Bioethics and the Movies: Discussion Questions and Supplemental Readings

Introduction

We currently live at a time when we will see many of the technological applications long presented as mere science fiction in movies and literature become a reality. In fact, many of these technologies are already in use. The goal of this curriculum is to help people begin to grasp the potential benefits and liabilities of some of these technological innovations, which are no longer part of an imaginary domain. This curriculum is designed to help people begin to dialogue on what truly human progress looks like and to equip them to participate meaningfully in this debate. It is my contention that the bioethical debates of the 21st century are not the limited domain of scientists or bioethicists, but are issues that should be debated in the public square by all of the people--rather than merely by a subset of the intellectual elite.

 

Course Description

Technological advances have provided us with capabilities previously only imagined in science fiction. Scientists are now able to clone animals, and some are working to clone human beings. Bioengineers, cell biologists, and clinicians are working together to build replacement body parts. Cybernetics (using bionic devices to enhance human capacities) and xenogeneic tissue transplants from other species into human patients are being explored. Mapping the human genome, a major milestone in our ability to understand the human instruction book, is now complete. The time is ripe for serious conversation about the path down which our technological advances are leading us.

Many of these areas of biomedical research rAIse vexing issues. Can these technologies be harnessed for good? What risks to the human community might come along with technological "progress?" What does it mean to be human? This course will explore questions rAIsed by human cloning, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and other bioethical issues. It should be used (but not abused) as a foundation for placing new articles on the site in conjunction with its companion, printer-friendly template. A few notes are in order, however, in order for us to make the most of the new template.

 

Learning Goals

  1. To help students become familiar with the potential benefits and liabilities of some of the technological innovations such as genetic engineering, cloning, and artificial intelligence.
  2. To help students learn how Hollywood is asking and answering the bioethical questions.
  3. To help students address bioethical questions and begin to build a framework for finding solutions to some of the challenging questions presented by controversial technological capabilities.
  4. To open up a dialogue on what truly human progress looks like and to help students enter the debate.

 

Teaching Methods

Recent movies, along with small group discussion questions, will be used as a springboard to begin dialogue about the ethical issues rAIsed by various technologies. A supplemental reading list has also been made avAIlable to facilitate a deeper investigation of particular issues for those students who desire additional context and content. Selected movies include Gattaca (which addresses genetic engineering), The Sixth Day (which addresses human and animal cloning), AI and/or Bicentennial Man (which address both artificial intelligence and bionics).

 

Note to Teachers

The materials in this curriculum are designed for flexibility, giving you the freedom to pick and choose whatever components you believe will work best for you. You are encouraged to identify which materials are most appropriately suited to your audience and your time frame. Specific movie clips that illustrate certain themes have been suggested in case your class time is limited or is structured in such a way as to not allow viewing an entire movie at one sitting. AI and Gattaca are both excellent to use in a traditional one-hour class format because the first 15 minutes of these movies provides sufficient material to completely set up the ethical issues and provide a foundation for the majority of the discussion questions.

 

Suggested Movie Clips

(Note: Scene numbers correspond to the movies' respective DVDs.)

 

AI

  • Scene 1: "Introduction"
  • Scene 12: "'Mechas' and 'Orgas'"
  • Scene 16: "The Flesh Fair: a Celebration of Life"

Gattaca

  • The first 15-20 minutes of the film.

The Boys from Brazil

  • The scene in which Dr. Lieberman goes to the research institute gives a very good, simple description of the scientific process of cloning.
  • The final scene with Dr. Lieberman in the hospital gives an excellent illustration of attempts to justify the means by the ends.

Bicentennial Man

  • The scene of the early robot creating a present.
  • The scene at the end of the movie in which the advanced robot is pleading for full human status and the accompanying privileges and responsiblities.

The Sixth Day

  • Scene 1: Sets the stage for the movie and identifies the reason for the title of the movie: God created man on the 6th day.
  • Scene 8: Adam encounters his clone.
  • Scene 10: Dr. Griffin Weir defends the cloning of body parts and also sets up Mr. Drucker in a manner that forces him to defend cloning as an advance in medical technology.
  • Scene 12: The scene entitled "Assassins Reconstructed" illustrates how the movie develops the theme of mind-body dualism.
  • Scene 15: Anticipated suicide illustrates the question of whether killing a clone is murder, a question that Adam has to confront. Is such an action suicide? Is his clone really human?
  • Scene 20: The scene entitled "The Greatest Gift" illustrates how this movie sets up the issues of power over who decides how and when technology is to be used, informed or non-informed consent, the meaning of relationships, and our ability or inability to construct our own version of reality.

