The Language of God 6

This is the last of a series of posts [by RJS] looking at the book The Language of God by Francis S. Collins, Director, National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), National Institutes of Health (NIH). Today we will turn to the appendix entitled “The Moral Practice of Science and Medicine” to address an absolutely essential issue in our world – bioethics. After all, faith and worldview play an enormous role in debates over bioethics. How do we chart our way in and through the morass ahead?

Scientific research in general gives rise to a flood of ethical and moral conundrums. In this appendix Dr. Collins highlights a few of the many possible issues in biomedical research.
Example 1: Knowledge of the human genome allows accurate testing for an increasing number of heritable ills. DNA testing can allow both personalized medicine and blatant discrimination in employment, health care and insurability (especially in the US). An added complication is introduced by the fact that many personality traits are heritable at least in part, related to specific genetic factors. Thus “personalized medicine” could address more than just physical illness and disability. This is a complex issue as Dr. Collins recognizes: “Though genetic research on human behavior holds the exciting promise of improved interventions in psychiatric illness, this research is also somehow upsetting, as it seems to tread dangerously close to threatening our free will, our individuality, and maybe even our spirituality.” (p. 259)
What is the proper path between use and abuse of the information available from the human genome?
Example 2: Human stem cell research and the possibility of cloning mammals or even humans, opens the floodgates to another set of ethical questions. Stem cells could conceivably lead to “regenerative medicine” where damaged tissues and organs could be restored and many progressive and fatal chronic illnesses could be effectively treated or cured (think diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, …). Christians have tended to hold the position that sanctity of life prohibits use of human embryo stem cells in such research. Methods that avoid human embryos are preferred – but at least some of the alternative methods are related to techniques used for cloning individuals – possibly humans. That is, they produce cells that could go on to give rise to individuals.
Is it ever right to use human embryo stem cells? What are the ethical ramifications of the alternative approaches?
The list of real and potential ethical dilemmas is almost endless – in genomics, medicine, chemistry, physics, nanotechnology,….
So — How should we approach these ethical issues arising from scientific investigation?
As an insider it is clear that leaving it to the experts alone is not the right move. Dr Collins’ notes: “It would be a mistake to simply leave those decisions to the scientists. … Scientists by their nature are hungry to explore the unknown. Their moral sense is in general no more or less well developed than that of other groups, and they are unavoidably afflicted by a potential conflict of interest that may cause them to resent boundaries set by nonscientists.”(p. 270-271)
On the other hand he says: “I hesitate however, to advocate very strongly for faith-based bioethics. The obvious danger is the historical record that believers can and sometimes will utilize their faith in a way never intended by God, and move from loving concern to self-righteousness, demagoguery, and extremism.” (p. 271)
As Christians what do we bring to the table to contribute to these discussions?
And – how do we keep the discussions civil and productive?

  • Diane

    I pray that we will tread very carefully into these dangerous waters but fear that we won’t. One hopes that some of the massive environmental problems we are facing today will act as a warning of what will happen if we rush blindly into “improving” the human species. Many things will be done goodheartedly to improve the human genome, wipe out diseases etc. and will have terrible unintended consequences. I remember going to the Everglades some years ago and learning that, in 1947, well-meaning scientists planted a tree from Australia to impede soil erosion. Introducing that tree caused all sorts of unforeseen problems to the ecosystem. So, 1. we need to talk (maybe an emerging conference on this topic?), 2. we need to look beyond the emotional (and very real) arguments of the people who are going to lose their beautiful loved ones to a disease to the bigger picture 3. We need to do as little as possible to interfere with the way God set up reproduction and the human genome. Already, I think we’ve started to stray too far, and need to start rethinking even simple things such as sperm donors.
    I think the Roman Catholic Church (I’m not Catholic) is ahead on grappling with these issues, asking that clones with even a little human genetic material be treated as human life etc. I also predict that at some point, when we’ve created a disaster with trying to improve the human species, we will long back and thank the Catholic Church for holding the line on these issues. We will long for the days when we created babies the old-fashioned way, one man, one woman, no third parties involved.
    I could say much more, but this is already too long.

