Summary: Examination of the spiritual implications of the charting of the human genome.
You may or may not have realized it, but last Monday’s (6/26/00) news carried the story that is a very likely candidate for the story of the decade. The New York Times headline proclaimed:
“Scientists Complete Rough Draft of Human Genome”
The entire human genome has been sequenced; the order of the human DNA molecules is now known.
The sequence of human DNA is, as Newsweek has put it, the “blueprint of human life, the code of codes, the holy grail, . . . what it means to be human” (citation: “Cracking the code,” Les Sillars, World, 4/29/00). As President Clinton recently said, the completion of this task is “the scientific breakthrough of the century, perhaps of all time” (ibid).
To put it very simply, DNA provides the basic building blocks of information for who we are. We all know that our genes determine how tall we will be, what color our eyes will be, the color of our hair, and other inherited traits. Our genes affect much more - for example, disposing some toward shyness or anger or even depression (see “Untangling the ball,” Les Sillars, World, 4/29/00 and “The Human Genome Abounds in Complex Contradictions,” Natalie Angier, New
York Times, 6/26/00).
Now, by this point, some of you in the congregation may be wondering:
“Why is Jim talking in a sermon about something
that is a scientific matter?”
It’s a fair question to ask. The answer? It’s because this issue has moral and ethical implications
that affect the very essence of who we are and what it means to be human. As we stand on the verge of this Brave New World, it is not the time for Christians to stick their heads in the sand and sigh, “I hope it all turns out all right.” An issue of this magnitude and a debate with such tremendous implications demands that we as Christians apply biblical wisdom to the
First, let’s consider some of the positive possibilities of this new genetic information.
The genome information has the potential to revolutionize the practice of medicine (“Now, the
Hard Part: Putting the Genome to Work,” Nicholas Wade, New York Times, 6/27/00). C. Ben Mitchell of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity writes, “The announcement that the first draft of the human genetic blueprint is complete is very good news indeed. . . . we may be entering a genetic renaissance. We can have real hope that many of the nearly 5,000 genetically-
linked disorders may be treatable in the foreseeable future. Some of those disorders may even be
curable” (“Genetic Renaissance in a Moral Dark Age,” A Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity Paper).
Mitchell raises one of the most frequently mentioned positive possibilities: more effective disease treatment. Les Sillars’ article “Cracking the code” notes, “Enthusiasts predict that in a few more decades genetic research stimulated by the Human Genome Project will lead to cures and more effective treatments for diseases ranging from cancer to schizophrenia.”
A second much-heralded positive possibility lies in genetic profiling to identify diseases an individual might be at risk for. Early detection and treatment would be the obvious benefits there. Dr. Francis S. Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, predicts that within 10 years tests will be available for genetic predispositions for 25 major causes of illness and death (“Genomic Chief Has High Hopes, and Great Fears, for Genetic Testing,” Lawrence K.
Altman, M.D., New York Times, 7/27/00).
Not as frequently mentioned, but perhaps more important, are the negative possibilities.
Celeste Condit, of the University of Georgia, offers a few scenarios:
- routine prenatal genetic screening which leads to more abortions for “imperfect” babies
(even, for instance, unborn babies merely having the possibility of developing a particular disease);
- genetic discrimination in job hiring and health insurance being denied to those at risk of serious disease;
- the sorting of children into “career tracks and social classes based on their ‘genetic potential’” (“Cracking the code,” Les Sillars).
Even scenarios that initially sound somewhat positive (such as being able to choose some of the genes for your baby) have frightening ramifications just beneath the surface (what are the moral and parental implications of having “designer babies”?). The ultimate outcome of such situations cannot yet be known. The bottom line is this:
What does it mean to manipulate the very genes that make up a human?
What implications are there in attempting to humanly create a “better” person?
At what point have we stopped practicing medicine and started playing God?
Dr. Daniel Heimbach, an ethicist at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, writes, “You are
dealing with the image of God when dealing with the genetic code of human life. . . . the biggest
problem is that it beckons men, in their pride, to change the design of life itself, and in that way