What does it mean to give your children the best chance at success? Would it include changing their DNA so they would never get sick? Could it include genetically changing them to make them stronger, smarter, and faster than others? Is that even moral?
These questions used to be relegated to the realm of science fiction, but as genetic technologies advance, they have become more and more real. There are already instances of people using genetic screening during in vitro fertilization.1 While this process is currently used to only identify the correct number of chromosomes in an embryo, the Guardian article states, "If doctors had a readout of an embryo's whole genome, they could judge the chances of the child developing certain diseases, such as cancer, heart disease or Alzheimer's."2
While genetic screening itself opens a host of moral questions, even more provocative is the concept of genetic engineering: changing the gene itself to either rid the embryo of a trait or to enhance natural traits such as strength or intelligence. This morning I read two articles from Christians (J.W. Wartick and ElijiahT) who outlined the issue and offered their views. They've done a good job in laying out most of the arguments, both pro and con, that you find see in the debate, so I won't rehash them here. Both are worthy of your time. But there is an aspect that neither touched on which I think is fundamental to the discussion.
Genetic Therapy and Genetic EnhancementFirst, I do wish to distinguish between the two goals of genetic engineering. There is a distinction between genetic therapy, which is basically correcting a genetic defect such as Sickle-cell disease that Wartick offers, and genetic enhancement, which takes a function that would fall within the normal range and improve it. 3 Yet, even here the standard isn't so easily discernable. For example, the deaf community even today has significant disagreement whether deaf children born to deaf parents should receive cochlear implants.4 In fact, one lesbian couple sought out a sperm donor who had five generations of deafness in his family to ensure their IVF child would be deaf.5
I have some problems with the couple's approach, but it does illustrate that defining disability versus difference isn't always so clear. However, with most cases, I think a case can be made that genetic therapies fall within a Christian construct. God has given us the ability to learn about His creation and to try and alleviate some of the suffering brought on by the Fall. Treatments for maladies are currently invasive (they require surgery), artificial (stints, mechanics, etc.) and even happen in utero as with fetal surgeries. Delivering treatments at the genetic level seems to me to be only a difference in degree, not in kind.
We are More than Our GenesI have a different concern with genetic enhancements however. In his article, ElijiahT quoted Kurt Baier writing, "The best course of action is… the course of action which is supported by the best reasons. And the best reasons may require us to abandon the aim we actually have set our heart on."6 This is a fair standard and one that I think I can use to expand the debate.
The piece missing in both articles above is that every human being is not simply a product of his or her genetics. Human beings are also living souls and God is extremely concerned with the development of the soul as well as the ability of the body. Theologians have understood that while eliminating suffering is important and Christians should help those who they can, God's providential ordering of things is also important. That's why the Psalmist writes "For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made."7
Part of our fearful and wonderful makeup is our specific limitations in certain areas. These shape us into who we are as much as our ability to excel. While I personally didn't struggle academically, I wasn't a natural athlete growing up. I was very small as a teenager and didn't have much experience with a ball. However, I found sports that stressed endurance such as cross country and wrestling and I was able to do very well in both. Striving there taught me perseverance and discipline that I may not have otherwise experienced. If my strength and height were genetically enhanced in utero, I wouldn't have the soul-shaping experienced I had, which helped form my spiritual makeup and attitude.
In his post, Wartick opines, "It is unclear, though, whether genetic enhancement would undermine the good of accomplishment and human achievement. Indeed, one could argue that genetic enhancement, in fact, bolsters human achievement by widening the scope of possibility for humans."8 Physically, that may be true, but I am not sure that it would be true spiritually. While our culture overburdens the concept of diversity, there are things one can learn from those who have varied obstacles they had to overcome. Sometimes, those experiences inform the rest of us in new way. We can learn from Helen Keller.
