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Should we design our descendants?

Ten days ago, The Guardian newspaper reported that the prospects for victims of heart attack, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and other chronic illnesses

took a dramatic turn for the better when it was revealed that human cloning has been used for the first time to create embryonic stem cells from which new tissue – genetically identical to a patient’s own cells – could be grown.

Scientists have been working on such techniques for some time but their work has been hampered by the difficulties involved in cloning human cells in the laboratory.[1]

A team from Oregon Health and Science University in Portland has found that cell culture outputs can be transformed by adding caffeine.  They produced an embryonic stem cell line for harvesting human tissue using just two human eggs, making the approach practical for widespread therapeutic use.  The development has been hailed as a major boost for patients who might benefit from tissue transplants.  The growth of entire organs in the lab is next.

Enter the Christian wowsers, like David King of Human Genetics Alert, who said, “It is imperative we create an international ban on human cloning before any more research like this takes place. It is irresponsible in the extreme to have published this.”[2]

The technological determinists pushed back.  Professor John Harris, director of Manchester University’s Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation, explained:

If you take a healthy adult’s DNA and use it to create a new person – by cloning – you are essentially using a tried and tested genome, one that has worked well for several decades for the donor.  By contrast, a child born naturally has an 8 per cent chance of succumbing to a serious genetic abnormality because of the random selection of their DNA.  You can avoid that with a clone.[3]

Is it right to experiment with human genetic resources to make people well?  Should we press on with expensive and morally questionable gene therapies?  Should we design our descendants?

Consider some of the major developments in medicine and health:

  • The isolation and treatment of major health epidemics
  • The invention of anesthesia, prosthetics, chemotherapy
  • The discovery of the health benefits of penicillin
  • The development of organ transplantation
  • The growth in assisted reproductive technologies such as IVF that give otherwise childless couples a precious family and a genetic legacy

It seems natural, even obligatory, to embrace the benefits of medical science, pharmacology and biotechnology – and to apply the same principles to genetics.

John Wyatt, in his excellent book Matters of Life and Death, lists some of the main recent developments in the burgeoning field of biotechnology:

  • Sex selection for social reasons (parents wanting either a boy or a girl)
  • Embryo selection for desirable physical and intellectual characteristics
  • Therapeutic or research cloning (creating embryos for harvest)
  • Reproductive cloning (creating embryos for birth)
  • Regenerative medicine (finding uses for cultivated stem cells)
    • “savior siblings” (creating children who will serve as tissue/organ donors)[4]

Underlying all this are strong commercial imperatives, and huge profits to be made by large companies that can successfully heal our sicknesses, deliver our dreams, and commodify our children.

And the arguments often sound compelling.  Hear Professor John Harris again:

Either the sex of your child is morally significant in which case it’s much too important to be left to chance, or it’s morally insignificant, in which case it doesn’t matter if we let parents choose [the sex of their baby].[5]

On the other hand, without large-scale commercial investment in medical science and technology, we may all be dead.

We also encounter the fictional horror stories, such as Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, both made into entertaining and ethically significant films.

But what of the good that can be achieved if we impose adequate checks and balances?  Does the Christian tradition offer any relevant guidance in our brave new world?  What does the Bible teach?  What theological options are there?

Some Christians justify their innovative choices by describing advances in biotechnology and genetic engineering as “co-creation.”  Our present understanding of cosmology and biology indicates that creation is an ongoing process.  The universe is expanding, life is evolving, history is progressing, and we are co-creators or co-workers with God, incrementally altering the future of the world by our thoughts and actions.

Other Christians view their role as one of stewardship or mutuality, with a duty to use the creation in responsible and thoughtful ways.  This approach does not have to reflect a paternalistic dualism (the idea of humans vs. “the rest” of creation); our bonds to the natural world run deep, and we are neither above nor separate from the rest of creation.  Our stewardship may indeed compel us to take bold steps in the field of genetic modification.

A third approach can be described as exploitation for human ends, with an emphasis on the differences between humans and the rest of creation, and the assertion that it is God’s will that humankind exploit nature for human ends.

A fourth and final approach is “leave well alone.”  This is the simplest theological response: “When you start playing with genes, you’re playing God.”  Such arguments are spurious.  Replace “genes” in that sentence with “prosthetics” or “heart transplant” and you’ll see what I mean.  And in any case, the technological and commercial imperatives make nonsense of calls to “leave well alone” when it comes to genetic engineering of crops or people – although the argument may be applied to specific applications, such as developing face creams from human embryonic stem cells, which appeals to our capacity for moral repugnance.

