The age of genetics has arrived. Society is in the midst of a genetic revolution that some futurists predict will have a greater impact on the culture than the industrial revolution. So, in this essay we are going to look at the area of genetic engineering.
The future of genetics, like that of any other technology, offers great promise but also great peril. Nuclear technology has provided nuclear medicine, nuclear energy, and nuclear weapons. Genetic technology offers the promise of a diverse array of good, questionable, and bad technological applications. Christians, therefore, must help shape the ethical foundations of this technology and its future applications.
How powerful a technology is genetic engineering? For the first time in human history, it is possible to completely redesign existing organisms, including man, and to direct the genetic and reproductive constitution of every living thing. Scientists are no longer limited to breeding and cross-pollination. Powerful genetic tools allow us to change genetic structure at the microscopic level and bypass the normal processes of reproduction.
For the first time in human history, it is also possible to make multiple copies of any existing organism or of certain sections of its genetic structure. This ability to clone existing organisms or their genes gives scientists a powerful tool to reproduce helpful and useful genetic material within a population.
Scientists are also developing techniques to treat and cure genetic diseases through genetic surgery and genetic therapy. They can already identify genetic sequences that are defective, and soon scientists will be able to replace these defects with properly functioning genes.
At this point, let’s take a look at the nature of genetic diseases. Genetic diseases arise from a number of causes. The first are single-gene defects. Some of these single-gene diseases are dominant and therefore cannot be masked by a second normal gene on the homologous chromosome (the other strand of a chromosome pair). An example is Huntington’s chorea (a fatal disease that strikes in the middle of life and leads to progressive physical and mental deterioration). Many other single-gene diseases are recessive and are expressed only when both chromosomes have a defect. Examples of these diseases are sickle-cell anemia, which leads to the production of malformed red blood cells, and cystic fibrosis, which leads to a malfunction of the respiratory and digestive systems.
Another group of single-gene diseases includes the sex-linked diseases. Because the Y chromosome in men is much shorter than the X chromosome it pairs with, many genes on the X chromosome are absent on the homologous Y chromosome. Men, therefore, will show a higher incidence of genetic diseases such as hemophilia or color blindness. Even though these are recessive, males do not have a homologous gene on their Y chromosome that could contain a normal gene to mask it.
Another major cause of genetic disease is chromosomal abnormalities. Some diseases result from an additional chromosome. Down’s syndrome is caused by trisomy-21 (three chromosomes at chromosome twenty-one). Klinefelter’s syndrome results from the addition of an extra X chromosome (these men have a chromosome pattern that is XXY). Other genetic defects result from the duplication, deletion, or rearrangement (called translocation) of a gene sequence.
Genetic engineering offers the promise of eventually treating and curing these genetic defects. Although this is a promise in the future, we are already involved in genetic counseling and the significant ethical concerns it presents. Let’s turn now to look at the topic of genetic counseling.
As scientists have learned more about the genetic structure of human beings, they have been able to predict with greater certainty the likelihood of a couple bearing a child with a genetic disease. Each human being carries approximately three to eight genetic defects that might be passed on to their children. By checking family medical histories and taking blood samples (for chromosome counts and tests for recessive traits), a genetic counselor can make a fairly accurate prediction about the possibility of a couple having a child with a genetic disease.
Most couples, however, do not seek genetic counsel in order to decide if they should have a child, but instead seek counsel to decide if they should abort a child that is already conceived. In cases in which the mother is already pregnant, the focus is not whether to prevent a pregnancy but whether to abort the unborn child. These circumstances raise some of the same ethical concerns as abortion.
Major deformities can be discovered through many advanced new techniques. One is ultrasound, which uses a type of sonar to determine the size, shape, and sex of the fetus. An ultrasound transducer is placed on the mother’s abdomen and sound waves are sent through the amniotic sac. The sonar waves are then picked up and transmitted to a video screen that provides important information about the characteristics of the fetus.
Another important tool is laparoscopy. A flexible fiber optic scope is inserted by the doctor through a small incision in the mother’s abdomen. This tool allows the doctor to probe into the abdominal cavity.
Genetic defects can be detected in the womb through various prenatal tests. These tests can detect approximately two hundred genetic disorders. In the mid-1960s physicians began to use amniocentesis. A doctor inserts a four-inch needle into a pregnant woman’s anesthetized abdomen in order to withdraw up to an ounce of amniotic fluid. As the fetus grows, cells are shed from the skin of the fetus, and these can be collected from the fluid and used to discover the sex and genetic make-up of the fetus.