  • http://mysite.verizon.net/resqxbvj/crossroads/ Richard

    “The obvious danger is the historical record that believers can and sometimes will utilize their -faith- in a way never intended by God,”
    The above statement regarding faith can misdirect a reader into thinking that faith is a religious attribute rather than a everyone-everyday reality of “in the image of God” or the “in the image of His Son” endownment. Faith brought Hitler to his end, by faith Washington crossed the Deleware and faith is responsible for the operating system enabeling you to read Jesus Creed.
    It appears often to me in God’s wonderful signature as creation, is that there are counterfitters who are attempting to study His signature for what appears as a blank check. I have found that it is easier to find one’s way in a maze starting from the destination… so, maybe I did put my finger in His hand and placed my hand in His side.
    “Seek and you shall find. Knock and it shall be opened. Ask and you shall receive.” words of a philosopher, scientist, madman, Son of God?
    God is proof of creation, creation is proof of creation.

  • http://www.thedesignmatrix.com/content/front-loading-epithelial-tissue/ Mike Gene

    This also opens a rather unpleasant can of worms:
    “But what exactly are Watson’s eugenics intentions? How would he design better human beings? The germ-line intervention that he and other advocates most often mention is improvements to the immune system. There is a gene, for example, which provides absolute resistance to the AIDS virus. If it were possible to safely implant such a gene into an embryo, who would object? Or a gene that similarly protected someone against SARS or an even more deadly emerging infectious disease?
    Such germ-line alterations are viewed cynically by Watson, though, as a means to other ends: the wedge that will open the door to further engineering. “I think that the acceptance of genetic enhancement,” he writes in his new book, “will most likely come through efforts to prevent disease.”"
    More here:
    http://telicthoughts.com/the-eugenics-wedge/

  • Rick

    The “advancements” in these areas are so rapid that people cannot get the mind around the developments, let alone the long-range impact.
    Another problem is the global aspect of these developments. Certain nations may come to some agreement, but a rogue nation can know have access to much of this research and can “let the cat out of the bag”.
    Christians need to have a seat at the table. I was fortunate to learn about much of this through a seminary professor that served as an ethics rep on the Genome Project (he had a science background). We need to encourage more Christians to enter the sciences so they have the credibility to speak on such issues.
    However, and these may be more questions for you RJS:
    Does the scientific community really care what the Christian community says about these matters? Is any ethical concern really more of a PR stance? Is political and funding pressure more effective within the scientific community than pure ethical concerns?

  • Diane

    I hope this debate doesn’t continue to get framed as “science versus religion” in the wider world, with “science” on the side of “helping” people with terrible diseases and “religion” as the evil agent of repression and suffering in the name of an irrational “morality.” Clearly, we need to work together on this issue. … and in this postmodern world, we need to stop making an idol of science. I think we’ve had ample evidence that science alone can’t solve all our problems and can, in fact, create much more terrible problems. We really, really need to embrace a pre-Enlightenment model to wed science and morality (religion) and have both working together to help and protect humanity. Science can do its part by developing helpful technology, religion can do its part by ensuring those technologies are used in the most humane possible way and not for pride, power, advantage, etc. A crucial element of this is continuing to spread Jesus’ word that ALL humans have value no matter who they are and what diseases or disabilities they may possess. We don’t need “enhanced” humans: we are fully acceptable as we are. We don’t need to be afraid we are not good enough. We are good enough.

  • RJS

    Rick,
    Like any community, the scientific community is made up of people, with – as Dr. Collins points out – moral sense no more or less well developed than that of other groups. Many scientists are very concerned about ethical issues on all levels. Some are only concerned with self advancement and ambition. Some have really strange ideas about the ideal future. Some are wise; some are merely smart. Intelligence doesn’t necessarily correlate with wisdom.
    We all need to be involved in the discussions – and that means some effort to gain the basic knowledge required to enable intelligent conversation.

  • http://www.jesustheradicalpastor.com John W Frye

    RJS,
    There seems to be a prevailing suspicious, even hostile stance by evangelicals regarding science. Now with the possible genome manipulations for great benefit and for curiosity’s sake, we need to establish “a theology of the common good.” Christians will be welcomed to the table, not to harangue scientists, but to explore ways to harnass the wonders of beneficial discoveries “for the common good.” It will be messy, I imagine, but someone needs to affirm “God is” and “we are not God.”