Genetic resources are not “written in stone.”  For example, the basis for the science of genetic modification arose in the early 1970s when researches observes that single-celled micro-organisms (bacteria) were able to repel invading viruses by cutting the virus DNA in specific places.  All living cells have the capacity to rejoin broken DNA molecules, and bacteria also possess small ‘extra’ bits of DNA, called plasmids, which can move between bacterial cells.  The viruses that invade bacteria may also act as agents of gene transfer.

To take another example, every time we combine human DNA through sex, we actively participate in designing our descendants, in genetic modification.  Certainly, it is not intrinsically wrong for our species, or any other species, to engage in genetic modification.  But that is not to say that there should be no commonly agreed ethical boundaries to legitimate gene therapy.

My personal preference is for co-creation, treating each case on its merits.  But that implies the existence of a robust moral grid to determine the good, and for Christians that requires attention to Scripture.

The Bible says nothing about genes, which is not surprising since Gregor Mendel’s famous paper titled “Basic principles of genetics” was not published until 1865, and the term “gene” was only coined by Wilhelm Johannsen in 1909.

However, we may learn something from Jacob’s practice of animal breeding (Gen 30:31-43), and the condemnation of hybridisation (Lev 19:19; cf Deut 22:9).  Or we may not.

More helpfully, the so-called “creation mandate” (Gen 1:27-31), which undergirds much good theological deliberation on issues pertaining to science and the environment, suggests to me that humans are called by God to manage or steward every part of every living thing, including inherited traits and all the genetic riches of the biosphere (cf Lk 19:12-27).

As R.J. Berry, Professor of Genetics at University College London, put it:

We cannot plead that our role is limited to the preservation of pandas, butterflies or ancient woodlands.  Biological diversity exists at the gene, the species, and the ecosystem levels … Being responsible stewards of creation for God includes therefore the obligation to be genetic stewards and we need to explore carefully the limits and constraints of that obligation.[6]

Berry goes on to argue that:

  • We must beware of exaggerating the importance of genes (we are not controlled by our genes)
  • We must do our utmost to discover both the benefits and risks of genetic modification, and help others to do the same
  • We must be just in our relationships – “we are wrong to deny our neighbor his GM food [or life-saving therapy] unless it is going to do him harm.

He adds:

We must be wise and balanced in our judgements.  If we look at the Bible, we find a story of continual change; only God remaining constant.  Some things change more constantly than others, but it is almost impossible to attach any eternal meaning to something being ‘natural.’  The key is that ‘all things hold together’ in Jesus Christ.[7]

Some Christian ethicists, such as John Wyatt, also make a useful distinction between restorative and enhancing genetic manipulation.  Thus it is morally permissible to recreate a damaged length of DNA, or to replace an abnormal gene variant with a normal counterpart – practices that seem consistent with normal medical practice.

It is not morally permissible, for Wyatt, to introduce gene therapies aimed at enhancing natural capacities, such as providing children with stronger limbs, better growth, happier personalities, or quicker brains – which aim to improve on the original design in innovative and competitive ways.

But the distinction between restorative and enhancing therapies is not always clear-cut, and the practice always risks rendering children a commodity. As Wyatt notes, there is often a creative tension between a parent’s accepting love and transformative love; and for postmodern parents in affluent communities, transforming love has overwhelmed acceptance.  We reduce one another to the level of products and things, to a world where consumption and competition obscure our natural and God-given capacity for genuine compassion and sacrificial care.

Another perspective that may shed dappled light on the complex ethical dilemmas associated with the temptation to design our descendants is appeal to general principles of medical ethics, of which there are four:

  • Non-maleficence (“do no harm”)
  • Beneficence (“strive to bring benefit”)
  • Autonomy (the need to respect, inform and obtain consent)
  • Justice (fair distribution of resources, including access to gene therapies, and the impact of such therapies and technologies for ecology and biodiversity, and the rights of future generations.