For years, doctors used this procedure to identify congenital defects by the twentieth week of pregnancy. Now more doctors use another technique called chorionic villus sampling (CVS), which can produce the same information at ten weeks. Doctors also use a blood test known as maternal serum alfa-fetoprotein (MSAFP). This test, usually done between the fifteenth and twentieth week, can detect a neural tube defect of the spinal cord or brain, such as spina bifida or Down’s syndrome.
The newest procedure is called BABI (blastomere analysis before implantation). Using reproductive technologies, a couple can conceive several embryos in test tubes and discard those exhibiting known defects. A doctor gives a woman a drug to stimulate ovulation, then extracts eggs from her ovaries and mixes them with her husband’s sperm. So far, the procedure has been used to test embryos for such hereditary diseases as Tay-Sachs and Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
Using these techniques to give genetic information to couples is not wrong in itself. But, since most of these genetic diseases cannot be cured, the tacit assumption is that abortion will be used if any defects are found. Many doctors and clinics will not do genetic tests unless a couple gives prior consent to abortion. Thus genetic counseling can often raise ethical questions, and this is especially true when abortion is involved.
Next, we’ll look at the future promise of genetic engineering found in gene splicing.
Gene Splicing: Scientific Benefits and Concerns
For the remainer of this essay, I would like to focus on the issue of gene splicing, also known as recombinant DNA research. This new technology began in the 1970s with new genetic techniques that allowed scientists to cut small pieces of DNA (known as plasmids) into small segments that could be inserted in host DNA. The new creatures that were designed have been called DNA chimeras because they are conceptually similar to the mythological Chimera (a creature with the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and the tail of a serpent).
Gene splicing is fundamentally different from other forms of genetic breeding used in the past. Breeding programs work on existing arrays of genetic variability in a species, isolating specific genetic traits through selective breeding. Scientists using gene splicing can essentially “stack” the deck or even produce an entirely new deck of genetic “cards.”
But this powerful ability to change the genetic deck of cards also raises substantial scientific concerns that some “sleight-of-hand” would produce dangerous consequences. Ethan Singer said, “Those who are powerful in society will do the shuffling; their genes will be shuffled in one direction, while the genes of the rest of us will get shuffled in another.” Also there is the concern that a reshuffled deck of genes might create an Andromeda strain similar to the one envisioned by Michael Crichton is his book by the same title. A microorganism might inadvertently be given the genetic structure for some pathogen for which there is no antidote or vaccine.
In the early days of this research, scientists called for a moratorium until the risks of this new technology could be assessed. Even after the National Institute of Health issued guidelines, public fear was considerable. When Harvard University planned to construct a genetic facility for gene splicing, the mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts, expressed his concern that “something could crawl out of the laboratory, such as a Frankenstein.”
The potential benefits of gene splicing are significant. First, the technology can be used to produce medically important substances. The list of these substances is quite large and would include insulin, interferon, and human growth hormone. Gene splicing also has great application in the field of immunology. In order to protect organisms from viral disease, doctors must inject a killed or attenuated virus. Scientists can use the technology to disable a toxin gene, thus yielding a viral substance that triggers the generation of antibodies without the possibility of producing the disease.
A second benefit is in the field of agriculture. This technology can improve the genetic fitness of various plant species. Basic research using this technology could increase the efficiency of photosynthesis, increase plant resistance (to salinity, drought, or viruses), and reduce a plant’s demand for nitrogen fertilizer.
Third, gene splicing can aid industrial and environmental processes. Industries that manufacture drugs, plastics, industrial chemicals, vitamins, and cheese will benefit from this technology. Scientists have already begun to develop organisms that can clean up oil spills or toxic wastes.
This last benefit, however, also raises one of the greatest scientific concerns over genetic technology. The escape (or even intentional release) of a genetically engineered organism might wreak havoc on the environment. Scientists have created microorganisms that dissolve oil spills or reduce frost on plants. Critics of gene splicing fear that radically altered organisms could occupy new ecological niches, destroy existing ecosystems, or drive certain species to extinction.
Gene Splicing: Legal and Ethical Concerns
Now, we want to focus on the legal and ethical concerns of gene splicing.
Legal concerns also surround genetic technology. The Supreme Court ruled that genetically engineered organisms as well as the genetic processes that created them can be patented. The original case involved a microorganism designed to eat up oil-slicks; it was patented by General Electric. Since 1981 the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has approved nearly 12,000 patents for genetic products and processes. Scientists have been concerned that the prospects of profit have decreased the relatively free flow of scientific information. Often scientists-turned-entrepreneurs refuse to share their findings for fear of commercial loss.
Even more significant is the question of whether life should even be patented at all. Most religious leaders say no. A 1995 gathering of 187 religious leaders representing virtually every major religious tradition spoke out against the patenting of genetically engineered substances. They argued that life is the creation of God, not humans, and should not be patented as human inventions.
