Book Notes: Recent Works on the Promise and Peril of Genetic Engineering (4 of 4)


Works reviewed in this month's column:

President's Council on Bioethics, Beyond Therapy
Brent Waters and Ronald Cole-Turner, eds., God and the Embryo
Matt Ridley, Genome

BEYOND THERAPY: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness
A Report by the President's Council on Bioethics (New York: HarperCollins
Publishers [ReganBooks], 2003), 328pp.

[1] The President's Council on Bioethics was created by President George W. Bush in November, 2001 to advise the President on bioethical issues related to advances in biomedical science and technology.  In a preface written by the chairman of the council, Leon R. Kass, M.D., this volume is described as an ethical inquiry rather than a research report, making no claims to being an exhaustive study.  It's more of a distillation (at least in part) of the council's thinking in an effort "to clarify the relevant scientific possibilities, and especially, to explore the ethical and social implications of using biotechnical powers for purposes beyond therapy." (xx)  The report is actually quite remarkable in that it doesn't follow the pattern of commission reports, which typically come up with recommendations following a weighty consideration of pros and cons.  It is more of an invitation to reflect on ethical issues raised by the developments in biotechnology; its purpose is educational. 

[2] In carrying out this purpose, I believe the council deserves high marks for presenting the public with a highly readable, thoughtful, and stimulating work; it should be widely read and discussed.  There has been some discontent on the council over the conservative nature of its chairman, Leon Kass, and its membership, reflected in an indirect way in the statement issued by three of its members as a preface to a new edition of the report.  That statement encourages the reader to have an open mind, noting that the treatment of several possible developments in biotechnology may well deserve a more positive interpretation than the one presented in the report.  While that case can be made, I believe the concerns expressed are worthy of thoughtful reflection by our citizens and should stimulate an ongoing discussion in both church and society.  

[3] By "beyond therapy" the authors are referring to those well-intentioned and strictly voluntary uses of biomedical technology that go beyond its intended therapeutic use.  What has the council's attention is the intent to improve on a person's capacities, or those of one's children.  It is the pursuit of improvements or perfections in "body, mind, performance, or sense of well-being" that we all understandably desire as human beings - the yearning to broaden our capacities and achievements in the quest for a fully satisfying life.  While acknowledging the optimism of those who welcome the new possibilities introduced by biotechnology, this report is motivated by a sense of deep uneasiness about the ethical and social implications of these developments.  To pose the issue in overly dramatic terms, the question is whether we have reason to welcome efforts to "remake Eden," moving humanity into an exciting "post-human future," or whether we are poised to enter a diminished world that appears closer to the one portrayed in Aldous Huxley's novel, Brave New World.  This volume is concerned that the latter possibility is more likely; it constitutes an urgent call for society to do some serious thinking about the direction we're headed. 

[4] In structuring its report, the council devotes the first chapter to a thoughtful, nuanced effort to define biotechnology and to describe the intricacies involved in the distinction between therapy and enhancement.  This involves such notions as "health" and "normalcy," which are notoriously difficult to define.  With the expanded definition of health issued by the World Health Organization ("a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being"), it's easy to see how virtually any intervention aimed at enhancement could be seen as promoting one's health, thus qualifying as "therapeutic."  The effort to overcome one's limitations, whatever they may be, is inherent to the human quest, justifying most any desire to improve one's condition if the means are available.                          

[5] The next four chapters are devoted respectively to improving our children, enhancing our performance, extending the human life-span, and achieving a more happy mood and disposition ("happy souls") through pharmacological means.  Each of these chapters concludes with an ethical and social analysis.  The sixth and final chapter is devoted to general reflections in which the sources of concern for the council are spelled out, together with a summary conclusion.  In the paragraphs that follow, I will lift up some dominant themes from each of these chapters and conclude with observations on the general thrust of the report.

