The Common Good
November-December 2000

New Eden. Same Snake?

by Rose Marie Berger | November-December 2000

What they're saying about the Human Genome Project.

DECODING THE HUMAN genome involves placing in correct order 3.1 billion genetic base pairs and then figuring out what they do. Thanks to computers—and one of the largest scientific endeavors since the Apollo project—the once impossible task has recently jumped to near completion. Amid the hype of new abilities to cure the sick and heal the lame, there are age-old temptations. Is the Human Genome Project salvation or snake oil? Or perhaps a little of both?

Biotechnology raises distinctly religious questions. Though few denominations have official statements on the genome project, Christian bioethicists assure us that the guiding principles of love, justice, and mercy apply. The human body is not an object, so an individual's genes should not be patented. All people have the right to participate in evaluating the social and biological implications of the genetic revolution and in democratically guiding its applications. Clear distinctions must be made between "therapeutic genetic intervention" and genetic "enhancement."

Genetic ethics, which will become increasingly important in the days ahead, will focus around a number of questions: How can genetic discrimination be prevented in work, healthcare, insurance, and education—and privacy be preserved? Do genetic patents help or threaten the development of therapies that relieve human suffering? Will the concept of genetic determinism threaten the concept of free agency, particularly as it applies to the legal system? Does germ-line genetic manipulation, which passes alterations to the next generation, compromise basic human dignity?

Religion shouldn't be a force that merely blocks technology, as some would have it. Rather, in light of concerns and principles like these, it must shape and mold technology in the service of human dignity.

"It is not technically feasible to trust privacy to ensure that information gained from the Human Genome Project does not result in discrimination." —Karen Lebacqz, Christian ethicist

"The great majority of Orthodox ethicists will insist that all forms of eugenics, involving the manipulation of human genetic material for non-therapeutic purposes, are morally repugnant and detrimental to human life and welfare." —Orthodox Church in America

"We are being thought of as machines, that we are DNA and that is all. That is not the conclusion I draw. Science is not going to render free will obsolete. It will not shed light on what it means to love someone." —Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project

"We recommend legislation that prohibits both research on and development of genetic engineering for military purposes." —The Church of the Brethren

"Genetic manipulation becomes arbitrary and unjust when it reduces life to an object...or when it treats a person in terms of criteria not founded on the integral reality of the human person, infringing upon his dignity." —Pope John Paul II

"In issues bearing on eugenics and reproduction there is a special need to involve women and minorities in the decision-making process." —World Council of Churches

"To keep the human genome from being held hostage by entrepreneurial interests, we must avoid entanglements with private research companies....The human genome is given to us all, not for the company's profit, but for the patient's good." —C. Ben Mitchell, Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity

"We approve attempts to treat human genetic diseases by genetically altering cells in the human body, if the alteration is not passed to offspring." —United Church of Christ

"Three percent of the budget of the human genome project is set aside for the study of the ethical, legal, and social implications of our new powers. Will parents ask for children who are male, tall, strong, and handsome? If we answer 'no,' then we should contemplate the impact of the sonogram in India and China." —Anglican Bishop Richard Chartres

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