  • http://homewardbound-cb.blogspot.com/ ChrisB

    As Christians what do we bring to the table to contribute to these discussions?
    And – how do we keep the discussions civil and productive?

    We can and should let our faith inform our position on these things (specifically its teaching of the inherent value of all humans), but we have to share our convictions in the right way. If all we do is quote the Bible, we will be rightfully ignored by those who do not subscribe to its teachings. If we offer carefully reasoned arguments based on universal principles and sound philosophy, we will be taken seriously by all who value reason and truth.
    The abortion debate is a good example. We don’t make much traction when we quote the Bible, but when we meet the secular world on its own turf we can gain ground or at least make our opponents admit their (and they’re) prejudices.

  • http://www.jesustheradicalpastor.com John W Frye

    ChrisB (#8),
    Good words. Thanks!

  • Rick

    RJS-
    Thanks for your response. I see that I am looking at the scientific community as I would any other diverse community, like the business/coporate. In short, with that moral diversity, how strong overall is the pull of “the bottom line”.
    I am not so concerned on how science is perceived by the church, but rather how is the Christian community perceived by those involved with science. What are our weaknesses that prevent us from having a more effective voice? (there is always room for improvement).
    How and where can an education in “the basic knowledge” of the subjects be most effective (seminaries, denominations, etc…?)?
    Are relationships on a local, national, and global level with those in the community in need of a vast improvement? Probably.
    Finally, how does the scientific community handle the day to day issues of ethics? For example, if there is a national or global conference on cloning, how does the topic of ethics nornally get on the agenda and who decides the representation?

  • Diane

    Yes, Chris B, I agree too. When we point to, say, the problems selective abortion is causing (or will soon cause) in China due to the shortage of women, or point to the reasons behind why women have abortions (lack of emotional and financial support etc) and try to solve those issues, we can get traction. And we have to tie what looks like repressive and mindless “morality” to the demonstrable consequences of ignoring that morality.

  • http://christineascheller.wordpress.com cas

    I have to disagree here that we ought to play the other team’s game, so to speak. The church’s prophetic voice on these issues is vital to slowing the wholesale rush forward that Collins identifies.
    Having spent considerable time with hESC researchers over the past few years, I can say with certainty that they can be as morally ignorant as we evangelicals can be scientifically ignorant. When challenged with a cogent moral argument, they sometimes don’t know what to do because they haven’t done the reasoning.
    In this case, our prophetic voice slowed progress long enough for other alternatives to be developed. We’ve done our job.
    Lately I’ve been thinking about writing a blog post called “Why I loved Jerry Falwell,” which I really didn’t, but I did hear, truly hear, the unpopular pro-life message he and others put forth and have a son because of it. That is a powerful reality that I’m sure I share with many.
    As this “Language of God” conversation has unfolded, I’ve wanted to point out that the arrogance of ignorance extends in two directions. I noted it especially in the discussion of “gaps” the other day. Science says “We will figure everything out.” Maybe, maybe not. Optimism is wonderful, but a bit more modesty would do us all a world of good.
    All this to say, I don’t think we need be so on the defensive about our religious POV. Take the game to them.

  • Rick

    Cas #12-
    I don’t think it has to be an either/or. It can be a both/and. We can be both prophetic and missional in our approach.

  • http://awaitingredemption.blogspot.com Matt Edwards

    I think, too that we need to learn to differentiate what makes us uncomfortable because it’s new and different and what makes us uncomfortable because it is unethical. Take human cloning, for example. I have heard that polls say that most people okay with cloning for things like organ harvesting, but against cloning in situations in which people want to clone themselves.
    To me, that seems backwards. I can’t think of any reason why it would be immoral to clone yourself and raise a clone as a child. However, cloning for purposes of organ harvesting seems like unethically picking and choosing who lives and who dies.
    Regardless where you stand on either of these issues, my point is that we need to be very careful not to oppose things that are different but not unethical so that our voice can be heard more clearly when things are different and unethical.