[6] While acknowledging the speculative and exaggerated character of many predictions about what the future will bring through genetic engineering, the authors take seriously the prospect of increasing genetic control on the part of parents over their offspring.  Technical possibilities include the ability to screen embryos and gametes for the presence or absence of specific genetic markers, and the ability to obtain and introduce such genetic material in order to "improve" genetic quality.  In theory at least, prospective parents can "screen out" the bad, "choose in" the good, and "fix up" what needs to be redesigned - the last of these being mere fantasy at this point. And yet, preimplantation genetic diagnosis has already been used to pre-select the sex of a child and presumably will, over the years, be used to identify more and more traits, both desirable and undesirable.  The council echoes the oft-repeated apprehension that a perfectionist mentality is developing that will exert increasing pressure on prospective parents, holding them accountable for securing children who are "genetically fit."         

[7] The authors also focus on a subject that has been a point of increasing public concern:  Improving the behavior of children through the use of psychotropic drugs.  Parents may justifiably want children who are more well-adjusted, well-behaved, and high-performing, but fulfilling these expectations through the dispensing of drugs raises serious questions about the nature of responsible parenting as well as the development of character in the child.  Artificial enhancement can improve a child's abilities and performance, but it does so in a way that separates achievement from the effort of achieving.  It sends the child a confusing message about the meaning of performance, with "too little emphasis on the integrity of genuine ability and unaugmented merit." (93)  The substantial increase in the use of drugs by children (overall use tripling during the 1990s, in many cases approaching adult rates) may well endanger the appropriate "childishness" of childhood for the sake of producing "better children."  There is much solid reflection here that raises significant philosophical questions about parenting and the nature of childhood.

[8] Superior performance expresses the idea of excellent human activity, a noble aspiration that is central to our humanity and underlies human achievement in myriad ways.  The authors note the impact of drugs intended to enhance performance, whether steroids in the intensely competitive world of athletics, or Ritalin to improve one's concentration, or Viagra to enhance one's sexual performance, and many more.  The present scene, indeed, is but "a small preview of coming attractions."  Questions to be raised are whether these performance enhancers compromise the dignity of human activity, raising issues of identity ("Is the enhanced person still fully me, and are my achievements still fully mine?") as well as implications for society should such uses of biotechnology become widespread.  It is one thing to improve oneself through self-disciplined, persistent training; it is quite another to use chemical means that work "magical" wonders at the molecular level to give oneself that competitive edge.  The central question becomes whether an intervention is consistent with "our flourishing as active, self-aware, self-directed agents," or whether in some way it makes our performance false, or less than our own. (131)

[9] The issue of living within our created limitations is nowhere more dramatically raised than in the realm of human mortality - the ultimate limitation.  Scientists have achieved some success in prolonging lifespans in several animal species, raising the prospect of eventually doing the same with human beings.  While the idea of human immortality, or "ageless bodies," has been around a long time, the more serious possibility posed by biotechnology is the retardation of senescence, or the aging process, which would result in more vigorous lives over a longer period of time and corresponding extension of the lifespan.  The council notes some targeted techniques in slowing specific disabilities in aging (muscle and memory enhancement), as well as more general, body-wide techniques, such as caloric restriction, genetic manipulation, prevention of oxidative damage, and methods of treating the ailments of the aged (the latter including hormone treatments and telomere research). 

[10] Since the desire for a longer life holds powerful sway in society, it may simply overwhelm any possible qualms or reservations.  The council is concerned to raise those reservations, both at the individual and societal level, and in doing so it demonstrates considerable thoughtfulness in probing the psychological and sociological dimensions of a significantly lengthened lifespan.  At the individual level these include the impact it would have upon our aspirations and achievements, our having children and attitudes toward them, our attitudes toward death and mortality, and the meaning of the life cycle.  At the societal level it would raise questions about family life and the relations between generations, the way in which innovation, change and renewal occur, and the impact of an aging society.  Much of this material is of course speculative, but the authors do not shy away from addressing some fundamental philosophical issues at the conclusion of this chapter.  "Is there an optimal human lifespan and an ideal contour of a human life?  If so, does it resemble our historical lifespan (as framed and constrained by natural limits)?" (198)  We are forced to ask what the meaning of aging is - a disease to be mastered and corrected, or part of the contour and constraint of natural life "which serve as a lens for a larger vision that might give all of life coherence and sustaining significance?" (200)  Are we better off with "more perfect and ageless bodies," or is it our very imperfection "that gives rise to our deepest longings and our greatest accomplishments?"