The broader theological question is whether genetic engineering should be used and, if permitted, how it should be used. The natural reaction for many in society is to reject new forms of technology because they are dangerous. Christians, however, should take into account God’s command to humankind in the cultural mandate (Gen. 1:28). Christians should avoid the reflex reaction that scientists should not tinker with life; instead Christians should consider how this technology should be used responsibly.
One key issue is the worldview behind most scientific research. Modern science rests on an evolutionary assumption. Many scientists assume that life on this planet is the result of millions of years of a chance evolutionary process. They conclude, therefore, that intelligent scientists can do a better job of directing the evolutionary process than nature can do by chance. Even so, many evolutionary scientists warn of this potential danger. Ethan Singer believes that scientists will “verify a few predictions, and then gradually forget that knowing something isn’t the same as knowing everything. . . . At each stage we will get a little cockier, a little surer we know all the possibilities.”
Some evolutionary scientists have always believed they could control evolution. In essence, gene splicing gives them the tools they have wanted. Julian Huxley looked forward to the day in which scientists could fill the “position of business manager for the cosmic process of evolution.” Certainly this technology enables scientists to create new forms of life and alter existing forms in ways that have been impossible until now.
How should Christians respond? They should humbly acknowledge that God is the sovereign Creator and that man has finite knowledge. Genetic engineering gives scientists the god-like technological ability, but without the wisdom, knowledge, and moral capacity to behave like God.
Even evolutionary scientists who deny the existence of God and believe that all life is the result of an impersonal evolutionary process express concern about the potential dangers of this technology. Erwin Chargaff asked, “Have we the right to counteract, irreversibly, the evolutionary wisdom of millions of years, in order to satisfy the ambition and curiosity of a few scientists?” His answer is no. The Christian’s answer should also be the same when we realize that God is the Creator of life. We do not have the right to “rewrite the sixth day of creation.”
But can gene splicing be used responsibly? We’ll address that question next as we attempt to put forward a biblical framework for genetic engineering.
A Biblical Framework for Genetic Engineering
When faced with the complexities of modern life, and especially with modern technology, many tend to exert the mental reflex of condemning all forms of genetic engineering. So the obvious first question is whether genetic engineering should be used at all. Then, if it is permissible, we should ask how it should be used.
Christians must resist the tendency to reject technology merely because it is foreign or merely because it is technology. God’s command to humankind in the cultural mandate (Gen. 1:28) instructs us to develop and use technology wisely. Christians should avoid the reflex reaction that scientists should not tinker with life; instead Christians should develop a biblical framework to guide responsible use of this technology.
In developing this framework, I believe we must distinguish between two types of research. The first could be called genetic repair. This research attempts to remove genetic defects and develop techniques that will provide treatments for existing diseases. Applications would include various forms of genetic therapy and genetic surgery as well as modifications of existing microorganisms in order to produce beneficial results.
The Human Genome Project is helping scientists to pinpoint the location and sequence of the approximately 100,000 human genes. Further advances in gene splicing will allow scientists to repair defective sequences and eventually remove these genetic diseases from our population.
Genetic disease is not part of God’s plan for the world. It is the result of the Fall (Gen. 3). Christians can apply technology to fight these evils without being accused of fighting against God’s will. Genetic engineering can and should be used to treat and cure genetic diseases.
A second type of research is the creation of new forms of life. While minor modifications of existing organisms may be permissible, Christians should be concerned about the large-scale production of novel life forms. Their potential impact on the environment and on mankind could be considerable. Science is replete with examples of what can happen when an existing organism is introduced into a new environment (e.g., the rabbit into Australia, the rat to Hawaii, or the gypsy moth in the United States). One can only imagine the potential devastation that could occur when a newly created organism is introduced into a new environment.
God created plants and animals as “kinds” (Gen. 1:24). While there is minor variability within these created kinds, there are built-in barriers between these created kinds. Redesigning creatures of any kind cannot be predicted the same way new elements on the periodic chart can be predicted for properties even before they are discovered. Recombinant DNA technology offers great promise in treating genetic disease, but Christians should also be vigilant. While this technology should be used to repair genetic defects, it should not be used to confer the role of creator on scientists.
I believe Christians involved in the scientific disciplines of biology, genetics, medicine, and molecular biology need to stand up and point the way to the wise and proper use of genetic engineering. The benefits are great, but so are the perils. As with any form of technology, Christians should thoughtfully and carefully promote the beneficial aspects of this technology while resisting and constraining its detrimental aspects.
©1998 Probe Ministries