 

Supplemental Reading List

The supplemental reading list has been included to guide teachers and students to core material that will equip them to respond in greater depth to the questions raised by the movies. These readings include material from the newspaper, as well as from major medical literature. Hopefully, this broad range of reading will allow those using this curriculum to engage it at whatever level of technical expertise they have. These bioethical issues are in the news regularly, so teachers may therefore also wish to utilize articles from current newspapers. Most of the material included in the supplemental reading list should be accessible to almost everyone. Although many of these issues have technical aspects (which are important), the recommended readings focus more heavily on the growing discussion of the ethical issues.

Discussion Questions

Movie: AI

  • Has the dream of human beings since the beginning of science been to create an artificial being?
  • Can a human being love a robot? A car? Pizza? A computer? Another human being? Does the human have a responsibility to these different entities if they are loved, and what is the nature of that responsibility?
  • Is the "perfect child" always loving, always healthy, never disobedient, and never disrespectful?
  • In the beginning, didn't God create Adam to love him? Explain.
  • What is love? Can a human being love a robot, and, if so, what responsibility does the human have to the robot?
  • Can a computer/machine simulate the function of the human brain? Are computers a useful model of human intelligence? If so, why? If not, why not?
  • In this movie, who exhibits more evil--the humans or the robots? How is this displayed?
  • If a perfect child "in freeze frame" is always loving, always healthy, never disobedient, and never disrespectful, what is a perfect adult?
  • How does this movie comment on the issues of reproductive freedom that are so commonly in the news today, especially with regard to the cloning controversy? What drives the lack of "reproductive freedom" in this movie? Has this been used to limit reproductive freedom in real-life societies? Is it being used to impose such limits now?
  • What is the nature of human sexuality? Of robot sexuality? What is the meaning of sex, and how does that relate to the meaning of love? Is there a difference between a sexual encounter with a human and a sexual encounter with a robot? If so, what are those differences? How does this movie demonstrate the sex/power or sex/intimacy interface? How does the Bible define these interfaces? Does the nature of human sexuality change when sex is about pleasure and not about procreation?
  • Does good or evil win out in this movie, and how is that portrayed? How does that compare with the biblical version of the future that the Bible says we can expect?
  • Do metaphor, intuition, and the ability to dream define what it means to be human? If a computer can be built to do these things, does that mean we could build a human?
  • In this movie, where do people turn for answers? Where do people in our culture turn for answers?
  • "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." What does this statement mean in the movie? Where does this statement come from, and what did it mean in its original context?

 

Movie: Gattaca

  • How is reproductive freedom addressed in this movie? Who has the right to reproduce? What type of reproduction gives your child a "head start" in life? Is this head start available to all?
  • How is discrimination portrayed in this movie? Who is discriminated against and why? What are the results?
  • Does this type of discrimination based on genetics occur today? If so, give examples.
  • Is there a difference between maximizing your genetic potential and maximizing any other potential?
  • Currently there are tests to detect whether a given person has a genetic predisposition for a particular disease such as breast cancer, colon cancer, and Alzheimer's disease. The list is going to grow quickly. Can your genetic information be used against you? Remember the HIV issue where there was--and is--great concern that others will use medical knowledge to discriminate against those who are infected?
  • Is any means acceptable in order to provide medical treatment or a cure for another individual?
  • What are "designer babies?" How far has the current technology come in making designer babies? What traits are acceptable to design? Are there any traits that are unacceptable to design? What is the historical track record in this regard? How have previous human eugenics movements shaped our current debate?
  • Is there an ethical difference between genetic enhancement and genetic treatment?
  • Does human life begin at conception, implantation, or quickening? How are these various positions supported? How does the position a person takes on the beginning of human life influence his or her response to the moral questions regarding pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, genetic engineering of the embryo, cloning, or embryonic stem cell research?
  • If we had the technological capabilities portrayed in this movie, could we design a system that would prevent genetic discrimination from occurring? How would such a system work?
  • Is there a difference between a human person and a human being? If so, what is that difference?
  • What message does this movie give about disabled persons?

