The Story of Victor Frankenstein

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Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus as Mary Shelley subtitled it, was first published in 1818. It tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a student in anatomy and physiology. He becomes set on finding the source of life, both for the personal acclaim it will bring him but also, he claims, to better the human race.

Frankenstein secretly collected the body parts from which to build his creation, he then infused the creature with “the spark of being”.2 Upon the creature’s animation Frankenstein’s triumph turned to terror, and he ran away and abandoned his hideous ‘child’. We later learn that, despite his horrible appearance, the creature possessed an intelligence and benevolence that exceeded that of any of his human counterparts.Contextual Similarities Between 1818 and 2004Shelley was writing during the Enlightenment, a movement which aimed to free the human race from superstition and the unexplainable through science.

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This faith in the power of science is reflected in the words of Victor Frankenstein’s professor:”They [the scientists] have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquakes, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows.”3However the tale of Frankenstein provided a cautionary insight into the consequences of morally irresponsible and legally unregulated technological experimentation involving a living creature.In 2004 we are in a new ‘Age of Enlightenment’ where rapid advances in medical science challenge conventional assumptions about birth (extra uterine fertilisation treatment and ‘designer babies’), life (therapeutic cloning and organ transplantation) and death (cryonics). But Frankenstein reminds us that without legal restraint, science may go too far and cause more harm than good.

‘Building’ People: Breaking Down the Human Body”Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil, as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave, or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay?” – Victor Frankenstein4Victor Frankenstein secretively collected body parts from graveyards, charnel houses and hospitals. The depiction of this played on peoples’ fears about the composition and decomposition of the human body. Attempts by medical science to treat the human body as anything other than a complete whole were regarded as almost blasphemous.Today people no longer feel the same degree of revulsion at the thought of human dissection for scientific research.

In 1993 the body of an executed murderer was sliced into thousands of razor-thin sections, images of which have been uploaded onto the web.5By the 1970s scientific and moral debate revolved around the possibility of organ transplantation, which prompted a new and dramatically different way of seeing and using the human body. Shock value was now linked to the fact that transplantation was interested in living tissue, but moral revulsion about this was not enough to produce a legal ban. The ethical focus was now on the power that people had over their own bodies; who could consent to donation? We have found our way through these issues in order to harness the manifest benefits of organ donation.

A consensus about where the balance should be between utilising the practical benefits and respecting moral views about the sanctity of human life is enshrined in the Human Organ Transplants Act 1989, which allows a live organ transplant between genetically unrelated people provided the approval of the Unrelated Live Transplant Regulatory Authority (ULTRA) has been obtained. This flexible, regulatory approach provides for informed reaction to new developments and ethical considerations in a way that detailed legal prescription cannot. There must be a concern that the rate at which science is advancing may outstrip the law’s ability to enshrine social consensus. On the other hand, this situation will tend to hold medicine/science back and thus prevent it from accomplishing something that is regretted later.

The Search for a Human Identity”You, my creator, would tear me to pieces, and triumph; remember that and tell me why I should pity man more than he pities me? You would not call it murder if you could …destroy my frame, the work of your own hands.

Shall I respect man when he condemns me?” – The Creature6Shelley forces us to question what it is that prevents the creature from being human. Is it because he is ugly? Is it because he has no name? Surely it cannot be anything so shallow. We are drawn to the conclusion that some quality which is essential to being human has been lost during the creation process.Organ trading, with the donor as vendor, is the subject of the next stage of ethical debate over the significance of the human “frame”.

We have moved on from concerns about the soul and people’s qualified right to donate portions of their own body to help others. Now the focus is on the consequences of treating the human body as a set of commodities. Organ trading in the UK is banned by the Human Organ Transplants Act 1989, which prohibits “the exchange of money, other than legitimate expenses, for the purpose of organ donation by the living (s1(1)).” But the sheer scale of the international market, and the severe shortage of donated organs, is forcing the medical establishment to consider whether the ban should be softened.

Recently John Harris, a philosopher, received considerable support from within the medical establishment when he proposed a system where a purchaser, an agency like the NHS, would buy organs and take responsibility for distributing them.7But we should be wary of letting practicalities, and individual need, push us into liberalisation before we have had time to consider the broader ethical aspects. The cautious approach to organ trading in UK law should buy time for this debate, which experience shows cannot be rushed.Today science has enabled us to understand how the human body is composed and functions, allowing the public to think of the human body as being comprised of components.

While this has led to the toleration of increased provision of organs for sick patients there is a need to guard against moral desensitisation as a result of overexposure to the issues involved. In addition it is possible that scientific understanding of the human body has outpaced the public’s understanding of the moral importance of the human body to the value which society attaches to human beings. Society has yet properly to grasp the impact of valuing citizens according to their powers of production and consumption. Treating human beings as commodities in themselves is arguably a further step along the road of unintentionally devaluing human life which, whatever the benefits of organ trading, ultimately leads to Auschwitz.

The creation of an overseeing body with the ultimate power to approve sales may serve to distance people from the idea that their body is a commodity, especially where they may feel compelled to ‘sell up’ in the face of personal financial problems.As an aside on the nature of human identity, Shelley suggests in her novel that Frankenstein does not restrict himself to human tissue. The growing feasibility of xenografts (inter-species transplantation) raises new questions about what it means to be human. How will the law answer this? If you have received neurological tissue from another species do you remain fully human? We may find ourselves falling back on ‘old fashioned’ arguments about the human soul.

