The beginning of a human being is a particularly exciting stage from a scientific point of view. It is surprising for its speed and precision: in little more than 100 days, from an initial cell and thanks to a unique genome that will be maintained for life, all the organs and tissues are built, each one in its place, with its own function. Furthermore, the success of the process depends on some «molecular inventions» that sound like science fiction.
For example, the fact that our arms and legs appear where they appear and not anywhere else happens thanks to homeotic genes, a 500-million-year-old achievement that we share with all bilaterally symmetrical beings, from fruit flies to other mammals. That our internal organs are where they are, with the heart on the left and the liver on the right, is decided in the second week of life and depends on cells with small «mobile hairs» (cilia is the scientific name). If all goes well, the cilia move in one direction, causing a flow of molecules to one side of the body and not the other, thus producing the usual arrangement of organs.
So far two scientific examples of the many with which embryonic development amazes us. With relative frequency someone asks me: if we know so much about the biology of human embryos, how is it possible that the option of ending their life is considered? Indeed, science has a lot to say in any discussion of human life in the embryonic stage: it tells us what is and is not a new organism, it warns us against fallacious arguments that it is «a bunch of cells» or something more like a tumor than a new being. In addition, good science, good scientists, also recognize the importance of other voices: from ethics and law, to economics and sociology. This topic, like many others, is a stimulus for issues to be addressed in an interdisciplinary way, taking into account all the wisdom. It is also an invitation to scientists, in the words of Albert Einstein, «not to forget their humanity.»
«One of the most alarming facts that the new law transpires is the invitation to non-reflection, to non-knowledge»
And it is that few issues are more important than the way we treat human lives, especially the most vulnerable. Any law that affects human life affects all of us as a society, whatever our beliefs. If anything is missing from the recent debate, it has been the important questions: What, really, is a human embryo? What treatment does he deserve? To what extent is he worthy of respect and protection? What determines that we give it an unconditional or conditional value? Where does it take us as a society that some members of the human family decide whether or not others deserve to live? Perhaps one of the biggest paradoxes in these weeks in which the abortion law has been modified has been the disproportion between the seriousness of the issue and the quality of the debate. The reproaches and simplifications have gained space in the face of the objectivity that sciences such as embryology or ethics could provide. Perhaps one of the most alarming facts that the new law transpires is the invitation to non-reflection, to non-knowledge.
Surely thinking is dangerous; it can lead us to consider that one thing is not the same as the opposite; it can make one reconsider his plans; but, with all this, it contributes to elevate the use of freedom to a different level and to forge a responsible citizenship. The humane and democratic quality of a society depends on its ability to identify relevant issues and treat them with the seriousness and reflection they deserve.
I end up looking at the University, at any university that boasts of being one. Faced with the great issues of our time, such as the right to life, we have a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge: to be able to transmit to society the knowledge that our classrooms and laboratories house, encouraging true reflection. The opportunity: that these same problems lead us to investigate rigorously and openly, in dialogue with other areas, without fear of the biggest and most difficult questions. Only then will we be true universities, only then will we contribute to a fairer, more humane society.