I would add a fifth general principle of reciprocity – the Golden Rule (Matt 7:12), “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

Of course, in practice these five principles are merely bridging principles representing “a general, but perhaps just temporary, truce among different groups that have an interest in medical ethics.”[8]

And, as Karen Lebacqz observes regarding a Christian vision of justice:

all individual rights are always concordant with a fundamental commitment to the good, including the demands of justice.  No one has rights independent of a concern for the social whole and for the well-being of God’s creation.  All ‘rights’ involve responsibilities.[9]

The pursuit of justice involves much more than clicking “like” on the Baptist World Aid Australia Facebook page.  The pursuit of justice compels us to develop a particular stance on social issues, and enter the moral battlefield, and fight against competing ideas and practices – and not merely on issues that our friends approve, or that attract crowds and applause and microphones.  God calls each of us to be prophets in our local churches and workplaces and social networks.

We could also appeal, as Catholic ethicist and legal academic John Finnis does, to the Pauline principle that evil may not be done for the sake of good (Rom 3:8; cf Rom 6:1, 15).[10]

Or we could appeal to the Socratic principle (often attributed to Democritus), “It is better to suffer wrong than to do it.”

Or we could appeal to Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, “Do not ever treat humanity whether in your own person or in another’s, merely as a means.”  There are some acts which cannot be justified by any end, and some applications of genetic engineering arguably fit that category.

Finally, for me, the question “Should we design our descendants” comes down to:

  • what I understand by the Great Commandment to love God and love my neighbour (Matt 22:37-39)
  • how I express respect and care for God’s creation (Ps 104; Isa 48:12f)
  • in what specific ways does the call of Micah 6:8 apply to me
  • how closely I imitate Jesus in my moral framework, ethical decisions, and way of life (Php 2:3-4).

But we need to take care when we invoke biblical texts in support of our ethical preferences.  It is easy to see how the principles set forth in Philippians 2:3-4 might apply to questions regarding genetic engineering.  The text appeals to the capacity, under God and through the Spirit of Christ, for Christians to practise altruism, humility and wisdom.  But the same text can be interpreted and applied in support of genetic engineering without boundaries:

  • altruism: helping future generations to overcome natural deficiencies and impediments to “wholeness”
  • humility: rejecting improper pride in our assumed intrinsic humanity and inherited genetic resources
  • wisdom: accepting the advances in medicine, science, technology and health care as good gifts from a benevolent, gracious and merciful Creator: it may well be folly to refuse to participate in the amazing benefits some of us have, or will soon have, at our disposal.

Genetic engineering is here to stay.  How we respond, as citizens of our worldly kingdoms and of the kingdom of God, is the challenge.  We need to deploy all the God-given resources of Scripture, tradition, reason, experience, emotion and imagination to inform and shape the future to which God in Christ calls each of us, and all of us.

Sermon 615 copyright © 2013 Rod Benson. Preached at Morling College Chapel, Sydney, Australia, on Tuesday 28 May 2013. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


[1] Robin McKie, “Human cloning developments raise hopes for new treatments,” The Guardian, 18 May 2013, available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2013/may/18/human-cloning-heart-disease-genes

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] John Wyatt, Matters of Life and Death: Human Dilemmas in the Light of the Christian Faith (Nottingham: IVP, 2009), pp. 121-133.

[5] Source unknown.

[6] R.J. Berry, “Christians and genetic manipulation (GM): Are we ‘playing God’?” John Ray Initiative Briefing Paper 6, n.d. [after 1999], p. 1.

[7] Ibid., p. 4.

[8] Robin Gill, Moral Leadership in a Postmodern Age (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1997), p. 25.

[9] Karen Lebacqz, Some ethical and theological considerations about cloning” (unpublished paper written for the UCC Genetics Working Group, 1998; quoted in Audrey R. Chapman, “Should we design our descendants?” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 23 (2), 2003, p. 207.

[10] John Finnis, Fundamentals of Ethics (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1983), pp. 109f.

Categories: sermons

Rod Benson

Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.

1 reply

  1. A thoughtful response, Rod.
    I wonder if there is another question sitting just under this conversation: one related to suffering, brokenness and human identity. There is an implicit assumption about normality, or perfection when it comes to human beings: people without “defect” are what is being sought. While we don’t want to glorify suffering, we do understand it has redemptive value, not only through the cross, but also as Paul articulates in Roms 5:1-5…
    And then there is the underlying assumption in the bio-medical construct that death is the ultimate enemy to be avoided. This drives a lot of the research. Where is the line to be found when we prolong death rather than prolong life?
    Thanks for what you’ve presented here… thoughtful and gracious.

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