Imagine sitting in a doctor’s office with your spouse. As you discuss the possibility of starting a family, the doctor tells you that you have the option to genetically enhance your child’s intelligence. Medical professionals can do this without risking the life of the embryo. They guarantee it to work. Would you do it?
Suppose you are pregnant. A genetic test reveals your child has Down syndrome, and you are offered the option to undo the genetic mutation. Would you?
These are among the questions asked by an unlikely fellowship of churches and scientists.
In 2013, scientists demonstrated that a technology known as CRISPR can edit the genes of living human cells at a fraction of the time and cost required by previous methods. Think of editing the genome like a “find-and-replace” function: a tool finds, removes, and replaces a specific sequence of genetic material. In older methods of gene editing, imprecise protein structures, which are laborious to construct, search for the specific sequence. Instead, CRISPR uses RNA, which most good graduate students working in a lab can construct cheaply and quickly.
Additionally, it’s possible to use CRISPR to edit the germline—embryonic or reproductive cells, in which any edits pass on to all future generations.
This advance holds tremendous promise for curing any number of genetically driven maladies, including sickle-cell disease and various forms of cancer. But it also raises thorny ethical questions about how, when, and by whom such technology should be used. The same technology that could address muscular dystrophy could also enhance the strength of an already healthy person.
A Crossover Conversation
George Church is credited with proving that CRISPR can edit the human genome. His vision is bold and controversial. He’s used CRISPR to edit 62 pig genes at once in order to transplant their organs into humans, and his lab is working on bringing back the wooly mammoth. He has announced a project to build a full human genome synthetically, which could, theoretically, create babies without biological parents.
But Church is neither oblivious nor dismissive of ethical concerns raised by his work. “We need to work with multiple communities; we need to listen to them,” he told me. Church’s wife, Ting Wu, also a Harvard geneticist, recalls that as far back as their graduate school days, when they first discussed sequencing the human genome, “[George] and I would talk about the necessity to include everybody in the dialogue about how to do it, when to do it.”
I had followed these developments only peripherally until, in the spring of 2016, Wu approached my church, Christ the King Presbyterian in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Seeking to expand the debate to communities of faith, Wu, founder of the Personal Genetics Education Project (pgEd), started cold-calling numbers from a Google search for “churches near Harvard Medical School.” Logan Keck and Chad Baldanza, pastors at the Jamaica Plain congregation of Christ the King, just happened to be the first ones to answer the phone.
Our church hosted Wu, who claims no particular religious affiliation, for a series of conversations about the state of the technology and the ethical questions it raises. Her description of the pace at which the technology is advancing left me convinced that, as a pastor, I needed to understand the science and the ethical questions much more deeply.
Drawing the Line
I began poring through Christian writing on bioethics. I discovered a broad consensus that the image of God is the starting point for Christian reflection on bioethics. Protestant theologians like Oliver O’Donovan, John Swinton, and David VanDrunen would readily agree with the Vatican’s 2004 statement that “this conception of human being as the image of God constitutes . . . a basis upon which to assess the legitimacy of scientific and technical progress that has a direct impact on human life and the environment.” Christianity locates human dignity in the way God relates himself to humanity, rather than in characteristics like rationality or emotion. The Creator made humans to reflect himself, to live in relationship with him and rule over the world as his stewards. God calls all people into this relationship, bestowing incalculable worth and dignity.
We start here to build an ethic of humanity’s treatment while pursuing scientific progress. Time and again, we’ve seen people’s failure to recognize the full humanity of others used as a pretense to enslave, imprison, torture, eradicate, segregate, or simply discard image bearers whom they have defined as less than human.
This is what Baldanza and I told a crowd of scientists, biotech industry executives, policymakers, educators, and artists when asked by Wu to give our perspective at an industry forum at Harvard. We concluded by posing a question: Is a particular technology a means of “subduing the earth,” bringing order where there is chaos—or does it run the risk of dehumanization?
Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and a Christian, worries about the risk of the latter, asking on the medical news website STAT whether “the application of germline manipulation would change our view of the value of human life. If genomes are being altered to suit parents’ preferences, do children become more like commodities than precious gifts?”
We beget our children, O’Donovan has written; we do not make them. It would be a truly momentous step, affecting our understanding of personhood and the dignity that implies, to employ genetic technology that treats our offspring as objects subject to our design rather than as fundamentally equal fellow bearers of God’s image.
At the pgEd forum, Baldanza described his daughter’s eyes, so beautiful that strangers stop his family on the street to look at them. Her eyes fill him with wonder and awe. But would they have the same impact if he had ordered them? Or would he simply expect his daughter to have beautiful eyes? Would superior intelligence and strength become taken for granted if a parent could choose them? Would people consider a parent who did not opt for enhancement to be a bad parent?
One day soon, it may be possible for a parent, motivated by love, to alter a Down syndrome genetic mutation. But what message would we send about personhood if we started viewing children with Down syndrome as something to be re-designed? Does it imply that they bear the image of God less fully?
Where is the line between healing and enhancement?
These dilemmas demand a robust theology of suffering. James Sherley, an adult stem cell researcher and a Christian voice in the genetic engineering discussion, reminds us, “We’re not promised that our lives have to be wonderful.”
“I’m not sure I buy the seemingly compelling argument that we should do all these things because lives will be improved,” he says. “The focus is all wrong—it puts the focus on us, rather than on God and how God would have us be in the world.”
Science and Theology Symbiosis
Yet, if we need not avoid suffering in our lives, when does an ethic of Christian charity seek to alleviate suffering as gene editing promises? Science can help us answer these moral questions more adequately. If we are comfortable repairing a harmful genetic mutation, rather than molding our genes to craft the ideal child, we need scientific knowledge to distinguish between therapy and enhancement.
How, for instance, would we think about editing a healthy human genome to eliminate the possibility that the person will develop cancer 60 years into the future?
Caution is essential, but Christians need not fear scientific advancement. Commenting on an earlier bioethical debate, O’Donovan wrote that “Christians should at this juncture confess their faith in the providence of God as the ruling power of history.” We don’t need to fear science “playing God” because God will never abdicate his role as creator or sustainer.
Christians can confidently receive scientific knowledge that enables us to ask the right questions. We must examine what ends science serves and question the wisdom of pursuing all that is possible. Yet a compelling theological vision can affirm the dignity of every person and still preserve space to ask whether science is charitably and creatively acting from God’s calling on humanity to faithfully steward all of creation.
Rev. Dr. Nathan Barczi is associate pastor at Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He holds a PhD in economics from MIT and an MA in systematic and philosophical theology from the University of Nottingham, where he is currently pursuing a PhD in theology.
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