Legislation may have to attempt a more complex biological definition.Frankenstein will continue to serve as a warning about the social alienation and emotional suffering that may ensue if we stretch the definition of ‘human’ in order to preserve ‘life’. When Frankenstein’s creature realises how he was made, his inability to know what he actually is and what he means to others leads to tragedy. Frankenstein implies that there is more to life than possessing an operative set of organs, something that law will have to take into account when it defines ‘human’ in relation to scientific advances.

The Price of Scientific Secrecy”I paused when I reflected on the story I had to tell . . ..

I well knew that if any other had communicated such a relation to me, I should have looked upon it as the ravings of insanity . . ..

I resolved to remain silent.” – Victor Frankenstein8Frankenstein’s silence, in the face of the monster’s murderous actions, exacts a terrible price. He watches another character hanged for the crimes of his creature and loses the three people that are closest to him. At the time Shelley was writing it would have been quite feasible for a scientist to operate in his own laboratory in isolation and without societal restraint.

While the scientific context has changed, from the curious dilettante to the multi-national corporation, Shelley’s warning about scientific secrecy still rings true.There are many examples where withholding biomedical knowledge from the public has caused harm, for example, tobacco industry executives kept quiet about the damaging effects of smoking and pharmaceutical companies were reluctant to investigate reports over the side-effects of DDT and thalidomide.9 There is the suspicion that large pharmaceutical companies deliberately absorb the risk of paying fines and compensation where the overall returns are big enough.The Human Genome Project is an example of the openness which the scientific establishment can adopt where it sees the benefits of this to scientific and ethical debate.

But there are still Victor Frankensteins lurking out there, for example the unexpected announcement by Clonaid that it had successfully cloned a child.10 Although not proved this serves to highlight how some large companies will pursue aims without reference to the wider interests of society.From a legal and regulatory perspective overseeing bodies should strive for rigor and openness and not assume that industry or the scientific establishment will self-regulate. Shelley’s concerns about openness and accountability are well-founded in a medical-scientific world where, all too often, nobody will accept liability for mistakes made.

The Creation of a Superhuman and ‘Designer Babies””The minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed. I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of gigantic stature…

” – Victor Frankenstein11Victor, so eager to “infuse a spark of being”12 into something, never stops to think about how such a creature will be able to live with other humans. He makes the decision based on his own selfish impulses and is not concerned with what is best for his creation.Shelley highlights the dangers of parental choice in relation to the physical characteristics of their offspring. Genetic engineering means that parents may soon be able to do this.

After seeing the ramifications of Victor’s thoughtless actions we have to question on what basis parents will make the choice. They will do what is best for the child, but this may rest on misguided personal preferences. For example, a disabled mother may believe that her experience of disability has made her a better person and so she wishes her child to have a similar disability.From a neutral viewpoint this is clearly not in the child’s best interests.

The issue then becomes to what extent does the state have a right to interfere with parents’ choices over their children? At present in the UK the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Authority provides the answer to this question. The focus of its decisions over fertility treatment and genetic selection place the life expectations of the child above the rights of the parents. There are few convincing arguments to change this balance.’Designer babies’ are fast becoming a reality.

In 2003 Jamie Whitaker was born, his embryo having been genetically selected in the hope that umbilical stem cells could be used to treat his sick brother. The Whitakers had go to the US to do this. The HFEA maintained that it was acceptable to test and select the embryos to prevent birth of a baby with a genetic disease, but not to select them in order to help another child.13 However, later in 2003, the Hashmi family obtained approval from the HFEA for an IVF embryo to be chosen as a match for an existing son, suffering from beta thalassaemia.

14 This sudden change prompted concerns about human cloning, where human identity becomes a series of DNA bases or structural proteins.Are babies like Jamie Whitaker being treated as commodities, to be donors for their older siblings? During the selection process any number of embryos might be genetically tested and discarded if they do not match the tissue type. Is this unnecessary destruction of life, if life begins at fertilisation, acceptable?In the UK the symbolic role of the HFEA will be to prevent such genetic testing from being used “frivolously”.15 What is and is not “frivolous” may prove to be a moving target.

The message in Shelley’s novel must be to never lose sight of what is in the best interests of the child. The medical procedures that fall within the consideration of the HFEA are changing ‘child’ from a biological to an emotional concept. We should proceed with caution though, this transition will not be without its casualties, children without a biological or emotional attachment to anyone.How far the law will be able to help such children, who have no other form of support to fall back on, is questionable.

Frankenstein’s creature reminds us “these amiable people to whom I go have never seen me, and know little of me. I am full of fears; for if I fail there I am an outcast in the world for ever.”16ConclusionThe medical-scientific developments discussed above have been met by with a range of reactions; organ transplantation and donation has been given the green light, although it is still heavily regulated, while human cloning was outlawed as soon as it became a scientific possibility in the Human Reproductive Cloning Act 2001.The scientific advances of 1818 and 2004 are driven by an understandable desire to escape death.

Mary Shelley subtitled her novel The Modern Prometheus. In Greek legend Prometheus stole fire from the gods, suffering a terrible punishment for his crime. Shelley issues a sharp warning through the terrible acts of the Promethean villain Victor Frankenstein.We have not yet found a way to cheat death entirely but the increasing popularity of cryonics, the practice of preserving organisms at temperatures where metabolism and decay stop, for possible future revival, seems to reflect the fact that people sense that it is not far away.

What all these scientific advances show is a willingness to hang onto life, regardless of the damage it may do to human identity.The role of the law in all this is to draw a dividing line between using medical treatments to assist the sick and preventing us from pretending immortality. Human arrogance permeates Frankenstein through the character of Victor. He is so obsessed by the possibility of overcoming death that he considers nothing else.

It is his blind arrogance that instigates the tragic chain of events that lead to his downfall.

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The Story of Victor Frankenstein. (2018, Jan 06). Retrieved from

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