As interns, we had a busy obstetrical service. In a twenty-four hour period it was not unusual to deliver twelve to fifteen babies. Since the patients were almost entirely wives of young military men, most deliveries were uneventful and routine. From that experience, however, two deliveries stand out in my memory. First, a set of twins had complications during labor on Christmas day, 1969, and one died. With twins, complications are common and expected (although rarely does death occur). The second delivery began routinely. As the head extruded with the face down (the most common presentation), I routinely used a bulb syringe to remove mucus and amniotic fluid from the baby’s mouth so that this material would not be inhaled when he gasped and cried to begin breathing. When I placed my finger in his mouth (which I could not see because of his face down position), the delivery stopped being routine. Where the upper lip was supposed to be, two deep crevices were felt that extended far back into the mouth. After the entire body was out and he could be turned over, I could tell that he had a complete, bilateral cleft lip and palate. All I could think about was breaking the news to the mother and the number of surgeries that would be required to give some normality to his appearance and function.
Genetic Repair: Present and Future Dangers
The correction of genetic defects (genetic surgery) at both the somatic and germ levels is the extension of medical practice to the deepest level of the physical structure of the human being. For example, phenylketonuria (PKU) is now treated with a special diet but in the future the genetic defect that causes the enzyme deficiency might be corrected. This gene surgery would be considerable more effective since it would be a one-time instead of a lifetime treatment. The ethical problems involved in this procedure are 1) Its potential unintended effects and 2) the determination of what is a defect.
Paul Ramsey has raised serious questions about the dangers of genetic repair. He proposes to allow only the correction of defects that have no cure or relief of symptoms and those that are devastating.1 For example, he would favor genetic repair of Tay-Sachs disease, but not cystic fibrosis because some medical “relief” for this problem is already available. The correction of diabetes would be “immoral.” More details of his positions are provided in this book. The following will be a review of those issues in which genetic repair faces the same ethical considerations as other practices in medicine. Then, we will review issues that are unique to genetic repair.
First, the use of science to justify power over other people was been presented under Eugenics. Conclusions then should be transposed here where they apply.
Second, the potential effect on future generations is an area that has not been given adequate ethical consideration. The effect of diethylstilbesterol on the daughters of women who took it during their pregnancy is one example.2 Worldwide, people take enormous amounts of medication that have the potential for untoward effects, including the alterations of their genes. While genetic engineering may have more potential to affect future generations, the problem is already with us and is inadequately addressed.
Third, the movement from animal experiments to humans is an unavoidable sequence in the development of new treatments. If current research and its transfer to humans is ethical, then a proscription against genetic repair on this basis is invalid.
Fourth, harmful effects are a potential consequence of every type of treatment. The efficacy of a treatment should always be weighed against its beneficial effects. Again, medical ethicists give too little attention to this area, especially since benefits of many (if not most) medical treatments are overvalued while their unintended effects are underestimated.3
Fifth, the greatest difficulty is to draw the line between what is and is not a defect. Even here, however, the problem is not new. Current medical practice considers wrinkles, excess fat, sagging cheeks and hips, large noses, and small breasts to be defects that can be corrected by plastic surgery. The ethics of such procedures have not (to my knowledge) been addressed from a biblical perspective, so we will briefly review the subject here.
The Bible does not place great value on one’s physical appearance, as God strengthens a person through his “defects” (1 Sam. 15: God looks at the heart; Is. 53: Christ’s figure was not appealing, 2 Cor. 12: Paul’s weakness and appearance were not attractive). I am not saying that cleft palates, esophageal atresias, severe burns, skeletal contractures, and other anatomical defects that cause disease and life-threatening disability should not be corrected. Plastic surgery solely to enhance appearance, however, would seem to have little biblical support.
Initial work in gene surgery will not grapple with this issue because all current proposals call for the correction of defects that are severely debilitating and mean a shortened life span. It is a “nothing could be worse” situation that is in view. If these attempts are successful, however, the issue of enhancement will be upon us in full force.
No definition of “defect” will be adequate to cover all potential abuses of genetic engineering, but one that is carefully constructed may have some protective value. Eventually each defect must have ethical review because of the many possible varieties.
