I am lucky to count as a friend Dr. John Constantino, of Washington University in St. Louis. Dr. Constantino and I share a common faith in Catholicism as well as a passion for the treatment and support for children with autism. I come to this passion from the experience as a parent of an autistic child; he comes at it as a top expert in the field, as a leader of Washington University’s Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center.
As part of his research, Constantino is guiding teams focusing on how those on the autism spectrum inherit their traits.
This is an area of great scientific promise and relevancy, and any parent of an autistic child is hopeful that his research yields treatments that will ease the effects of autism. Some of Constantino’s research touches on the ways in which the genetic mutations that cause autism – mutations that exist in all of us — gather force through generations. He is asking straightforward questions: Is it possible to prevent serious adverse consequences of the genetic changes that result in autism? Or can we minimize their impact before a child with autism is born, or afterwards?
These are wonderful efforts. They also raise central moral questions – especially if they grant humanity the option to use foreknowledge of a child’s deviation from “normal” to end that child’s life before it is born, or to persuade couples not to become parents if the risk to their children would be too high.
An analogy to this moral quandary is posed to today’s expectant parents who are now routinely offered the option of aborting an in-utero child that carries the genetic marker for Down syndrome. They exercise this option overwhelmingly, despite the fact that those few children born today with Down syndrome have available remarkable therapies and can enjoy lives of purpose and spiritual beauty. By creating a way to screen for disease and disability, science has also created the tool for its destruction – along with the child.
Dr. Constantino reassures me that he intends to focus on ways in which genetic science can help improve the quality of life of all children affected by autism. I hope he is right.
But I believe for that to happen, people of all faiths must engage deeply with the researchers who are on the leading edge of scientific discovery, so that we can use this new insight to improve the life of those born and not yet born, no matter how their genes determine so much of their physical destiny. If we know more about autism, we can do more for children born with autism. Science can tell us about the first part of that equation; it can do little to compel us to do the second part.
This is a familiar challenge. When life begins and ends, whether we are fully in control of our thoughts and emotions, where does human agency begin and physical instinct end – these are essential questions that science is helping us answer with far greater precision than we once thought possible.
Yet science is no more precise with how we respond to its discoveries. Take the matter of brain science. We can see that a brain injury can cause paralysis not only of a limb but also of someone’s conscience or emotional range. That would suggest that the concept of the soul is a false one, and that we are merely a bundle of neuro-electrical signals. But we know from the writings of Oliver Sacks and other clinicians that the brain can be repaired and the mind and soul with it. Surely there is a message there, and an affirmation of our teaching that no soul is ever lost, and every life is born with divine purpose and intrinsic meaning. It is our job to make it so.
That is the message in Dr. Constantino’s work – to me, at least. Science is another path to discovering God’s message.
God did not place humanity on earth to be passive recipients of God’s grace – we are active participants in the world we are born into. Our dominion includes that which we must yet learn and discover about the world. All faiths hold this to be true. The Hebrew word Torah means “teaching,” and all faith traditions hold that thought, discovery, reason, and even argument are acts of holiness.
That is why Catholics build and support hospitals, universities, and schools. We trust in humanity’s discoveries and we trust in discoverers because we see in them the vocation of holy men and women, acting in the service of our faith. Surely that vocation of the mind presses us forward to see in science’s outer edges new questions, new answers and, even so, the hand of God.