 

Movie: The Boys From Brazil

  • How does this movie handle the "nature versus nurture" controversy? What part of human personality is determined by genetics and what part by environment?
  • In what ways does this movie illustrate that the ends justify the means? In what ways does it reject this notion?
  • What was the significance of all the blue-eyed Brazilians?
  • Can you explain the scientific process used in creating a clone?
  • How effectively does the movie illustrate that clones are new individuals? Is the movie correct in this portrayal?
  • How are the clones manipulated? Do you think the biological mothers were manipulated or that they gave fully informed consent?
  • Would a cloned human being have a soul? Why or why not? Does it matter?

 

Movie: Bicentennial Man

  • Can artificial intelligence create? Can a robot think?
  • What level of artificiality makes you a robot? If you have a robot kidney or a robot heart, are you a human or a robot? A chimera? Is there a level where at some point you cross a line from being a human to becoming a machine?
  • Who shows more evidence of good in relationships--humans or robots? Who shows more evidence of evil?
  • What is the meaning of death according to this movie?
  • Is mortality the ultimate measure of humanity? How does the movie AI answer this question?

 

Movie: The Sixth Day

  • What is the relationship between cloning animals and cloning humans? Is it okay to do one but not the other? What reasons can you give for your answer? How does the movie answer this question?
  • Does the reduction of pain and suffering for Adam's daughter justify the cloning of a pet, or is there something to be learned from death--even the death of a pet? How do the different characters in the movie answer this question?
  • How do the different characters in the movie address their own mortality? Dr. Weir, Dr. Weir's wife, Mr. Drucker? How do you address this issue?
  • What was the legal status of the cloned humans in the movie? What should the legal status of a cloned human being be?
  • What motivations for cloning were given in the movie? What motivations would be morally problematic? What motivations would be morally permissible? How does the movie illustrate love as a reason for cloning, and how does the movie illustrate financial gain as a reason for cloning?
  • Do the clones in this movie have limitations on their freedom? If so, what are those limitations? If not, how do clones maintain independence from their creator/progenitor?
  • Is there a place for informed consent for human clones, and, if so, what would such consent look like?
  • In the movie Adam is confronted with killing his clone. Would such an act be murder? Suicide? Is a clone really a human being? If so, why? If not, why not?
  • There is currently discussion about the moral problems associated with "reproductive" human cloning--which would intend the birth of a new human being--and "research" cloning--which would clone a human being, but then destroy him or her at the early embryonic stage for research purposes. Do you think cloning for either reproduction or research is morally permissible? Morally problematic? Why or why not?
  • If you could be repeatedly cloned as is shown in the movie, what would be the meaning of death? Life? Memories?

 

A Bible Study: What Does it Mean to Be Made in the Image of God?

  1. The phrase "image of God," or imago Dei, is only rarely mentioned in the Bible (see Genesis 1:26, 1:27, 9:6). This phrase appears in a few New Testament passages as well (see 1 Corinthians 11:7, 2 Corinthians 4:4, and Colossians 1:15). What do these passages say about the image of God?
  2. There has been significant controversy regarding the proper interpretation of the phrase "image of God" throughout much of the history of Christendom. Part of this is due to the fact that the Bible does not speak about the physical form of God. Even with respect to Jesus Christ, there are no descriptions of what He looked like--no descriptions of His height or weight or hair color. Rather, what the Bible focuses on is God's character (e.g., Exodus 34:6-7). What terms define the character/personality of God? Use your Bible's concordance and give references:
  3. How does the Genesis 1-3 account discuss the differences between humans and animals? Are there other differences that this passage does not explicitly discuss?
  4. In what ways are human beings like God? What does it mean to you to be made in God's image? What responsibilities does this entail?
  5. Dónal O'Mathúna states it this way, "It is not that humans are the images of God because they have certain rational or spiritual capacities. It is because humans are images of God that spiritual and rational activity is part of what it means to be human. Similarly, it is because humans are the images of God that each one can have a relationship with him. By implication, any human who does not have a relationship with God remains an image of God, with all the value and responsibility that goes with that privilege."
  6. What impact did the fall have on how humans bear the image of God? (See Genesis 3)
  7. If the "image of God" is understood as describing God's intention and desire for humanity, there are many passages that describe what it means to be in the image of God. Indeed, God's intention and desire for humanity is a theme that dominates the Bible. According to the following passages, in what ways does God wish to be imitated?
    • Deuteronomy 30:15-16, Jeremiah 7:23, Ezekiel 20:11, John 10:10
    • Micah 6:8 and Matthew 22:36-40
  8. The Bible declares in several passages that Christ is the true image of God (such as 2 Corinthians 4:4 and Colossians 1:15). What does it mean that Christ is the true image of God?
  9. How does Romans 8:29 add to your understanding of what the image of God means? According to this passage, can humans ever be the true image of God?
  10. What is the difference between being conformed to the image of God and mirroring that image? How does 2 Corinthians 3:18 help you answer this question?