[11] As with performance enhancers, the chapter on "happy souls" raises the question of personal identity.  The prospect of drug-induced happiness is a phenomenon already well underway, but it poses a serious threat to personal identity if we believe that true happiness is intimately connected with our personhood - the interaction of mind and heart, over a lifetime.  Since memory is indispensable to personal identity, the authors consider the prospect of "memory-numbing" drugs intended to remove crippling memories, but now used in non-clinical settings for the purpose of enhancing one's sense of well-being.  This practice encourages the notion that happiness is attained in the temporary brightening of one's mood and creating a happier disposition.  It also threatens to change the way people understand the events of their own lives and the realities of the world around them.  

[12] A prominent dimension of this discussion is the presence of pain and suffering in human life, and how best to address them.  The council does not want to glorify suffering in itself, and certainly not gratuitous suffering, but it does want to insist on the importance of the capacity to suffer when suffering is called for.  To remove ourselves pharmacologically from the highs and lows of real life, "we may risk coming to love feebly or to care shallowly, losing the fine texture of emotional and psychic life and weakening our appreciation for the very human attachments that make life most meaningful." (257)  Thus we cannot ignore the fact that life's hardships often make us better, or that discontent with oneself can be the spur to self-improvement.  We are in danger of medicalizing our normal emotions and temperaments, a form of reductionism that comes with considerable cost.  If we reconceive sadness as sickness, for example, we empty it of psychic or spiritual significance.

[13] The emotional ideal, for the council, is clearly not the idea of "perpetual bliss," which runs the danger of misreading and isolating oneself from the real world.  In its closing observations, the authors suggest that to avoid self-absorption and the pursuit of happiness through pharmacology, we should turn outward and away from the healthy mind to the good society.   The engaged life that enters into ties that bind and give shape to one's true identity is a fitting alternative to the solipsistic, self-engaged life preoccupied with personal happiness.  This is not to deny the important service that pharmacology provides for those struggling with emotional and physical burdens, but it can neither define true happiness nor bestow it.

[14] In summary, there are four considerations that run throughout this report:  "[A]ppreciation of and respect for what is 'naturally given,' threatened by hubris; the dignity of human activity, threatened by 'unnatural' means; the preservation of identity, threatened by efforts at self-transformation; and full human flourishing, threatened by spurious or shallow substitutes." (287)  Another way of expressing the major thrust of this report is the importance, through education, of finding and preserving boundaries that would save us from both excess and error in view of the possibilities offered by the biotechnical revolution.  This is a subject that obviously warrants intense interest on the part of theological ethicists; rarely have technological developments raised so directly such pressing questions of human identity and destiny, and with such momentous ethical implications for the individual and society as a whole.  We are indebted to the council for presenting an unusually thoughtful response to these developments, and I hope it will constitute a significant stimulus toward a meaningful national dialogue.  The overall stance it assumes may lack a measure of appropriate optimism, but that is a judgment that remains to be seen.  There is no question that the concerns it expresses are real and worthy of our attention.

GOD AND THE EMBRYO: Religious Voices on Stem Cells and Cloning
Edited by Brent Waters and Ronald Cole-Turner (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2003), 228pp.