I will attempt a moral definition of what is and is not a defect. Likely, further modification will be necessary, when and if these procedures become a reality. Always, we must attempt to derive such principles from the bible as consistently and thoroughly as possible. A) The defect must have a genetic etiology, one or more) that has been located at a specific site(s) on the human chromosome. The correction of a defect that is caused by more than one defective gene (polygenic) should be preceded by considerable experience and success with defects that are caused by a single gene (monogenic). B) The problem to be corrected must be clearly a medical disease or deformity that would otherwise require chronic medication or treatment. C) The potential benefit must clearly outweigh any potential harmful effects. D) The disorder must cause death prior to a “normal” life span according to both biblical and natural occurrence.4 E) The disorder cause physical pain. Psychic pain would not qualify because its criteria would be too vague to be practical. F) The disorder must prevent the fulfillment of God’s directives. Examples include the ability to work at some useful task (Eph. 4:28; 1 Thess. 4:11), to contribute to the body of Christ (1 Cor. 7:1-5). G) These criteria cannot override other biblical principles. For example, one should not steal in order to pay for the expense of genetic repair (which is likely to be considerable).
These criteria restrict the use of genetic repair. We should not fool ourselves that, just as with plastic surgery, what is done has a great deal to do with the moral values and subjective interpretation of the predominant medical or cultural worldview. We have seen Dr. Anderson’s category of enhancement of “normal” characteristics. Elsewhere, I have discussed the relativity of “normality,”5 and Dr. Ramsey has accurately assessed how “repair” blurs into “enhancement.” Unless medical ethics takes a more conservative direction, abuse of genetic engineering will surely occur. This abuse may be no worse, however, than some current medical abuses, such as abortion. The development of new technology should not be prevented because of its potential for abuse. If so, we would have to eliminate every procedure (medical and otherwise) that we currently do, because a negative side to every one exists!6
Seventh, the insertion of the correct gene affects the total person. That is, genetic insertion may correct the defect but cause some other adverse condition because the whole is affected by the sum of its parts. Currently, this point is only conjecture but who knows what interaction among genes may occur when a substitute replaces a gene to which the whole organism has already adjusted?
Eighth, grotesque human deformities may be produced. Again, this problem has occurred in medical practice. The most familiar examples are probably thalidomide babies. With genetic engineering, as in nature, severe genetic abnormalities are likely to be incompatible with life. Thus, the “monsters” of science fiction are mostly that—fiction. Still, if genetically treated babies did occur, our standards against abortion and infanticide would still prohibit their destruction: all the more reason to be quite certain of what we are doing.
Cloning is the reproduction of organisms with identical genes. Identical twins or triplets (or more!) in humans is an example of cloning that occurs naturally.7 Since every cell in a human body contains all these genes of the individual, each cell has the information to produce another identical body. As cells differentiate into specialized tissues and organs, they lose potential to produce all the other parts of the body, but a mechanism mist be found to restore this ability and to produce clones (whole organisms).
Another possible method to make clones would be to extract the nucleus from the cell of an adult and insert it into an enucleated egg that has been found to have the capacity to grow into a whole organism. Another method is to tap the potential in each embryonic cell (up to the eight-cell stage) to develop into a complete individual, each with the same genes. One of these cells could be divided at the eight-cell stage, separated again, and the whole process repeated ad infinitum. Dr. Duane Gish discusses actual attempts at clone (that have not been successful) and the inherent dangers in the process, including the ridiculous claim by David Rorvik that a human being has been cloned from a dead man.8
At first glance cloning attractively offers a solution to many common problems.9 For example, individuals of great achievement in business, art, science, law, and other disciplines could be duplicated, thus offering more of their “greatness” to the world. Scientific studies in humans could be simplified because the control of most variable factors that are crucial to scientific endeavors could be eliminated. Selection of desirable characteristics in children by potential parents would be possible. Incompatibility in organ transplantation would be eliminated because the genetic structure of a donor and recipient could be identical. Teams of people, such as astronauts, might work together more efficiently with less friction in close environments.
These answers, however, are not as simple as they first appear.10 Parents and teachers of identical twins know how different they can be and how they have conflicts with each other, as non-identical brothers and sisters do. Before and after birth their exposure to physical and psychological stimuli varies. Motivation and discipline are also variables in a person’s development and achievement.
It is really impossible for two people to be raised entirely alike. Clones would have their particular affect on each other, as identical twins and triplets do. In his unique book Dr. George E. Vaillant describes how people change markedly over a lifetime, some even to the extent that their whole orientation to life is different.11
The greatest change that can occur in a person is regeneration and sanctification. By God’s power that person, an enemy of God (and therefore an enemy to others and to himself), becomes a child of God whose thinking and behavior begin to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. Peter is one graphic example of this transformation. Thus, the person from whom genes are taken one point in his life may become quite a different person later because of this re-birth. Who could tell which clones God might pick for Himself?