  • Peggy

    Well, if we can somehow enter the conversation with the intent to think clearly through all the ramifications of all the possibilities to all the stakeholders, it will be a good start.
    But who will moderate such a conversation? I pray that there will be those who are both knowledgeable and full of wisdom and discernment on both sides of the question that will come forward and see the importance of this conversation.
    As I’ve been pondering in the Missional Journey blog at Allelon, there is an important correlation between means and ends that frequently gets lost…and we have unrighteous means to otherwise godly ends as well as seemingly innocent (ambiguity intended) means to ungodly ends — and lots of things in between.
    I am sorry to see this series end…but I will look forward to going back through these posts and comments and struggling to come to grips with the hard thinking that is required to discern the truth amidst the perceptions.
    Thanks, RJS and Scot, for hosting this conversation.

  • RJS

    cas,
    I was hoping that you would weigh in here as I know (from your blog) that you have had some experience with these issues. Scientists can be as morally ignorant – and as morally concerned – as smart aggressive people in any field of endeavor. Science is, in fact, incredibly entrepreneurial. On one level modesty would do all a world of good – but on another level the optimism drives the discipline forward – to conquer the next challenge. Perhaps modesty loses the battle in survival of the fittest?
    The religious point of view – and the ethic that values all humans as created in the image of God – needs to be part of the conversation.
    What do you think is the best way to have a voice that will be given time to be heard? Isn’t a prophetic voice worthless if it is dismissed out of hand?

  • Brian

    RJS,
    Does Collins ever say what he thinks about the soul? I think this is a lynch pin issue. If science can explain human life without reference to the soul, then where does that leave Christian theology?

  • RJS

    Brian,
    I am not sure what Collins would say directly on this issue – except that human existence cannot be reduced to an agglomeration of atoms or subatomic particles governed by the appropriate interparticle interactions. Science, dealing with material explanations alone, will never even enter the realm of considering “soul.” Science cannot explain soul — at best science can suggest a purely materialistic rationalization for our perception that soul might be a valuable concept, with ultimate “value” determined solely by enhanced survival potential.
    But there are more ways of “knowing” than the simple material explanations. In fact, it seems to me that there is nothing so utterly doomed to failure and so fundamentally bankrupt as a purely materialistic view of the world and the universe.

  • http://www.tgdarkly.com/blog dopderbeck

    I think this was by far the weakest part of Collins’ book; IMHO he should have just introduced the idea that evangelicals need to come to grips with evolution and left it at that.
    Collins gives the impression that the existing discourse on the bioethics of stem cells, cloning, genetic screening, and the like is thin and that the religious / Christian perspective is mostly that of the bombastic anti-science religious right. Such is not the case. There are many Christian / theological voices, such as Ted Peters and Celia Deane Drummond, who write on this issues with considerable depth from a less than conservative point of view. There are also many Christian / theological voices, such as Robert George and Gilbert Meilaender, who write with considerable depth from a conservative point of view. And there are evangelicals, such as John Stassen and David Gushee, who fall into the “progressive evangelical” camp and write with strong Biblical conviction as well as grace about bioethics.
    In short, the breadth and sophistication with which Christians and other theists have been addressing bioethics questions is rich and remarkable.

  • RJS

    dopderbeck,
    Are the thinkers you’ve listed actual read and heeded at a level that impacts political decision making and position statements (if there ever was such a thing) within evangelical circles?
    I would guess that Collins’ reaction is not to such thinking – but to the political rabble rousing approach.

  • Brian

    RJS (#18),
    A related issue I see is that Christians would insist that human life is in important respects quite different than other higher animal life, whereas science is more and more saying that the two are not really so different after all in regard to what fundamentally constitutes life.
    When you say that materialism is “doomed to failure”, in what respects do you mean that? Doomed in an explanatory sense, in regard to providing a framework for meaning, or something else?

  • RJS

    Brian,
    In regard to providing a framework for meaning.
    What in the world is meaning (or beauty, or soul) in a universe where the material is all there is?
    It seems to me that one of the important issues that Christians must bring to the table in any discussion of bioethics is an immovable conviction that human life (all human life) is important and that humans “created in the image of God” are not simply thinking animals.
    The irony is that Christians have so often throughout history demonstrated a willingness to devalue the humanity and the sanctity of the life of “others.”