[15] This volume could well serve as a text of readings in a theological ethics class addressing biotechnology issues, and specifically the ongoing debate on embryonic stem cell research.  Two public events - a research colloquy at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois and a panel discussion sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in Washington, D.C. - provide the basis for the book.  In addition to articles by the ten contributing scholars, there is a helpful appendix featuring official statements on stem cell research and cloning from both Christian and Jewish bodies, together with a statement drawn up by a group of Christian theologians in England representing the Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox and Reformed traditions.

[16] The book is divided into three sections entitled "Frameworks," "Embryos," and "Research," but weaving throughout the volume is the critical theme of the moral status of the embryo.  Directly addressing this subject, a particularly helpful essay by Gene Outka (originally appearing in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal [2002]) seeks a middle position between a conservative and liberal perspective that he associates, respectively, with Richard Doerflinger and John Robertson.  He identifies the conservative view as one that rejects categorically any research on embryos because it is destructive of innocent life, while the liberal view insists that the goal of healing diseases justifies the creation of embryos as a means toward achieving that goal.  Outka agrees with conservatives that there is an inherent value to life beginning with conception, which leads him to reject the creation of embryos that will be disaggregated, and thereby destroyed, in order to serve a healing purpose.  That end does not justify the means of creating and destroying embryos specifically for that purpose.          

[17] At the same time, Outka does not believe this stance necessitates the conservative conclusion that embryonic research is forbidden "across the board."  Utilizing the moral principle of "nothing is lost," which he adopts from Paul Ramsey, admittedly giving it an extended meaning in this context, he argues that the moral status of embryos that are frozen and shelved and destined to be destroyed (an estimated 400,000 of them, resulting from in vitro fertilization) allows for their being disaggregated for a moral purpose.  Since they will be destroyed anyway, "nothing is lost" if they are destroyed in order to heal others.  The critical distinction Outka makes in regard to the liberal position is that there is a moral difference between creating new life with the intention of destroying it, and employing that life, now devoid of its potentiality because it will not be implanted, for a noble end.

[18] A question that logically arises is whether Outka is not morally compelled to challenge the practice of IVF clinics in creating more embryos than are needed in dealing with their infertile clients.  If there is inherent value to embryonic life, should there not be more stringent regulation of the practice of IVF in order to avoid the continuing increase (now estimated at some 10,000 per year) of frozen embryos, relatively few of which will ever be implanted?  At the close of his article Outka does confess his "disquiet" over this situation and acknowledges that "far more critical and skeptical appraisals of the practices presently in place" is called for, but does not pursue this point.  "One need not approve of how the situation was created in order to judge that it is better to save some than none when those who die would die anyway." The use of discarded embryos for research is thus "morally tolerable, and no more."  This brief survey of Outka's argument doesn't do justice to the extended analysis and rich nuance that it displays; I find his attempt to identify middle ground between liberal and conservative positions generally persuasive.

[19] In addition to Outka and the two editors, contributors to this volume include James C. Peterson, Robert Song, Ted Peters and Gaymon Bennett, Kevin T. Fitzgerald, S.J., Laurie Zoloth, and Sondra Wheeler.  There is diversity in viewpoint and variety in religious affiliation among the authors, with both Protestant and Roman Catholic (Fitzgerald) representation as well as Jewish (Zoloth).  There is unanimous rejection of embryonic cloning for the purpose of giving birth to a baby possessing the genome of another person; the issue is stem cell research for the purpose of healing people with genetic diseases.  Where human life from conception is equated with personhood, the end goal of healing through the destruction of persons (no matter how primitive or undeveloped their state) would have to be rejected.  The issue becomes whether a developmental view of human origins is morally appropriate, so that critical distinctions can be made in the value that early nascent life possesses in contrast to the life of persons in relationship. The difference between the two is obvious enough; the question is whether that difference allows for disaggregating and therefore destroying embryos in order to heal people with genetic disease.