Other serious limitations of cloning on the scientific level could be described, but they do not seem necessary because the immorality of cloning is clear. The argument is similar (that is, a cloned argument!) to that against eugenics. Who determines value, that is, the characteristics of the person to be cloned? Value is a moral (spiritual) concept that has nothing to do with physical attributes. Further, great power must be granted to those who (think that they) know these values in order to manipulate others according to their designs. A limited number of clones would not be possible; these planners would have to be sure that an entirely “balanced” world was programmed. Accidents or failures to plan would be inexcusable according to their design.
Suppose a clone decided to be a carpenter rather than the super-athlete that he was programmed to be? What would be done with him? With the difficulties that young people have choosing careers and the dissatisfaction with one’s work that abounds, our world has a wonderful balance that some have called a “division of labor.” In the traditional concept of vocation (“calling”) God endows each person with characteristics that differ sufficiently to carry out his creation mandates. Surely no man (or men) has the ability to plan vocations for the entire world! Only God can do that. Science fails often in its prophetic role with nuclear energy, population control, public education, and welfare. How dare it attempt to master the hopes and dreams of the entire human race?
The world-wide existence of abortion makes cloning seem ludicrous. The fifty million “workers” aborted each year could surely supply whatever additional skills and services the world needs, given a free society in which they may pursue their “callings.”
The Interface of Genetics and the Spiritual Realm
Most, and perhaps all, variations in physical characteristics (phenotypes) can be explained on the basis of current knowledge about genetics. Still, we cannot ignore the biblical fact that man has both a body and a soul from the moment of conception.12 In fact, pro-life Christians fail to establish an adequate basis for individual human life beginning at conception unless they include the argument for the presence of the soul.13 Eve was not created in the sense that Adam was. In fact, God has not created anything since the first week of Creation except for the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and the regeneration of believers (2 Cor. 5:17).14 Thus, the physical characteristics of all subsequent people were present in Adam’s chromosomes.
Certain characteristics are difficult to explain unless one postulates God’s active intervention in the genetic process. Perhaps the most difficult to explain is racial distinctions. We have a clear account of the origin of languages and the impetus for migration of peoples all over the earth (Gen. 11:1-9). Were there racial distinctions prior to that time or did God activate/de-activate certain genes when He caused changes in their language? We do not know because God has not revealed it. We must not, however, back off from such difficulties. WE must strive to harmonize science with Scripture, being careful always to give the priority to Scripture. Concerning the origin of racial distinctions Dr. Arthur Custance has given one explanation on the basis of known genetic variations.15
That God does actively intervene in genetic inheritance seems to have happened when Jacob bred Laban’s flocks (Gen. 30:31-43). Jacob knew that even in a flock of solid-colored animals there would be some that were what modern geneticists called “heterozygous”—that is, they had within their genetic endowment the ability to produce a small proportion of off-colored progeny. Many, of course, were “homozygous” and when two homozygous animals mated, they could produce only the dominant coloration in their offspring.16
By random election many more solid-colored progeny than off-colored should result. In this case, however, many more of the off-colored were born. Though Jacob could not know which of the goats and sheep were heterozygous, God knew, and He saw to it that only these mated with the homozygous animals (or with each other) so that a much greater proportion than normal turned out to be ring-streaked, spotted, and speckled. God later revealed to Jacob in a dream that this is exactly what had happened (Gen. 31:10-12).
Modern Humanists base all inheritable characteristics on genetic influence because they believe that physical reality is the only reality. Christians, however, should consider it possible to attribute some characteristics to the spiritual component of man. There are only two options: either every person’s spirit is identical and only the physical component is different (including the genes) or both the physical component and the spirit are different. Id does not seem tenable to believe that God used but one mold for our spiritual side while making all differences physical.
If our spirits differ, then at least some human characteristics must be attributable to the influence of that spiritual component. As genetic research continues, we must be careful to remember that each person is affected by his spirit, as well as his genes, even though the separation of the influence of each may not be clear. For example, the differences in identical twins are not necessarily due to the slight variation in their genes. It may also be due to qualities in their spirits. Thus, in twins separated at birth, all differences cannot be attributed solely to their different environments, as is usually concluded.
God is continuously active in His universe: “…for in Him (God) we live and move, and have our being…” (Acts 17:28a, KJV). “…He (Christ) upholds all things by the word of His power” (Heb. 1:3b). Theologically, this activity is called God’s Preservation.17 By inclusion, His continuing activity must be present in genetic processes as well.
