Christian Doctrine and Genetic Modification

The Independent recently published an article regarding controversy in the UK over the genetic modification of embryos, and the government’s alleged attempts to obscure the nature and consequences of such treatments:

The [UK] Government has been accused of misleading the public over the introduction of a new in vitro fertilisation (IVF) technique that some experts believe will result in the birth of “genetically modified babies”. Leading scientists, including Lord Winston, an early pioneer of fertility treatment, have criticised the Department of Health for trying to play down a process that will for the first time allow the alteration of the DNA of future generations.

What are Christians to think of such procedures? On the one hand, there is the very practical benefit of preventing certain disabling conditions. There is also the value of potential future healthcare savings. Perhaps there are other benefits that I’m not seeing.

On the other had, we run into a host of theological and ethical concerns that should give us pause. There is, first, the law of unintended consequences. As the UK Health Department concedes, altering the genetic makeup of a person doesn’t just affect that person, but the “germ line” that will shape future generations. Additionally, this procedure essentially gives the embryo three genetic parents, swapping “faulty” DNA for “healthy” DNA. This is starting to sound uncomfortably eugenic.

Now let’s get a bit more explicitly theological: how does the modification of DNA relate to our doctrine of creation? What are the consequences of such procedures for the way in which we understand the humanity of people with disabilities? What is the value of an embryo that tests positive for a disabling condition? What are the theological and ethical implications of having three genetic parents? How does this type of procedure affect our understanding of the image of God? Does condoning such treatment change our theological anthropology? What resources do scripture and tradition provide for thinking through these matters?

For Protestants, these kinds of questions can be extremely difficult to answer, especially when we try to answer them as a body of believers, rather than simply individually. Of course, each of us may have some intuition regarding what we think about such matters, but our intuitions may be entirely wrong. The sin in which human beings participate has epistemic consequences. It is important, then, that we have a common body of well-developed theological teachings on which we can draw collectively as we make decisions on such complex issues.

In most Protestant traditions, we lack the kind of well-developed dogmatics that would allow us to come to a theologically informed decision about genetic modification. In the UMC, we have our resources of the Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith, and Wesley’s sermons and explanatory notes, but these are not nearly adequate as reference points for such complex ethical decision making. We need a clear doctrine of humanity, a well-developed theological anthropology. (Yes, Joel Watts, we need a theology of personhood!) We need a clear understanding of what we mean when we talk about creation. We need a well-developed statement on disability.

Are we capable of developing such a body of church teaching? I’m not sure. I would like to think so, but it would require a significant denominational shift in the importance of dogmatic theology. It would also require years, even decades, of focused work. Without such teaching, however, we are adrift at sea. We leave our congregants bereft of essential resources for addressing some of the most complex theological issues of our day, and we saddle future generations with the consequences of our lack of engagement.



2 thoughts on “Christian Doctrine and Genetic Modification

  1. Remember the uproar over the first “test tube baby” born back in 1978 using in vitro fertilization (IVF)? Protesters said we were playing God. In 1986, the first baby born by a surrogate mother and how that was deemed by protesters as “baby selling” or having “two mothers?” Those are now seen by most people as good things. I understand fear of the unknown, but no one is harmed by this new DNA technology, only helped. Lives saved and suffering alleviated. Therefore it seems to clearly be a morally good thing. Is it a slippery slope that could lead to something bad? Well, that could be said about nearly anything. Set up safe guards and deal with issues as they arise.

  2. This bell cannot be unrung. Given the checkered record of science that has often been misused and abused, there is absolutely no possibility at all that the genetic modification of human life will be averted. Safeguards will be heeded until they become an inconvenient hindrance to profit or policy.

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