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A Conference on Biotech Challenges for the Church
by John Schroedel
Philo, the first-century Jewish writer, wrote, “If passions are suffered to go unbridled,” cross-bred creatures “hitherto unknown and with no existence outside mythology will come into being.” He was referring to bestiality. He had no idea that such things would ever come to pass in a lab.
Across the world over the past few years, human genes have been inserted into mice, cow’s eggs, and frog’s eggs. One of these fabrications, the “Onco-Mouse,” has been patented in the United States and is being marketed as a tool for cancer research.1 Likewise, efforts are underway to produce human proteins and organs suitable for transplantation in nonhuman hosts.
Rapid developments in nanotechnology and neurotechnology (cybernetics, wearable computing, functional brain imaging, and neurochips) are also opening tremendous possibilities for enhancing human function. The US government has funded a major project, “Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance,” that examines the way advances in these fields may affect human performance, education, and health care over the next ten or twenty years, and the military believes that these technologies will play a significant role in national security.2 Businesses are interested in increasing the productivity of their workforce, while “Transhumanists”—sometimes called “Posthumanists”—advocate enhancement for philosophical reasons, embracing biotechnologies in an effort to engineer the next phase of human evolution.3
With so much to be gained, powerful market forces are at work, and we are being propelled into one of the greatest revolutions in world history.
What Is Man?
This past July 17–19, a few hundred Evangelicals, a handful of Catholics, and an Orthodox Christian met on the campus of Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois, to wrestle through the implications of recent developments in human biotechnology. “Remaking Humanity” was the tenth annual conference sponsored by the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, but the first devoted entirely to biotechnology.4 The co-sponsors included the Christian Medical and Dental Association, Christian Legal Society, Nurses Christian Fellowship, Trinity International University, Americans United for Life, and the Fellowship of Christian Physician Assistants.
A sense of urgency infused the proceedings. As Erwin Lutzer, senior pastor of the Moody Church in Chicago, said in his opening plenary session, “We are at a critical juncture—the future of the human being is at stake.”
Christopher Hook, director of ethics education for the Mayo Graduate School of Medicine, articulated the basic agenda of the conference. “We are moving into areas in which technology will enable us to reconfigure the human being,” he said, “but in the history of Christian theology there has never been a true theology of technology or biotechnology which could offer us the tools to address these challenges.”
John Kilner, the president of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, emphasized that such a theology must begin with the question of what it means to be human, and must be grounded in a theological understanding of human dignity. It must also be holistic, rejecting the mind/machine dualism of Enlightenment thought in favor of a more integrated view of the human person, which applies human dignity to the whole of embodied life.
There are difficult questions to tackle. Edmund Pellegrino, a respected elder of Catholic bioethics, spoke of the need for clear thinking about the meaning of human enhancement in a clinical setting. He distinguished between two types: “Type I,” which operates “within the borders and limits of the species,” and aims to heal or make up for a deficiency; and “Type II,” which aims at the supra-normal. Using growth hormone for a child who would otherwise be stunted is Type I, but using it to create a nine-foot-tall basketball player would be Type II. He argued that Christians should be open to the first kind of enhancement but avoid the second.
Why shouldn’t people have the opportunity to have the eyesight of an eagle, the prowess of a cheetah, or the decorative skin of a leopard? Is the opposition only a Luddite, anti-scientific impulse at work? Pellegrino’s central concern was whether Type II enhancement would truly promote human flourishing. What would become of us if human nature were constantly subjected to upgrades and old models became obsolete?
Jean Bethke Elshtain, professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago, described this secular quest for immortality and perfection as “a flight from finitude.” True freedom, she said, is not opposed to the natural order, but operates within it. Henk Jochemsen, director of the Lindeboom Instituut in the Netherlands, said that human flourishing requires a stable identity through time. Genetic enhancement introduces a sudden change that disrupts this continuity. Furthermore, when parents intervene to change their children’s genetic makeup, the nature of their relationship changes, and one person becomes someone else’s design and project.
“We should not do whatever we can do,” said C. Ben Mitchell, an associate professor in Trinity’s Bioethics program. Our choices about technology are value-laden, and we need to exercise careful stewardship—“Technology opens the doors, but does not compel man to enter.”
Other difficult questions arise. In the case of engineered hybrid creatures, how do we determine when the boundary between human and nonhuman has been crossed? Does it depend on a percentage of genetic material, or on something biology cannot detect? Which functions matter?—appearance, language, abstract reason, a sense of personal identity? Would intelligent chimeras think differently? What would be their legal status? (In January 1999, the US Patent Office denied an application for a hybrid human/chimpanzee on the ground that it constituted slavery.) Would they bear the image of God?
Where Do We Go?
I overheard one pastor complaining that the conference raised more questions than it could answer. Even so, Lutzer pointed to some steps that can be taken now.
He said that Christians must strive to direct public trends and opinion, not just react to them, and called for a massive campaign to educate the general populace and energize local communities of faith. He said we need to pray that God would raise up communicators, and emphasized the need to fight to preserve the integrity of human language against euphemisms that obscure reality. Finally, scientists, doctors, and lay people must take moral responsibility for their decisions, and model appropriate uses of the new technologies. As C. Ben Mitchell said, “Future generations will bless or curse us. God will hold us accountable.”
In the second century A.D., the author of the Epistle to Diognetus wrote that Christians were like all other men, except that they did not destroy their offspring. What will the Church of the future look like? Will it become an enclave of the unenhanced in a hostile world? How can Christians prepare for what is to come?
Already in the United States many embryos are routinely screened for genetic defects, and women are aggressively pressured to submit to abortion. Some embryos have even been destroyed for cosmetic reasons—because they are the wrong sex, height, or hair color. More discrimination against the genetically defective or unenhanced seems inevitable. Would the military allow soldiers to decline enhancement? Would companies hire workers who are less effective than they could be?
Some hope can be found in the movies, comic books, and novels that portray human beings as the heroes in a struggle against super-creatures, high-tech aliens, and depersonalized “borgs.” If popular culture is any indication, the human spirit, marked by the dignity of the imago Dei, has a great deal of strength to resist the forces of dehumanization that are already closing in upon us. Just as in the movies, we are in a battle to preserve humanity. We must not be apathetic about what is coming; none of us will remain unaffected.
1. For information about the “OncoMouse,” see Peter Shorett’s “Of Transgenic Mice and Men” and “The World’s Most Litigated Mouse.”
2. The report is available at wtec.org/ConvergingTechnologies. For background information, see www.technology.gov/PhotoEssays/Pht011203.htm.
3. See “The Transhumanist Declaration” of the World Transhumanist Association.
4. Tapes of the conference are available from www.cbhd.org/xcart/customer/product.php?productid=21248&cat=270&page=1.
John Schroedel is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America and a Ph.D. student in Ethics at the University of Chicago.