  • http://www.tgdarkly.com/blog dopderbeck

    #20 — Yes. But I think what you see here within evangelicalism is a divide between “elites” and “populists.” IMHO, most of the populist stuff is not very helpful, but unfortunately that’s what often gets filtered into the pews. Yet the “elite” stuff isn’t really that “elite” and is quite robust.
    For example:
    Gilber Meilaender was a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics: http://www.valpo.edu/valpo_people/meilaender.php
    Robert George runs the influential James Madison center at Princeton University: http://www.princeton.edu/politics/people/bios/index.xml?netid=rgeorge
    Publications such as First Things (right), Books & Culture (centrist), and Sojourners (left) address these questions regularly and are widely read.
    And check out, for example, “For the Health of the Nation,” a statement by the National Association of Evangelicals: http://www.nae.net/images/civic_responsibility2.pdf
    No one will agree with everything in this document, but I think we can agree that it is a measured document that seeks a balanced tone and approach.
    Also check out newer organizations such as the Council on Faith and Foreign Affairs, which I think is quite excellent, and which sometimes touches on the international aspects of bioethics: http://www.globalengage.org/projects/project-cfia.aspx

  • Brian

    RJS,
    It seems to me as well that materialism leads to nihilism. The faith divide hinges in part on whether or not that is deemed to be an acceptable conclusion.

  • RJS

    Brian,
    I agree.
    Dawkins of course disagrees (as do others). But I don’t think that there is any rational basis for his position. In fact his dismissal of this conclusion – materialism leads to nihilism – seemed to me one of the weakest parts of his entire argument. Basically his is a “because I said so” type of argument.

  • RJS

    dopderbeck,
    Thanks for the resources – a good list and starting point.

  • Brian

    RJS,
    What I see is not just materialism leading to nihilism, but rather a nihilism of the absurd. Even if we accept that life has no meaning, we cannot live consistently as though that is in fact the case.

