Anxious? Try Cutting It Out: Pastoral Reflections on Gene Editing
Scientists recently deleted a gene for anxiety in mice. Are gene editing studies like this cause for celebration or concern? Pastor Mario Russo weighs in.
“Be anxious for nothing, but in all things, with prayer and Thanksgiving, make your genome available for editing.” Ok, so maybe that’s not exactly what Paul wrote in Philippians 4: 6, but if scientists were writing that verse in the 21st century, it might say something similar to that.
In a recent news article, scientists were able to successfully edit out a mouse gene that has been linked to anxiety. It is being heralded as an advancement for good mental health. After all, who actually wants to be anxious about anything? If we can just edit out the parts of us that make our lives more challenging or cause us suffering, why would we not do it? Isn’t this the same thing as healing people? Shouldn’t the Church be all in favor of this? What should the role of the Church in all of this be?
Before we jump too quickly into why we should or should not be concerned about this latest genetic development, and what we should do about it, you may be wondering how on earth scientists managed to edit a gene that is responsible for anxiety. So, let’s clear that up first. CRISPR (pronounced crisper) gene editing is a process in which special enzymes find a specific gene, and then “edit” that gene. I’ve written previously that it is helpful to think about this process like parts of a car on an assembly line. The “parts” (genetic code) are strung along an assembly line (DNA). But the order of those parts on the assembly are creating problems when the car is being assembled. CRISPRs rearrange those parts, or shut down the entire line with those parts, to promote vehicle assembly.
So, if there is a genetic code that causes a person to experience an overabundance of anxiety, then shutting down that “line” of code can reduce the unusual amount of anxiety a person may be experiencing (this is, of course, hypothetical at this point as it has only been successfully done in mice). Sounds like nothing but good news, right? Well as always, there is more to it.
The Church can and should be the place where people…can make…deeper connections and encounters with God. The Church can and should also be the place that promotes the healing of humans and the entire planet. More than entering the ethical debate of gene editing and its potential impacts on society and human life, the Church must continue to facilitate the work of Christ: the work of healing, restoration, and redemption.
CRISPR gene editing has great positive potential. It has the precision to target specific DNA sequences. It is versatile because it can be used not just on humans, but on all living organisms that contain DNA (animals and plants). This makes it extraordinarily beneficial to medicine and agriculture. In fact, just recently, scientists discovered a natural gene editing system in fungi, plants, and animals that could one day be harnessed to edit DNA more precisely than current CRISPR systems that are based on DNA editing machinery in bacteria.
Genetic diseases caused by mutations are not something most people think about every day. Genetic mutations cause all sorts of serious diseases and can impact quality of life: cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, Tay-Sachs disease, color-blindness, and even anxiety disorders (just to name a few). Because of this research, doors are now open for further editing. This new discovery allows for a potential improvement to quality of life. So, while there is a threat of abuse, this new discovery has great potential to be used for good. People who have to take anti-anxiety meds to manage their anxiety can potentially live lives with decreased levels of anxiety.
By being able to specifically edit DNA, scientists can also eliminate many inheritable diseases. In another case, scientists eliminated a genetic mutation that causes a heart defect, thus prolonging life for those afflicted. CRISPR offers families with genetic diseases hope of longer and healthier lives. Moreover, proponents of CRISPR argue that this new discovery can begin making an impact on infertility. According to US News and World Report, about 12% of the US population (and roughly 7.3 million women) face infertility. Couples who are not capable of having children may in the near future not only be able to find out why, but have children of their own someday.
CRISPR gene editing has great negative potential. While it has precision, it can sometimes edit unintended DNA sequences that are similar to its target. Because it is a relatively new technology, the long-term effects of CRISPR gene editing are still unknown. What happens 10, 15, 25 years after a person has had their DNA altered? What unintended consequences await those who are otherwise completely unsuspecting?
Perhaps one of our more serious concerns should be the consequences of such technology falling into the wrong hands. For centuries, historians have documented the atrocities propagated on people by ruthless leaders (yes, there were scientific atrocities long before the Nazis). History is full of examples of atrocities being committed by humans against other humans. Biowarfare and bioterrorism are just the modern tip of the iceberg. This is not to mention the scientific advancements with harmful consequences.
It is easy to see why some people would be concerned that this scientific advancement could be misused, or even become dangerous. It is important that we not dismiss this concern as invalid. In February 2018, a National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee endorsed modifying embryos, but only to correct mutations that cause “a serious disease or condition” and when no “reasonable alternatives” exist. But even with this working guideline, several questions remain: What do we define as “serious diseases or conditions”? How do we define “reasonable alternatives” or determine if they already exist? And what is to prevent these “safeguards” from being lifted in the future, or ignored entirely by those with less than functional moral compasses?
As a pastor, my heart wants to rejoice over the potential positive impacts CRISPR can have for people with serious diseases. I have a friend with cystic fibrosis, and when I think about how this technology can impact his life and family, it excites me. However, I am also concerned. Where can and will this technology lead us as a society? What physical effects (or side effects?) can come to patients of gene editing? What impact can it have on future generations?
Jesus’ death and resurrection are all about redeeming and healing. The mission of the Church is to be the hands and feet of Jesus, carrying that out by bringing healing wherever they go and in whatever they do. So, if Christianity is all about redemption and healing, then doesn’t the work of these scientists and others seemingly echo this purpose? If we say yes, then we must ask, at what cost? Did Jesus heal people at a personal cost to them? Or did he not tell his disciples, “freely you have received, now freely give”? When thinking about human gene editing, we must consider what potential impact it will have on our society as a whole. Will the distribution and access to gene editing be equally accessible and equitable for all? How will gene editing impact and shape how we see the image of God that has been so freely given to all us, in our brothers and sisters? Moreover, remember the story of Simon in Acts 8? He asked to purchase the power of the Apostle for himself so that he could also “do good” and the apostles rebuked him. Just because something good can be done, does not mean it should be done by all.
As humans, we were created to bear the image of God in this world. In some ways, this scientific advancement does that in part by promoting human flourishing. Yet, in other ways, it can seem to violate that purpose and destroy life. When Jesus healed sick and hurting people, he didn’t elevate or alter their personhood, he acknowledged their humanity in their present state while bringing the restoration and healing they were longing for. They had inherent value as image bearers just as they were. In a time and ancient context where sick and hurting people were often outcasts, viewed as less than, or their ailments seen as a consequence of sin, Jesus said I see you, come.
When Jesus healed sick and hurting people, he didn’t elevate or alter their personhood, he acknowledged their humanity in their present state while bringing the restoration and healing they were longing for. They had inherent value as image bearers just as they were.
In the case of anxiety, God’s means of healing isn’t always about just our physical bodies, but includes our spiritual wellbeing as well. And so, healing does not always look how we want it to look. Sometimes, God heals us by healing our physical ailments (Jesus healed a blind man with mud, healed lepers, healed the woman with the issue of blood, etc.). And sometimes, God heals us by drawing us into deeper encounters with him. This is where the Church can play a crucial role.
The Church can and should be the place where people (who struggle with anxiety or anything else) can make those deeper connections and encounters with God. The Church can and should also be the place that promotes the healing of humans and the entire planet. More than entering the ethical debate of gene editing and its potential impacts on society and human life, the Church must continue to facilitate the work of Christ: the work of healing, restoration, and redemption.
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