This article is adapted from a portion of the 2018 V. Elving Anderson Lecture in Science and Religion by Jeff Hardin, given at the University of Minnesota, April 5, 2018. The full lecture can be viewed at the bottom of this article.
Genome editing is fast becoming a fixture in the toolkit of modern biologists. The bacterial genetic sleuthing that makes such editing possible is a great story in itself. A more pressing concern, however, is that we are now living in era in which it is scientifically possible to edit the genomes of humans, including human embryos. This controversial technology raises issues for people of a range of worldviews, but I would like to argue for a few principles that apply specifically to the Christian perspective. To begin, let’s remember the advice of the late Christian geneticist V. Elving Anderson:
What inner resources will individuals have for coping with future discoveries? It’s sometimes claimed that questions of the future will be so unique that "old values" will be inadequate...but I have not found any basic questions that will not profit from consideration of a Biblical perspective.
This is a good word from Elving, who wrote these words in 1978, decades before gene editing was even a possibility.
Applying Elving’s view to genome editing, we might ask: What are some biblical parameters for thinking about humans? To answer this question, I will begin with a piece of Hebrew poetry that I share with my developmental biology students every spring semester, Psalm 139:13-14: “you formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb...I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” God expresses his care for each one of us, even before we’re born, while we are embryos. Additionally, humans bear God’s image. They are his vice-regents who carry out his kingdom purposes in the world. We learn this in the very first chapter of the Bible (Gen. 1:26-27): “In the image of God he made them, male and female, he made them” (see also Gen. 9:6). Humans are called to act as stewards who care for creation (Gen. 1:28, 2:15). Such stewardship might include caring for living creatures, but also might include thinking about genetic engineering.
Moreover, according to Genesis 2:23-24, humans procreate in “one-flesh” relationships. The results of these one-flesh relationships are begotten gifts. As we see from Psalm 127, Children are a gift from the Lord: “blessed is the person whose quiver is full of them.” In addition, humans, because they are all image-bearers, are deserving of protection, especially the weak (Ex. 22:22; Deut. 10:18; Isa. 1:17). This raises an important question: Is an embryo an image-bearer?
The question of the ethical status of a human embryo is difficult to answer as definitively as we would like for a number of reasons. One reason for this difficulty is because the biblical authors didn’t know anything about blastocysts (embryos which have not yet implanted in a uterus). The Bible is a pre-scientific document, a reality which we must acknowledge. This means its language doesn’t resolve this issue with the certainty we might like. As a result, sincere Christians disagree about this topic. Nonetheless, I think most Christians would affirm the following: “Such passages [may] not establish when human life begins, but they establish God’s care and involvement from the very beginning.”
On the issue of the status of human embryos, I have come to adopt a position which I will call the “wisdom of reluctance.” Leon Kass, a Jewish bioethicist, wrote an article many years ago, when Dolly the sheep was cloned, with the title, “The Wisdom of Repugnance.” The article explores the visceral reactions involved in thinking about cloning human beings and the wisdom that may be involved in such reactions. Relevant to the topic at hand, I want to say that there is wisdom in reluctance. If the answers to these questions are slightly underdetermined by the biblical data, then a sensible course of action is caution. Lutheran bioethicist Gilbert Meilaender puts it this way:
If we are genuinely baffled about how best to describe the moral status of that human subject who is the unimplanted embryo, we should not go forward in a way that peculiarly combines metaphysical bewilderment with practical certitude by approving even limited [use] for experimental purposes.
What Gil is suggesting is that there is wisdom in reluctance.
The Bible provides further reasons for reluctance. Throughout the Bible, humanity’s tendency to sin is emphasized. For example, the Apostle Paul says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). We are all susceptible to sinful behavior. Even before the catastrophic events recorded in Genesis 3, however, humans required restraint on their knowledge: God gave Adam and Eve certain boundaries in the Garden (Gen. 2:16-17). Thus, God constrained humans, even before they disobeyed, because they needed to be limited in certain ways. Recording humanity’s response to God’s boundaries, Genesis 3 reveals the fallen, or sinful, nature of humans, a reality which extends to all of us. As a result, a radical remedy was required, and Jesus of Nazareth, God in human form, died for us (Rom. 5:6-8).
Humanity’s tendency toward sinful behavior means that human beings are at risk of misusing technology. One form of misuse is what ethicists often call commodification, making human embryos into commodities. On this issue, Francis Collins said:
[T]he 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?
Because of these considerations, I think many religious people of various traditions are more skeptical than non-religious people about the use of these kinds of technologies. A poll in 2016 by the Pew Charitable Trust (see chart below; image source) reports the percentage of adults in the United States who adhere to a religion and believe that “gene editing is meddling with nature and crosses a line we should not cross.” Those with strong religious commitments were the most likely to agree with the view that gene editing crosses a line, those with a moderate commitment agreed in lower numbers, and those with low religious commitment agreed in extremely low numbers. This is an interesting result. I think that, at least from the Christian perspective, this is predicated on the theological concerns I have discussed: human limitations in applying technology, and what the Bible calls their sinfulness.
There are further reasons to restrain our applications of technology. The natural impulse of the scientists who have developed the technology is to take the technology wherever it leads. During the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Medicine’s discussions, the brilliant molecular biologist George Church said: “If these fixes for severe diseases are shown to be safe and effective, why would small or large enhancements accompanying the fixes be unacceptable?” Church is suggesting that, while we’re working to fix a disease, why don’t we take improvement further, through enhancement, the genomic equivalent of a little “fixer upper”? I think the underlying reason this seems good to Church and others like him is that he views technology as an inevitable good that will always bring positive results.
However, the very technology that could lead to enhancement could also, in theory, lead to de-enhancement in the wrong hands. Many fail to think about this possibility. Perhaps I’m prone to thinking about this because I just reread Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World (1932), in which technologies are used for precisely such de-enhancements.
These considerations lead me to a few suggestions for Christians in their thinking about genome editing. First, in thinking through how we ought to apply technology to the embryo, we should aim to treat the embryo as a patient and an end, a begotten gift, rather than a means, at all stages of development. Secondly, we must balance two realities of our relationship to technology. On the one hand, Christians are called to love, which means we ought to use technology to prevent disease. On the other hand, we should be wary of excessive technological optimism, especially when the use of technology violates important Christian values. Clearly, these considerations are in tension with one another, but we must seek to balance the two truths against one another.
I’ll conclude with a quote from a hero of the Christian faith who passed away in early 2018, the Christian evangelist Billy Graham. In 1998, Billy Graham gave a TED Talk, during which he said, “The problem is not technology...The problem is the person or persons using it.” As Christians, I think we need to take what Billy has said seriously. Reflecting on Billy’s words leaves me with a profound sense that we need to be humble in thinking that we are going to use these technologies rightly. Returning to the words of Elving Anderson: “All of this must be tempered with the humility that there are limits to the changes genetics can bring.”
It is my prayer that, as we discuss these issues within the Christian community and within wider society, we will think about what it means to be human. Given a better understanding of what it means to be human, we can ask further questions: What are the appropriate uses of technology? What should we expect from technology? As a Christian, I ultimately believe that the fundamental problems that we face as humans are not genetic nor biological. Rather, our most profound problems are spiritual. It is my hope that Christians and others can bring this truth and its implications into the discussion, as we seek to better understand the challenging topic of genome editing.