WOULD YOU ALTER YOUR GENES FOR THE BETTER?
A Christian’s view on genetic engineering
By Jeremy Lim
Genetic engineering (GE) is the direct manipulation of an organism’s DNA to alter its characteristics in a particular way. This new scientific frontier is seldom discussed among Christian circles. Its acceptance is understandably dealt with caution for the looming possibility of the freaks the process may cause.
While it is almost tempting for Christians to dismiss GE as “playing God” and to ban all aspects of GE, there may be some benefits such as in the treatment of many painful, fatal and currently untreatable diseases. Instead of having knee-jerk reactions to GE, we should carefully examine it based on theological and ethical reflections.
For an appropriate Christian response, I will summarise the different possible categories of GE for humans, and discuss them based on the Bible’s teachings.
Different Categories of Genetic Manipulations
There are two important distinctions in human genetic engineering.
- Therapeutic vs non-therapeutic
Therapeutic application, or genetic repair, is the treatment to remove genetic defects and develop techniques that will address existing diseases such as cancer, AIDS, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease and cardiovascular disease. Non-therapeutic treatment is an enhancement therapy that uses GE to alter normal inherited characteristics such as hair or eye colour.
- Somatic vs germ-line cells
Somatic cells do not play a part in the production of sex cells, whereas germ-line cells do. If the genes of somatic cells are altered resulting in good or bad effects, only that individual would be affected physically. However, the alteration of germ-line cells is riskier because it would physically affect not only the individual but subsequent offspring.
When the above two distinctions intersect, there are four possible categories of human genetic manipulation: therapeutic somatic cell manipulation, therapeutic germ-line manipulation, non-therapeutic somatic cell manipulation, and non-therapeutic germ-line cell manipulation. We shall come back to this after discussing the biblical principles.
The Bible does not have any direct teachings on this topic but there are biblical principles to guide us in evaluating the different categories of human GE.
- The Bible speaks of the importance of health and the role of medicine. Certain activities can restore an individual’s health. Apostle Paul says our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit; therefore, we need to take good care of it. When Timothy was sick, he encouraged him to take medicinal action (1 Tim. 5:23). Scripture exhorts us to care for the physical wellness of ourselves and others.
- God has charged us to be good stewards (Gen. 2:15). The Holman Bible Dictionary defines Christian stewardship as “utilising and managing all resources God provides for the glory of God and the betterment of His creation”. Like many other technologies, GE is morally neutral, and it is entirely up to the scientists to decide how to use it. It can be used to create biological weapons to achieve evil goals or cures for the betterment of God’s creation.
- From the Christian worldview, human beings are unique because we alone are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). This means human lives have both dignity and sanctity – “the dignity calls for respect, the sanctity for reverence”. This is the reason why murder is such a heinous crime (Gen. 9:6). No matter how damaged a person might be, he/she is still made in the image of God and deserves to be treated with dignity.
- Genetic diseases exist in the first place because of the Fall. The world we live in is fallen, and all of us are subjected to death. However, this suffering is only temporary because in the incarnation and resurrection of Christ, the created order is vindicated and fulfilled. God has redeemed his fallen people and will continue to do so until the time of our full deliverance.
- Jesus’ first and second greatest commandment is love God and love others (Matt. 22:37-49). This is generally considered as the essence of Christian morality. According to Neil Messer, “the precept ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ clearly provides a strong motive for trying to relieve human suffering and seeking whatever promotes human flourishing”. Therefore, this principle of love can be a platform that supports medicine and medical research.
Christian Response to Genetic Engineering
Considering the biblical principles above, let us now return to the various categories of human genetic engineering.
The first category – therapeutic somatic cell manipulation – is ethically the least problematic because the intention behind this is to cure genetic diseases. Most genetic diseases are so severe that it could inhibit the flourishing of a person and obscure the image of God in them. For example, some genetic diseases could isolate a person from normal human relationships and perhaps deprive him/her of opportunities for learning to give and receive love. Such deprivation may make it harder for him/her to receive the love of God and make a response of love to God. In many cases, gene therapy may be the path to pursue as it’s the only cure.
The second category – therapeutic germ-line cell manipulation – can eradicate inherited diseases such as Down Syndrome and haemophilia. However, due to the risks affecting future generations, great caution is to be exercised in its implementation. Some people may see this as similar to eradicating diseases such as small pox. The late John Stott describes therapeutic GE as “art restoration” and explains that “technology, such as genetic manipulation or stem cell therapy, which is intended to be restorative, recreating a damaged length of DNA… seems consistent with ethical practice”.
The third and fourth categories – non-therapeutic gene manipulation for both somatic and germ-line cells – are certainly objectionable, owing to its primary intention for anything other than curative purposes. Examples are enhancing sports performance or delaying the ageing process. Furthermore, the manipulation of normal human characteristics would put us in danger of redesigning ourselves or others in conformity to subjective whims and prejudices, thus contradicting our Christian love that requires accepting people with all their individuality and peculiarities.
As for non-therapeutic germ-line therapy, a wide acceptance of it could possibly lead to eugenics, where our human race is redesigned to have absolute control over our future destiny. Such action signifies defiance to God’s sovereignty over us. The Babel tower story in Genesis 11:1-9 shows us that men could be deluded into thinking that they can exalt themselves over the Creator. When therapy is intended to be enhancement, we have stepped beyond the boundary which God has given to us as stewards of his creation. Therefore, both forms of non-therapeutic gene manipulations are unacceptable from a Christian’s perspective.
We have seen that there are four categories of human genetic manipulation: therapeutic somatic cell manipulation, therapeutic germ-line manipulation, non-therapeutic somatic cell manipulation, and non-therapeutic germ-line manipulation. In my argument in support of curative reasons, the first and second categories are deemed consistent with Christians ethics but not so with category three and four.
As God’s people, while we realise the immense potential of GE in eliminating human suffering, we ought to be cautious about stepping beyond the boundary of stewardship, and other philosophical and social considerations.
To conclude, let me quote Dr Ray Bohlin, a renowned Christian scientist, on how one should view GE:
“We are to play God in the sense of imitating Him as we apply the truth of being created in His image and in exercising our appointment as stewards over all He has made… Our creative abilities should be used to enhance the condition of men and women as we struggle in a fallen world. Genetic technologies can and should be used to help alleviate or even cure the effects of genetic disease.”
Jeremy Lim has a degree in Biochemistry from Ohio State University and a Master of Divinity from Seminary Theology Malaysia. He is currently serving in Petaling Jaya Evangelical Free Church as the pastor in charge of mission and outreach.
Asian Beacon: Jul – Sep 2018 (Vol 50 #3, p24-25)