[20] I have argued elsewhere that even if one does not equate the value of embryonic life with that of people in society, thereby refusing to equate the destruction of embryos with murder, there still remains the question whether the continuing, systematic destruction of embryonic life in the long run would not cheapen the value of human life in the public mind.  Is this a practice that we can or ought to live with, indefinitely?  I don't believe so, but with Outka I think there is an alternative in using embryos already in existence whose future is closed.  The goal of healing people that motivates stem cell research constitutes an imperative that must be taken seriously, justifying the use of embryos destined for destruction.  While the opposing positions here can be seen as deontological conflicts between the obligation to save life in it earliest form to saving life threatened by disease, a corresponding consequentialist argument is often made.  Those opposed to therapeutic stem cell research are more likely to be pessimistic about prospects for its success, while those who support it are more likely to be optimistic.  These two attitudes are seen, respectively, in the essays by Fitzgerald and Zoloth.

[21] The essay by Peters and Bennett is particularly notable in challenging the archonic framework of the debate over stem cell research, which focuses on the origins of life and the moral status of the embryo in light of its development.  Lifting up an eschatological approach rooted in Christian theology, the authors argue on behalf of a future-oriented anthropology that finds the value of human beings in their destiny rather than in their origin. The archonic approach (as seen in Roman Catholicism, for example) begins from creation rather than redemption, and consequently misses the relational dimension that Christian anthropology involves; it misses the vision of Jesus who sees humanity in terms of what it is becoming as a result of God's love.  Who we are is established through relationships, reflecting the love of God and the imperative that we love our neighbor in the spirit of agape.  Thus human dignity itself cannot be understood apart from relationships that make us who we are. 

[22] The authors argue that what this means for the stem cell debate and for bioethics in general is that the principle of beneficence should play the decisive role in arriving at our moral judgments.  Beneficence begins with God's healing purpose in the world and is foundational for all ethics.  Thus the basic question is whether biomedical technology can be "pressed into the service of healing and human well-being." (125) There is a foundational shift here from stressing the evil of maleficence and the need to protect embryonic life, to emphasizing beneficence and the obligation to heal suffering and diseased people.  This goal persuades the authors, contrary to Outka and my own thinking, that the creation of embryos specifically for the purpose of therapeutic stem cell research is morally acceptable.  Thus the possibility of pursuing other avenues, such as research with adult stem cells, is not regarded with the same moral urgency. 

[23] While this focus on the realm of human beings in relationship rather than embryonic life is certainly appropriate in defining human identity and dignity, it leaves the authors with the question that won't go away:  Where does our moral responsibility begin in regard to embryonic life?  For the authors the appropriate phrasing of this question is, When do we believe God's concern for a person's eschatological destiny begins?  Their answer, on the basis of what we know about embryonic development and the process of individuation, is that the fourteen-day rule is more persuasive than arguments for conception.  But unlike archonic reasoning, this is not a foundational thesis but a kind of "subpremise within the larger beneficence framework." 

[24] While I agree in principle with the focus on life-in-relationship, my Lutheran instincts resist the rationale of Peters and Bennett in developing their Christian anthropology on the basis of Second Article theology - proceeding from redemption rather than creation, from gospel rather than law.  This approach removes the capacity to meet the non-Christian on common ground in addressing the urgent moral issues of the day, including issues of human dignity.  At the same time, our Lutheran tendency toward antithesis rather than synthesis has not always served us well; over the past century we have experienced the inadequacy of absolutizing the difference between law and gospel and related themes of Christian theology.  In regard to our topic here, I would emphasize the character of futurity and hope that is inherent to the nature of humanity itself, and which the gospel of Jesus Christ further elaborates and clarifies in revealing our resurrection destiny.  We are social beings by nature, destined for relationships in which the meaning and purpose of existence is realized.  Thus we appropriately make a distinction in the weight and value of embryonic and prenatal life compared to life in society.  Our duties toward a blastocyst, while requiring respect that leads to laws and regulations that govern and even limit scientific research, are still quite different from our duties toward one another.

GENOME: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters
By Matt Ridley (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 344pp.

