and ethics.

This has been true with cloning and many other applications that have arisen since the mapping of the human genome was completed. The advances in science are wondrous, but are we really ready to deal with the moral and societal implications?

That is the eternal debate.

A case in Poland illustrates a prime example of this struggle. Composer Frederic Chopin, a piano virtuoso and the pride of Poland, died in 1849 at the age of 39. His death certificate says he died of tuberculosis.

When he died, his heart was removed and preserved in alcohol. The heart lies in a jar sealed inside a pillar at Warsaw's Holy Cross Church -- and the only time it has been removed was for safekeeping during World War II.

Scientists want to test his heart to see if he died from cystic fibrosis, which wasn't discovered until decades after Chopin died. Scientists say many of his symptoms match that illness, including respiratory infections, recurrent fevers, delayed puberty and infertility.

Government officials are denying access to the heart, which has taken on a mystic similar to a religious relic. They feel that the scientists may not even be able to prove their theory and see little value in what caused the composer's death.

Scientists respond that if Chopin died from cystic fibrosis, the knowledge would give hope to those suffering from the disease that they have the capacity to achieve great things, in spite of their disease.

We agree with the government. Changing the cause of death will not change the way Chopin is viewed, nor will defiling a revered relic help anyone.

"Because we can" isn't a valid reason.