No Genetic LotterySo are we to leave our children to what has been deemed the "genetic lottery"? And, to extend the argument, is seeking a child's excellence through genetic enhancement techniques any different from some of the advantages certain children currently enjoy? Outlining this aspect of the pro-enhancement position, ElijiahT writes:
Parents make choices regarding the life and welfare of their children all the time, yet no one claims the autonomy of the child is being violated. Expectant mothers will regularly take vitamins (to enhance the prenatal environment), read or play music to the developing child and alter her diet, all in an attempt to give the child the best environment possible. After birth, parents deliberately choose the child's nutrition, education, entertainment and health. In fact, to neglect these things is often seen as inappropriate parenting.9I agree. Yet, the difference is qualitative; it's one of nature versus nurture. One need look no farther than the recent Lance Armstrong scandal. No one would bat an eye if Armstrong was reported taking the best vitamins, using the best trainers, and following the best exercise and diet regimen. It was the artificial input of what should be a natural (e.g. "God-given") function of his body. If we are created fearfully and wonderfully by a holy God, it simply may be that our limitations are there to build our character and our spirit.
Escaping the Playing God DodgeElijiahT counters with the argument that "playing God "with another's life may be a fallback excuse: "The actions associated with ‘playing God' are usually new technologies that alter something about the human condition. In this case, genetic engineering is seen as playing God, but couldn't the same argument be used as a ‘catch-all' for anything that makes us uncomfortable?"10
Of course he's right. The objection has been used as a conversation-stopper many times. But that doesn't mean that it is always fallacious. A doctor who indiscriminately euthanizes his patients is playing God; he's taken upon himself the mantle of choosing which people are worthy of life—the province of God alone. Similarly, if God is interested in shaping us into mature souls, he may limit certain physical attributes that we would otherwise wish for ourselves or our children. These differences are not defects caused by the fall, but truly differences that God allows for our good. One shouldn't assume to modify them because we believe they are not as worthy as other characteristics.
There's an interesting scene in the 1999 hit move The Matrix, where Agent Smith tells Morpheus that human beings don't thrive in paradise. The character explains:
Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy? It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this: the peak of your civilization.11That's an oversimplification, but it does bring up a point. Struggle and hardship may be uncomfortable, but they are not always to be avoided. They can and often do serve to benefit believers. Holding to a "genetic lottery" assumes at the very least a deistic worldview. While we mitigate the defects brought on by sin, including Original sin, we shouldn't be so bold as to assume we can improve physical characteristics that are not defective. The Nazis sought to do that with race, but race isn't a defect. Neither are our lesser or grater physical abilities.
Without a discussion of the soul-shaping nature of bodily limitations, the questions raised regarding genetic modification is incomplete.
2. Sample, 2013.
3. There is also a distinction between treating someone genetically where the modified genes are localized versus recoding the person's entire DNA, as would happen at the first stages of life. Biologists differentiate the two by referring to the first as somatic genetic treatments, where the gene therapy would not be passed on to succeeding generations. Germ-line genetic treatments, however, are passed from parent to child.
4. Ringo, Allegra. "Understanding Deafness: Not Everyone Wants to Be 'Fixed'" The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 09 Aug. 2013. Web. 15 June 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/08/understanding-deafness-not-everyone-wants-to-be-fixed/278527/.
5. Spriggs, M. "Lesbian Couple Create a Child Who Is Deaf like Them." Journal of Medical Ethics 28.5 (2002): 283. Web. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1733642/pdf/v028p00283.pdf.
6. ElijiahT. "Why You Should Genetically Engineer Your Children." ElijiahT. ElijiahT, 07 Dec. 2014. Web. 15 June 2015. https://elijiaht.wordpress.com/2014/12/08/genetic-engineering-and-human-children/.
7. Psalm 139: 13-14, ESV
8. Wartick, J. W. "Genetics and Bioethics: Enhancement or Therapy?" Always Have a Reason. J.W. Wartick, 15 June 2015. Web. 15 June 2015. http://jwwartick.com/2013/02/25/enhance-therapy/.
9. ElijiahT, 2014.
10. ElijiahT, 2014.
11. The Matrix. Prod. Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski. Dir. Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski. By Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski. 1999.