  • http://christineascheller.wordpress.com cas

    First, let me apologize for dropping in yesterday and then not returning to engage in discussion for an entire 24 hours. I thought I should probably attempt to contriubte, but I had a very busy day yesterday as I do today. Additionally, there are many resources out there for weighing this and other bioethics debates. A number of those are linked on my blogroll.
    Rick, yes, both/and. At the first NIH hESC stem cell training course I attended 3 years ago, I was more confrontational than the second time I attended. I believe this was correct and effective in driving debate forward locally, and perhaps nationally. However, it was probably less effective missionally. I did come away with one very close friend—a gay hESC researcher. The fact of this friendship alone diminished barriers at this year’s course. However, I was also intentionally more missional in my approach, partly because of the internet. I’ve written on this issue and that work is available online. So the scientists could read my perspective in the privacy of their hotel rooms if they were so inclined:
    http://christineascheller.wordpress.com/2007/06/26/ethics-interrupted/
    Another reason I was able to be more missional is because of the chastened tone of the speakers, both on the ethics and on the science. In fact one scientist expressed gratitude for the ethical opposition because she said it catalyzed innovation.
    We often think of this issue in terms of life-ethics, but the experienced hESC researchers were openly complaining to me and indeed asking me to write about the greed that has driven the field. Greed that one scientist agreed was inspired by the 90s tech bubble. Greed that has driven the patenting of cells and genes. Greed that corrupts the science.
    Another issue that is foundational to the debate is the state of IVF regulation in the U.S. This is something I think Christians are less comfortable confronting because it hits closer to home for many families and challenges some of our basic assumptions about “the good life” and personal freedom. If the IVF industry were better regulated, the hESC and cloning debates would be much different. Again, the scientists themselves and other professionals whom I cannot discuss were complaining to me about this and asking me to DO SOMETHING.
    RJS, I was careful to say SOMETIMES scientists CAN BE as morally ignorant as we evangelicals can be scientifically so for the reasons you suggest. The more experienced hESC scientists that I have met have thought through the ethics more, and obviously come to conclusions that have allowed them to continue. A pretty balanced book was published by some of the people I know. It is called, “The Stem Cell Debate.” While I disagree with some of the conclusions, it is fair look at the issues.
    The hESC scientists with the least moral reasoning on this issue tend to be the newer ones– primarily the 24 students I’ve spent time with over 3 years. This makes sense of course, but it was shocking to me, for example, when 3 years ago an embryologist from Italy confessed that after 20 years of IVF work, he was still conflicted about it, and yet there he was preparing to go further down this road when hESC research wasn’t even legal in Italy at the time.
    This year, as I mentioned on my blog, a very significant scientist in the field began telling people she was a Christian, in part, I am sure because there was discussion of my presence as a religious person. She wanted to know from me if “The Secret” was orthodox. I was only minimally familiar with it, so I told her I would look into it. An Australian scientist then chimed in with details about the book. This scientist later told me she thought organized religion was the most destructive force in the world, yet she was getting married in a church. This kind of logic and tendency toward junk spirituality has come up again and again.
    This reality levels the playing field to a degree. Which brings me to your quesstion: “Perhaps modesty loses the battle in survival of the fittest?” : ) Let us hope it is a dominant virtue rather than a recessive one, but you do bring up another good point.
    Another thing these scientists complain to me about is one another’s arrogance. Again and again–including, I dare say that of Dr. Collins. These are the adventurers and explorers of our time. Thank God for their optimism and drive and the alleviation of suffering that has resulted from it, but like all visionaries, they sometimes need to be reigned in by the rest of us.
    You asked:
    “What do you think is the best way to have a voice that will be given time to be heard?”
    Obviously, a willingness to enter the fray is the first thing. That’s a big obstacle to overcome because it involves a lot of risk and discomfort. Second, prayer cannot be underestimated, along with a sensitivity to the spirit’s leading. Graciousness, kindness, good arguments, knowledge.
    In this case, I have a unique voice as a patient advocate. My child with an incurable disease was also the result of an unplanned pregnancy. That fact kind of punctures the compassion at all costs argument in one-on-one conversation. I think it is simply God’s hand on my life for this issue.
    You asked:
    “Isn’t a prophetic voice worthless if it is dismissed out of hand?”
    Of course. When I wrote the article I linked to above for CT, the scientist whose trouble with the truth I exposed made my life miserable in return. But … I had truth on my side. Truth that has been born out by the testimony of multiple sources with different convictions about the ethics. So … we have to be willing to suffer if we are going to have a voice.
    I have also always made it clear to the scientists that my goal is to contribute to public conversation, not to win at all costs. I’m not an anti-hESC zealot. That helps, I think. There is a local guy here in CA who is known as a bit of an anti-hESC zealot. He goes to all the public meetings, challenges the status quo and gets I don’t know where. Tuned out, I think.
    Today there is a really good post (one of many) on The Immanent Frame by Craig Calhoun, president of the Social Science Research Council. In it he discusses the unfairness of secularists expecting people of faith to enter public discourse only on secular grounds.
    Here is a quote:
    “Religion, moreover, is part of the genealogy of public reason itself. To attempt to disengage the idea of public reason (or the reality of the public sphere) from religion is to disconnect it from a tradition that continues to give it life and content. Habermas stresses the importance of not depriving public reason of the resources of a tradition that has not exhausted the semantic contributions it can make. Equally, though, the attempt to make an overly sharp division between religion and public reason provides important impetus to the development of alternative or counterpublic spheres as well as less public and less reasoned forms of resistance to a political order that seeks to hold religion at arm’s length.
    This issue is significant for Habermas’s reconsideration of the extent to which prevailing secularist assumptions are adequate for the current era. Not only is there value for public reason to gain if it integrates religious contributions, it is a requirement of political justice that public discourse recognize and tolerate but also fully integrate religious citizens. It is with this in mind that he rejects Rawls’ formulations in which public reason requires arguments conducted entirely in secular terms. Rawls’ reasoning is that this is necessary in order to ensure that all arguments are accessible to everyone. Religious people, in this view, must give reasons for their arguments that are not specifically religious and fully available for acceptance by those who are not religious. But this, Habermas rightly suggests, places an unfair and asymmetrical burden on religious citizens.”
    Read the whole thing here:
    http://www.ssrc.org/blogs/immanent_frame/2008/03/24/%e2%80%9crecognizing%e2%80%9d-religion/
    This is a regular reading stop for me, in part because I’m a student of public discourse, but also because it is helpful to be comfortable with the intellectual legitimacy of arguing from one’s faith convictions.
    I’ll check back later. Many blessings~
    I agree with you completely, a

  • http://christineascheller.wordpress.com cas

    whoops sorry about the lingering typo

  • http://christineascheller.wordpress.com cas

    Excuse me, the book I referenced is:
    “Fundamentals of the Stem Cell Debate, ” published by University of California Press in 2008.