[25] Matt Ridley is a journalist with a unique ability to interpret scientific subject matter for the lay reader.  A former science editor, Washington correspondent, and U. S. editor for The Economist, he is the author of several engaging works that address the juncture of biology and human nature.  In this book he turns his attention to the Human Genome Project and specifically to the mapping of the twenty-three pairs of chromosomes that make up the human genome.  But his approach is remarkable in that he treats the genome as a sort of autobiography in its own right, lifting up a gene from each chromosome and relating it to a theme of human nature.  What the reader gets is a tour of some interesting sites in the genome and what they tell us about ourselves. Ridley acknowledges that we cannot reduce human nature to a genetic code, but he wants us to sense the mystery of our genes and share in the fast-moving journey on which we have embarked as scientists unveil some of that mystery. 

[26] While this book is fairly recent (the first edition appeared in England in 1999), it reminds us of the rapid pace of genetic knowledge in that it is already less than accurate in some of its data.  For example, it has become clear since its appearance that the number of genes in the human genome is nowhere near the 80-to-100,000 that geneticists have believed, but closer to 30,000.  And the confidence with which Ridley describes the operation of specific genes would not be shared by many in the scientific community.  Indeed, his uniting of genes with such concepts as intelligence, conflict, self-interest, memory, politics, and free will, among others, would strike many as inviting misunderstanding about the genome.  Nonetheless, the final accomplishment in terms of information and understanding conveyed by his book is remarkable. 

[27] The first chapters trace the remote origins of our species, pointing out that the unity of all life was empirically established with the cracking of the genetic code in the 1960's - "seaweed is your distant cousin and anthrax one of your advanced relatives."  There is no bone in the chimpanzee body that we do not share, no known chemical in his brain that cannot be found in the human brain.  Some two percent of the genome differs between humans and chimpanzees, and how the difference between these two species is generated is still far from clear, but that genes are responsible is not in doubt.  It is not just the presence of genes that we share with creation that is important, but what human genes do that seems to make all the difference.  Ridley's weaving of history and genetics forms a fascinating story of discovery which is clearly far from over.

[28] The subject of intelligence and its genetic base poses a particularly formidable topic for Ridley, but he attacks it with considerable self-confidence.  It was on chromosome 6, in 1997, that "a brave or perhaps foolhardy scientist" announced that he had located a gene "for intelligence."  One of the obvious problems that such a claim raises is the fact that there is no accepted definition of intelligence; IQ tests, while clearly measuring something, are also biased toward certain kinds of minds. Ridley concludes that if we take into account all the testing that has been done in this area, including those on sets of twins and adoptees, the evidence is strong for the heritability of the causes of intelligence.  After some discussion Ridley concludes that "about half of your IQ was inherited, and less than a fifth was due to the environment you shared with your siblings - the family."  And yet, because we select the environments that suit our innate tendencies, genetic influences are not frozen at conception but continue to grow.  Heritability does not mean immutability, nor does it signal determinism.  Ridley concludes that some genes must influence IQ, but that some must be variable - they exist in different versions in different people.  The overall result, it appears, is that any attempt to identify individual genes with a trait like intelligence is bound to be so qualified that the quest itself appears problematic.

[29] The chapter on immortality begins with a discussion of a gene called TEPi which produces a protein that forms part of "a most unusual little biochemical machine called telomerase."  Without getting into the intricacies of chromosome tips and telomeres, the lack of telomerase seems to be the principal reason that cells grow old and die; the question is whether this is the principal reason for the aging of our bodies.  Few experts now believe this is the case, since the things we associate with aging - cancer, muscle weakness, tendon stiffness, changes in skin elasticity, the graying of hair - have nothing to do with cells failing to duplicate themselves.  The process of evolution may provide more insight into aging, where each species seems to come equipped with a program of planned obsolescence suited to its expected life-span.  Once again, it is not a matter of a gene that controls aging, but many.  One estimate is that there are some 7,000 age-influencing genes in the human genome.  Aging involves the more or less simultaneous deterioration of many different bodily systems, according to an evolutionary logic that governs each species.  Thus Ridley takes a dim view of the prospect envisioned by some, that the human lifespan can be lengthened indefinitely.