 

Supplemental Reading List

Human and Animal Cloning

  • Annas, G.J. (1998). "Why We Should Ban Human Cloning". New England Journal of Medicine 339(2), 122-125.
  • __________. (2002). "Cloning and the US Congress". New England Journal of Medicine 346(20), 1599-1602.
  • Barinaga, M. (2000). "Fetal Neuron Grafts Pave the Way for Stem Cell Therapies." Science 287(5457), 1421-1422.
  • Boyce, N. (2002). "Here's Kitty Kitty." US News and World Report, February 25.
  • Evers, K. (2002). "European Perspectives on Therapeutic Cloning." New England Journal of Medicine 346(20), 1579-1582.
  • Kass, L.R. (2001). "Why we should ban human cloning now." Preventing a Brave New World. The New Republic Online, May 21.
  • Lanza, R.P., Caplan, A.L., Silver, L.M., Cibelli, J.B., West, M.D., & Green, R.M. (2000). "The ethical validity of using nuclear transfer in human transplantation." [see comments]. JAMA 284(24), 3175-3179.
  • Robertson, J.A. (1998). "Human cloning and the challenge of regulation." New England Journal of Medicine 339(2), 119-122.
  • The Council for Biotechnology Policy. Biotech Policy Update--May 2002--"Special Cloning Report." 2002.
  • The President's Council on Bioethics. "Human Cloning and Human Dignity: An Ethical Inquiry." July 2002.

 

Designing Humans: Genetic Engineering, Embryonic Stem Cell Technology, and Eugenics

  • Damewood, M.D. (2001). "Ethical implications of a new application of preimplantation diagnosis." JAMA 285(24), 3143-3144.
  • Fischer, Joannie. (2002, August 16). "A brotherly donation." US News and World Report, 60.
  • Lenoir, N. (2000). "Europe confronts the embryonic stem cell research challenge." Science 287(5457), 1425-1427.
  • Perry, D. (2000). "Patients' voices: the powerful sound in the stem cell debate." Science 287(5457), 1423.
  • Regalado, A. (2002). "'Supercell' controversy sets off a scientists' civil war." Wall Street Journal, June 21.
  • Sofair, A.N., & Kaldjian, L.C. (2000). "Eugenic sterilization and a qualified Nazi analogy: the United States and Germany, 1930-1945." Annals of Internal Medicine 132(4), 312-319.
  • Verlinsky Y., Rechitsky S., Schoolcrafy W., Strom C., Kuliev A. "Preimplantation diagnosis for Fanconi anemia combined with HLA matching." JAMA 285(24):3130-3, June 27, 2001.
  • Weissman, I.L. (2000). "Translating stem and progenitor cell biology to the clinic: barriers and opportunities." Science 287(5457), 1442-1446.
  • Weissman, I.L. (2002). Stem cells--scientific, medical, and political issues. New England Journal of Medicine 346(20), 1576-1579.
  • Young, F.E. (2000). "A time for restraint." Science 287(5457), 1424.

 

Robotics and Artificial Intelligence

  • Craelius, W. (2002). "The bionic man: restoring mobility." Science 295(5557), 1018-1021.
  • Garcia, R.K. (2002). "Artificial Intelligence and Personhood." in J. F. Kilner, C. C. Hook, & D. B. Uustal (eds.), Cutting-Edge Bioethics (pp. 39-51). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
  • Gomes, L. (2002). "No Need to Worry, Your Computer Isn't After Your Job." Wall Street Journal, June 10.
  • Vogel, G. (2002). "Part man, part computer: researcher tests the limits." Science 295 (5557), 1020.

 

Theology and the Image of God

  • Moreland J.P. (2001). "Body and Soul Part 1." Facts and Faith 2, 15-23.
  • __________. (2001). "Body and Soul Part 2." Facts and Faith 4, 42-49.
  • __________. (2002). "Body and Soul Part 3." Facts and Faith 1, 38-44.
  • O'Mathúna, D.P. (1995). "The Bible and Abortion: What of the Image of God?" In J. F. Kilner, N. M. de Cameron, & D. L. Schiedermayer (eds.), Bioethics and the Future of Medicine (pp. 199-211). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
  • Pauls, D. (2001). "When is a person a person?" Crux, 1-4.