Dr. Lawrence Dillon, a genetic scientist, seems to have more insight than most. He sees the necessity to account for an ordering mechanism for the complex events that occur within cells.18 Many who are knowledgeable of the microscopic functions of the cell know that all cellular processes cannot be explained on the basis of genetic coding alone. Something instructs the genes themselves when to “turn on and off.” Like a light switch, they cannot do it themselves. Dr. Dillon has called this ordering mechanism, the “Supramolecular Genetic Mechanism.” (This mechanism also has been called “dauermodification.”19) Many genetic scientists do not agree with Dillon’s analysis, but the complexity of cellular processes and the Doctrine of Preservation demands some explanation of this activity within cells.
It would be an overstatement to say that the Supramolecular Genetic Mechanism is God’s Preservation within cells. It would be accurate, however, to say that no matter what becomes known in the future, it will always be necessary to reckon with God’s ordering of His Creation. To say that we will eventually have all the answers to all these unknown mechanisms, is to ignore the results of scientific investigations. “New” knowledge always ends with more questions than it answers, a trend characteristic of scientific investigation since it began. There is no reason to believe that we will now begin to answer more questions without simultaneously increasing the number of questions.
Some Christians have taken the position, as scientific knowledge has advanced, that god accounts for the “gaps” in that knowledge. As this knowledge has increased, God has been relegated to smaller and smaller “gaps.” The true biblical position is that God preserves His creation and explains the “why” of all phenomena. For example, why do two bodies in the universe attract each other? To say their attraction is inherent in matter is to describe, not to explain, it. The Christian rules out chance when he says that, at creation, God declared that such an attraction should exist. Further, God is continuously active in His universe. The argument, here, is biblical and logical (neither is inconsistent with the other when both are understood and applied properly20). The biblical evidence has already been presented.
The logical argument lies between the Deist and Theist positions. Deists hold that God created the universe, set it in motion, and now passively refuses to intervene in any way. Orthodox Christians have never considered Deism valid. Theism is based upon the above truths, logical conclusions of many verses, and miracles such as the crossing of the Red Sea and the “signs and wonders” of the Incarnate Jesus Christ that have occurred when God has intervened in the course of history. Further, if God is omnipotent, then He cannot “give up” His power at any time. That is to say, any “effect,” no matter how indirect or secondary, has its ultimate “cause” I God Himself. Otherwise, He would be conditioned by that very power that He had given up and would at that point be less than omnipotent! While my comments about this topic have been brief, you will find that Dr. Henry Morris has discussed the relationship between the power (energy) in the universe and God’s power.21
If God is everywhere actively present, then He is also active in the process of all living things. One manifestation of His presence is in animals and in man as soul or spirit (different words for the same entity22). Of course, a qualitative difference exists between the soul/spirit of animals and that in man because man is made in the image of God and descended from Adam (see previous chapter). This difference is particularly applicable to God’s preservation in genetic engineering.
The ultimate question in genetic engineering is, “Can a man be constructed entirely (both cytoplasm and chromosomes) from simple biochemicals?” If he could, would he have a soul?23 One eminent Christian scientist, Dr. A. E. Wilder-Smith, believes that this “creation” would have a soul.24 It would seem however, that his conclusion is highly unlikely because the cellular processes are far more complex than have been thought. Indeed, I contend that such a construction of either plant, animal, or man from biochemicals alone is impossible.
Scientists have long recognized that living things have a unique quality, lacking in inorganic matter. Creation scientists (Christians who do not believe that some evolutionary process must account for “scientific” evidence of long periods of time, such as fossils and radioactive dating), like scientists before the theory of evolution was postulated, believe that this unique characteristic is sufficient to say that life cannot arise spontaneously from non-life.25 I carry their principle one step further: animal and human life cannot be constructed from simple biochemicals alone. Thus, the design of man can be generated only be God’s special creation, natural procreation from other life, or the manipulation of the nucleus and cytoplasm of living cells that already exist. The presence of life must have a quality imparted to it that only God can give. For animals and man that explanation would seem to be the soul/spirit.
For plants that quality is not clear. Still, as Dillon has postulated, something must control and coordinate the complex processes even within plant cells. These complex actions seem to preclude the mere assembling of these biochemicals together. Morris postulates that plants are not alive in the “biblical sense.”26 His argument is based upon the “silence” of Scripture. That is, the Bible makes no explicit statement that plants have a soul, as it does concerning men and animals. Such arguments from silence are speculative. Even if plants do not have a soul in the biblical sense, they still possess some quality that is not present in inorganic materials and that was specially created “in the beginning.”27 Any assembly of plants by man that had the same biochemical structure as a living cell would still lack the quality that carries on its functional processes.