[30] The all-too-brief sketches of the above two chapters reveal both the strength and weakness of this volume.  The chapter headings are provocative in suggesting too much in terms of what particular genes are responsible for in the complex make-up of the human being.  At the same time, Ridley avoids the oversimplifications that this association of traits with genes creates.  In each chapter he steers the discussion to the more nuanced, complex picture provided by genetics, generally resulting in a responsible overall picture of the subject under discussion.  Moreover, he accomplishes this with not only imaginative allusions and engaging language, but with a wealth of background material that enables him to reach into many esoteric corners and come out with interesting and often surprising information and insights.  He ranges from genetics to anthropology to philosophy, providing the reader with a rich prospectus on the meaning and significance of what we are learning today from genetics and molecular biology.

[31] In these final three paragraphs I'll venture a few words about the road we have traveled over the past year.  The books we have reviewed - some 14, plus an article - have ranged from scientific works written by geneticists and molecular biologists (Gregory Stock, John Campbell, Ruth Hubbard, David Resnik), to works of philosophers and historians of science assessing the larger meaning of developments in genetics (Leon Kass, Phillip Kitcher, Gordon Graham, Evelyn Fox Keller), to works by free-lance journalists who have interpreted developments in genetics to the literate public (Bryan Appleyard, Matt Ridley), to Christian theologians/ethicists who have brought theological and ethical concerns to bear (Robert Song, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Brent Waters, Ronald Cole-Turner and others), as well as several groups (the editors of Scientific American, the President's Council on Bioethics).  The range of viewpoint among these authors has been considerable, from those who are supremely optimistic, waxing eloquent over the prospects for creating a "post-human" world through genetic engineering, to those who are vigorously critical of that prospect, to those who are primarily cautious but open to possible developments that are now difficult to foresee.  For theologians/ethicists such concerns as overreaching our limits (hubris), affirming the continuity of humanity with creation, repudiating genetic reductionism, and resisting the mindset of "quality control" generated by extensive genetic screening have all been expressed.

[32] The potential goods as well as harms that genetic engineering poses are sufficiently serious, wide-ranging, and ambiguous as to create considerable disagreement as well as uncertainty among Christians and their churches.  The theological resources that Christianity brings to bear concerning this topic can actually lead us in opposing directions.  A strong sense of structure and design, rooted in the divine will and expressed in natural law tradition, leads one to oppose any "tinkering" with the human condition; it becomes an expression of hubris, or human defiance of divine limitations.  On the other hand, the notion that we are "co-creators" with God in fashioning the human future, that our destiny as creatures fashioned in the image of God does not leave us passive but active in shaping our destiny, encourages a more open stance to changes in the human condition that promise a more humane existence.  What direction should we take?

[33] On a matter as momentous as this one, the attitude of caution would appear to be the essence of responsibility.  The progress of scientific knowledge is not a straight line that enables us to clearly anticipate future developments.  Unintended consequences can derail the train of scientific progress at any time; we often become the victims not only of our own ignorance, but of our inability and often unwillingness to see the full picture with all of its implications for human wellbeing.  As an initial step, I believe the President's Council on Bioethics has set out an agenda for the American public that deserves our earnest attention.  Its report, reviewed above, enables the public to inform itself on pertinent developments in biotechnology, a prerequisite to intelligent perspective and decision making.  At the same time, churches should feel obligated to focus on this topic with the help of its theologians and ethicists, where dialogue enables us to arrive at fitting responses in light of the church's wisdom.  We will not achieve consensus, but our faith gives us confidence that dialogue in the presence of God will serve God's purposes and the mission of the church.  This in turn will make a contribution to the capacity of the American public to address more adequately the challenge of biotechnology.

© August 2004
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 4, Issue 8