Genetic modifications to human embryos in laboratory settings have set off quite a conversation. Mysterious to me, it appears to have to do with finding ways to correct harmful aberrations in frozen sperm or egg cells, which can then form embryos without defect. It seems like a good thing. If you know ahead of time that a sperm or egg cell has a significant defect, and it can be fixed, wouldn’t you want to do it? We’re still in the early stages of discovery. The answers are not yet clear. The questions have not even been well framed.
Sperm and egg cells are not potential persons. Moreover, most frozen embryos created in the lab will never be implanted in a uterus with the possibility of growing through gestation to birth. They are not life, but potential life, although that is hotly debated. Nevertheless, there is some remove from whether the same could be done for sperm and egg cells joining to create embryos conceived in the normal way. There is an even greater remove from whether today’s experiments will lead to “designer babies,” although tabloid type sensationalization loves to leap in that direction.
It is precisely in this time of lesser and greater ‘remove’ that ethical and theological questions need to be explored in a more public way, made understandable to a broader segment of society, including people like me for whom the biology of it is well beyond my ken. A brief essay such as this can open one door for that to happen, but many more doors need to be opened, and more qualified voices need to lead us through the conversation on the other side. If we can do something like this, should we? It’s a relatively new question.
Not long ago most human lives were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Thomas Hobbes may have been writing about what he thought the natural condition of humanity was before the mediating force of government stepped in, but he wasn’t far wrong about the ordinary lives of the people of his time. Then the question was different. If it was possible to do something to make life better, it should be done. Who would argue with that? But in 1651, when he wrote those words in the Leviathan, there were few tools available to make life better. Charles Dickens published David Copperfield in the late 1840s. By then parliamentary government was well established, science had made huge strides, the industrial revolution was well underway, and the new experiment in American style democracy was about to be tested in a great civil war. Conditions were changing, but Dickens catalogued the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short lives of ordinary people that had endured. His stories begged for something to be done, if it could be done.
The next hundred years brought acceleration of change in the human condition with enormous advancements in public health, nutrition, medicine, and universal education. Add to that changes in laws on child labor, working conditions, weekends, food and drug safety, universal suffrage, and life for most in the West ceased to be solitary, nasty, or short. Poor became relative to extraordinary increases in wealth for many; what was once normal behavior became brutish in the eyes of society and the law. Life really was better.
The prior question also changed. It was no longer, “if we could, we should.” It became, “we can, should we?” Should is a word requiring an ethical answer. Is it right? Is it good? What is right? What is good? When? For who? Under what circumstances? They aren’t easy questions to answer. If we can modify frozen pre-embryonic genes to correct defects, should we? If we can modify in utero embryonic genes to correct defects, should we? For that matter, what is a defect? What if we could modify embryonic genes to enhance human potential, should we? What are the ethical answers?
Ethical answers depend on your starting point. Different people and different cultures start in different places. Christians have no choice. They must start with Jesus because Jesus is the voice of God him/herself. One way or the other, what is right and good must be consistent with the standards made known to us through Jesus. There’s just one big problem with that. Jesus never said anything about genetic modification of embryos. Can what he said about healing, reconciliation, forgiveness, and love be of any help? Theological discourse is all over the place about how to understand questions like these from a Jesus centered point of view. Most dangerous among them are those who are certain they speak for God. Right behind them are those who think God has nothing to say. Both are wrong.
What can we say that might be useful? We can say life is precious to God, more precious than we can imagine. If we know nothing else about Jesus, we know that he healed all who came to him. He did it without concern for who they were or what they had done. Life in all its fullness, not only in the hereafter but here now, is a blessing God desires us to have. We can also say that God rejoices in creation’s diversity. Persons considered defective by others, and denied full participation in life, were warmly embraced by Jesus, who treasured them. What we call death, he calls new life. What we reject he accepts without condition. What we condemn he reconciles and blesses.
From that we might consider that we don’t always know what life is. We are not competent judges of what defective is. What is good and perfect in our eyes reveals its hidden brokenness to Jesus. What appears to us an aberration is to God a new creation. It doesn’t mean we should not repair brokenness in sperm and egg cells. Repairing brokenness is a Christlike thing to do. It does mean we should be cautious in judging what is broken and what is not. It also means we should avoid our own attempts at designing enhanced human perfection because we are so bad at knowing what that means. One need turn no farther than the last several decades of experiments on athletes with human growth hormones to see how badly we can mess things up in our search for engineered perfection. Greed, pride, and lust lead us as easily as Mephistopheles led Dr. Faust, with the same results. Most important, we must avoid making self righteous judgments about what is right, wrong, good, and bad because self righteousness stems more often from the comfortable social ethos of our surroundings, and less often from what Christ taught.