Of horcruxes, stem cells, and the quest for immortality: the bioethics of Harry Potter

 

CBHD has partnered with author Austin Boyd and publishing house Zondervan for a suspense-fiction series entitled The Pandora Files. The first installment, Nobody’s Child, is about designer babies, body parts sales, and the thorny ethical issues they engender. It is a laudable effort to use the power of story to get people thinking about important issues; to show us rather than to tell us something is often the better strategy, and highlights the power of all the arts, whether visual, written, or performed, to touch hearts as well as minds.

I recently finished reading with my family one of the more wildly popular contemporary works of fiction, and found many points of contact for thinking about current bioethical issues. I realize that J.K. Rowling did not write the Harry Potter series as a bioethical parable, but the themes in her writing and the values her characters espouse are striking in their applicability.

(Warning: SPOILERS) In the series, an evil wizard named Lord Voldemort is obsessed with power, and with his own mortality. In the effort to overcome death, he resorts to what is the worst of imaginable dark magic: the creation of horcruxes. In order to make a horcrux one must commit murder, and the process causes irreparable damage to one’s own soul.

Harry Potter, a student wizard, is a leader of the resistance to Lord Voldemort. Guided by the Gandalf-esque wizard Dumbledore, he grows into his task over the course of seven very exciting (and very long) books. Dumbledore asserts repeatedly that the primary strength the resistance enjoys resides not in any magical power, but rather in the power of love — not the mushy, romantic sort, but the real thing,  self-sacrificing agape-style love. In fact, Harry goes knowingly to his death in order to defeat Voldemort; then, after a brief post-mortem sojourn in King’s Cross (who could miss that symbolism?) he returns and — well, I won’t spoil the entire story for the three people who haven’t read it or seen the movies.

Even in these novels written ostensibly for children, there are shadows of deeper and darker motifs, parallels to our world. The themes of thirst for power and desire for immortality are all too familiar to us, driving much of the most ethically questionable science. That Voldemort would resort to killing in his quest to live forever should have a familiar ring as well: we just make it sound much more civilized when we say “We disaggregate an embryo in a laboratory dish in order to obtain the stem cells that will be the key to regenerative medicine.” Voldemort does terrible damage to his soul each time he kills to make a horcrux;  who can tell what damage we do to our cultural soul when killing human embryos, our own young, becomes accepted by a large portion of the scientific and public community?

Again, Rowling did not intend to write a bioethical thriller as Austin Boyd is doing. But a person reading her books might just feel a bit more the danger inherent in the quest for power, and sense more keenly the contradiction and, indeed, evil, of killing another in order to benefit oneself. And when practices redolent of those values, such as embryonic stem cell research, are brought up, the reader might remember the words of one of the leaders of the resistance who said, “Every human life is worth the same, and worth saving;” and espouse Dumbledore’s prescription of self-giving love as a potent form of resistance to the evil around us.

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