The next problem is how this “life controlling function” becomes present in offspring. In man this concept is the heart of the traducianism vs. creationism debate. Creationism here refers to the theological position that the soul of each person is specially created by an act of God at the moment of conception and must be distinguished from the creationism that is concerned with origins (cosmology). Traducianism is the position that the soul is propagated from the parents. It is my belief that traducianism is by far the stronger of the two positions.28 There are several reasons, but I mention only two. First, creationism requires that God create a sinful soul. Orthodox Christians teach that man’s guilt is two-fold: federally in Adam as he represented the human race, and personally within himself, as a sinful disposition leading to sinful acts. Second, God completed His work in six days and rested on the seventh (Gen. 2:2; Ex. 20:11). That is, He stopped creating. (Jesus Christ’s body was specially created at His incarnation, but His Incarnation was unique in history.29)
The current understanding of biological inheritance favors traducianism. All the characteristics of the offspring are transmitted from the parents either through cellular components (DNA and structures in the cytoplasm). If, as we have proposed, the infused quality that gives life to non-living matter is spirit (soul) in animals and man, then this quality would also be transferred to the offspring. In humans this quality could include a regenerate or unregenerate soul. Traducianism is more consistent with the whole process.
As should be apparent, these arguments are not “essentials” of the faith. Perhaps creationists and truducianists will never convince each other. Further, Dr. E. A. Wilder-Smith may be right that such a unity has been created by God between a particular arrangement of basic biochemicals and an associated life “energy,” that upon the creation of the former, the creation of the latter is inevitable.
These Are Questions for Serious Debate
Anyone who says that science will or will not achieve a goal had better be prepared to be proven wrong. Sometimes science requires a re-thinking of biblical interpretations as the challenge of the Copernican theory did. While science is not a source of truth found in the Bible, it may expose conclusions wrongly derived there from. Most likely, we will have to wait many years for science to identify all the building blocks of life forms (if it ever does), and in particular, those in man. But the question of how to treat these “created” beings ought to be addressed beforehand by our best theologians and laymen to help determine whether our reasoning here is consistent with the most tenable biblical position.
Note: These references are continued from “Genetic Engineering – I.” See that article for complete bibliographic information that is not recorded here.
- Ramsey, “The Issues Facing Mankind,” 42.
- Payne,Biblical/Medical Ethics, 44-5.
- Ibid., 33-49.
- Ibid., 86.
- Ibid., 79-81.
- Ibid., 33-49
- Non-identical (fraternal) twins result from the fertilization of two eggs with two sperm. Obviously, the chromosomes of each pair are going to be considerably different.
- Gish,Manipulating Life,155-188.
- Jones,Brave New People, 100-101; Ramsey,Fabricating Man, 68-72; Anderson, Genetic Engineering, 101-114.
- Gish,Manipulating Life, 59-60.
- Valliant,Adaptation to Life.
- Payne,Biblical/Medical Ethics, 144-152.
- Randolph,God Is Pro Life.
- Ibid., 16-17.
- Custance, “The Widening Circle,” 126-129.
- Morris,The Biblical Basis, 385-387.
- Dillon,The Inconstant Gene, v-vi, 433-446.
- Custance, “Dauermodifications in Man,” 219-249.
- Clark,Logic, 1-6.
- Morris,The Biblical Basis of Modern Science, 221-231 and Morris,Studies in the Bible and Science, 45-57.
- Payne,Biblical/Medical Ethics, 76-79.
- Gish,Manipulating Life, 173.
- He conveyed this belief to me in a private conversation, but he may have said it in print in one of his many books.
- Wilder-Smith,The Natural Sciences.
- Morris,The Biblical Basis of Modern Science, 90.
- Verbrugge,Alive: An Enquiry, 81-102. Verbrugge explains Herman Dooyeweerd’s theory of “functors.” These entities are systems (such as cells) that function according to their own “idionomy” or laws that are unique to their system. The only explanation for these functors is that God created them to function as they do. When the system is broken (for example, a cell membrane is punctured), the functor ceases to exist and becomes subject to the random laws of non-living matter.
- Clark,The Biblical Doctrine of Man, 45.
- Randolph, “God Is Pro Life,” 16-17.
17 Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 169-171.