“What do you think will be the most significant bioethical issue in 2019?” our friend Nathan asked at our annual New Year’s Eve celebration.
“The genetic revolution. Specifically, the gene editing of human embryos,” I replied. “How we regard the human embryo will pretty much determine whether we will respect other vulnerable human beings.”
CBHD: 25 Years of Leadership in Christian Bioethics
Our brief conversation illustrates the prevalence of bioethical issues, the paucity of clear moral guidelines, and the need for responsible reflection on these concerns from a Christian perspective. This is the gap that has been filled by The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity (CBHD) for more than 25 years. CBHD, a Christian bioethics research center at Trinity International University (Deerfield, IL), aims to bring clarity to the complex issues at the intersection of medicine, science, and technology with our individual and shared humanity.
But what is “bioethics”?
“Bioethics” is an unfamiliar or misunderstood term. In its simplest form, bioethics answers the questions of the right and wrong uses of medical technology. More broadly, bioethics is an interdisciplinary study of the moral dimension of practices and discoveries in medicine, science, and technology, with attention to the nature of such advances as they impact our individual and common humanity. Bioethics is a conversation among various disciplines, and, as an applied discipline, it touches on decisions at the hospital bedside, in the pastor’s office, behind the medical researcher’s bench, or in the corridors of local, state, and federal legislatures and agencies.
CBHD’s mission rests on two legs: first, to advance a Christian understanding of human dignity in the academy, and, secondly, to equip the church to live out what we believe about being made in God’s image. To that end, CBHD creates resources that are credible, comprehensive, and current. Through various initiatives, we engage Christian perspectives on bioethics: the Academy of Fellows, an interdisciplinary community of scholars in bioethics who engage in thoughtful discussion, charitable engagement, and mutual support; the International Bioethics Scholars Program, which invests in both rising and established international professionals and scholars who will further advance contextually sensitive Christian bioethical engagement globally; the Healthcare Ethics Council, a community of healthcare professionals that recognizes and engages in dignified medical care and professional education in the Judeo-Christian Hippocratic tradition; the Global Women’s Health Initiative, which engages the broad spectrum of women’s health issues with particular emphasis upon a consistent view of human dignity across the entire lifespan of girls and women from conception through death (a key aspect of this initiative is Her Dignity Network); and Bioethics for the Church, a family of resources that unpack complex bioethical issues in understandable language to help pastors and parishioners, whether the need is to teach, learn, or make a decision in the moment.
We reach our audiences in a variety of ways: through our annual international summer conference, pastors workshops, private consultations on particularly challenging bioethical issues, interactions with students via teaching, internships, and mentoring, webinars, free weekly email bioethics news, and a family of web-based resources targeted at different levels. Our flagship site, CBHD.org, presents the best of our scholarship geared at an academic and professional level offering resources across the wide spectrum of bioethical issues for scholars, educators, students, and professionals, while EverydayBioethics.org is geared for pastors and lay people to guide the everyday bioethical decisions in the life of the Church. Our Bioethics.com is a leading global site for bioethics news and events. Finally, our Christian Biowiki is a unique resource listing denominational statements on key bioethical issues that runs on a collaborative wiki platform.
Genetics at the Bioethical Crossroads
The Genetics Revolution, which began with the mapping of the human genome, surged with the development of CRISPR gene editing technology for plants and animals, and its nearly-immediate jump to editing human beings. Its ease of use, efficiency, precision, and low cost make it a highly desirable tool for basic research, to modify plants and animals, and to treat disease.
We already reap the benefits of gene editing for agriculture to improve crop yields and resistance to disease. Animals may be gene-edited to study human diseases, develop therapies, grow organs for transplant, or to increase the food supply. Each of these applications has a set of ethical concerns. But the most publicized potential—and the gravest concern—arises at the intersection of CRISPR and human beings.
Gene editing research is underway for treating diseases such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy[i] and several types of cancer.[ii] Clinical trials are proposed to treat Beta thalassemia (a fatal blood disorder, sickle cell disease, and HIV.[iii] A treatment for specific retinal dystrophy was approved by the FDA.[iv] This medical research, too, raises ethical questions.
But the ethical issue of urgent concern is the CRISPR editing of human embryos. At the embryonic stage, every cell, including gametes, is affected. This crosses a moral boundary that has been shared globally for decades, at least until the technology made such a thing possible, by permanently altering human DNA. Germline engineering, as it is called, is regarded as an impermissible violation of protecting our shared human genome, because it changes DNA not just for the benefit of a single patient, but imposes an irreversible change on every subsequent generation.
In addition to ethical guidelines for human research—things such as informed consent, disproportionate risk vs. hoped-for outcome, benefit to subject—we must layer in the reality that hundreds of human embryos have been destroyed in CRISPR experiments.[v] Thus, the moral status of the human embryo becomes the core question.
CBHD Grapples with the Ethical Concerns of Gene Editing
To that end, CBHD produces resources that explain various aspects of gene editing. From the early years of the Center’s work, CBHD has closely watched and analyzed the ethical implications of emerging developments in genetics and related technologies. In 1996, we hosted a conference featuring Francis Collins focused on the “Christian Stake in Genetics,” and more recently our 2017 conference examined “Genetic and Reproductive Technologies,” exploring the emergence of CRISPR and developments in reprogenetics, or the convergence of reproductive and genetic technologies. Over the years, the Center has produced and/or published a wealth of resources on the broad spectrum of bioethics as well as those specifically focused on genetic ethics. Resources that may be of particular interest are:
- Michael Sleasman, “Bioethics Past, Present, and Future: Important Signposts in Human Dignity” (An overview of bioethics and the breadth of issues it encompasses).
- Paige Cunningham and Michael Sleasman, “Editing Human Beings” (An introduction to CRISPR and the Ethics of Gene Editing). For more resources geared to everyday life, click here.
- Video resources from our Academy of Fellow Consultations on “The Ethics & Theology of Synthetic Gametes” and “Genetics, CRISPR, and Beyond?”
- Heather Zeiger, “Embryoids: Unique Entities or Protected Like Human Embryos?”
- Michelle Kirtley, “CRISPR Update: Considerations for a Rapidly Evolving and Transformative Technology.”
- Interested in more resources? A complete listing of 60+ resources on genetic ethics is available here (and more than 130 resources on genetic ethics available to members).
What about you– how would you have answered my friend’s dinner party question?
Would you like to dig deeper into Christian perspectives on the genetics revolution?
We invite you to check out our resources at CBHD, and consider becoming a member. Benefits include subscriptions to our quarterly publication Dignitas, plus Ethics & Medicine, along with discounts for our conference and other publications.