  • http://www.tgdarkly.com/blog dopderbeck

    cas — thank you for brining up the issue of the IVF industry. At the law school where I teach, someone gave a talk last year about pre-implantation genetic screening of IVF embryos. At present, the industry is only lightly regulated. It is very expensive both for individual couples and in terms of social costs, and it produces far more embryos than can be used. Embryos are routinely screened for certain genetic diseases and for gender. It will likely become easier in the near future to screen for a wider range of characteristics, though screening probably will never be as precise as we might think (genetics usually turns out to be much more subtle than “there’s a gene for X”).
    The person who gave the talk at my school suggested screening and culling is on balance socially a good thing (the perspective offered was expressly utilitarian). Being the father of a young son with serious neurological disabilities, I’m not so sure. Are people with genetically linked disabilities going to be even more stigmatized in the future because their parents didn’t screen and cull them?
    I’m by no means a Luddite — give me a genetic treatment for my bald spot and paunch, please!, or better, keep engineering more productive third-world crops — but at the very least, I think it’s fair to acknowledge that just because we can do something, it’s ok to actually do it.

  • http://www.tgdarkly.com/blog dopderbeck

    sorry — just because we can do something, it’s not necessarily ok to actually do it.

  • http://christineascheller.wordpress.com cas

    doperbeck,
    Screening out genetically defective children is now standard for IVF. It is one of many problematic issues for parents taking this route.
    In fact, the issue of aborting genetically defective children impacts science itself. A couple who lost 3 children to a brain-wasting disease and donated their childrens’ organs for research spoke at the conference. The scientists expressed gratitude and talked about the lack of of such donations in the current context.

  • http://christineascheller.wordpress.com cas

    I am terrible at spelling when blogging. Sorry dopderbeck.

  • http://www.tgdarkly.com/blog dopderbeck

    BTW, if this is the last post in this great series on Collins’ book, could there be some kind of wrap-up post? I’d love to hear, say, how Scot, as a theologian and postconservative Christian leader, thinks the Church ought to relate to the natural sciences and specifically to the question of biological evolution.
    I know that there are at least three or four books supporting some version of evolutionary creation coming out in the next year or so from evangelical or evangelical-ish authors. Natural science faculty in the evangelical liberal arts colleges seem increasingly to support evolutionary creation (though that’s a completely non-empirical observation of mine). Yet the mainstream of the evangelical movement, particularly in the U.S., overwhelmingly opposes evolutionary theory, and supports young earth creationism and/or old earth creationism mixed with strong intelligent design theory. Somehow the air needs to be let out of this tire so that Christians of good will can hold diverse views without recrimination and so that evangelical scholarship can engage with the natural sciences.

  • RJS

    cas,
    Thanks for the well thought responses.
    It makes a difference, doesn’t it, when the researchers become people, friends and acquaintances, rather than names and caricatures. A chastened tone isn’t the only thing that makes a missional approach easier.
    Believe me; I am too deeply entrenched in this business to have a rose-colored vision of scientists in white coats saving the world, motivated by altruistic self-sacrifice. Greed, arrogance, ambition, the draw for recognition, power, and accolades, and just plain competitiveness, are all part of the reality, and not just in hESC research. On the other hand – is this any different than any other field of endeavor (business, law, politics, journalism,…). We are all complex human beings (with families, children, ambitions, friends, hobbies, health problems, etc.).

  • http://christineascheller.wordpress.com cas

    No, RJS, it is no different anywhere … including the church.

  • RJS

    Genetic screening has the potential to lead to a myriad of ethical problems – not least because personality traits are partially heritable and may be linked to other “defective” characteristics.

  • RJS

    No one has commented on the other example I gave – the relationship between genetic testing, discrimination and insurability. Stories such as those in this NY Times article are quite troubling.
    http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9501E2D81E30F937A15751C0A96E9C8B63&scp=3&sq=genetic+testing+insurance&st=nyt
    How do we respond?

  • http://www.tgdarkly.com/blog dopderbeck

    #39 — the linked NYT article mentions a federal bill to ban genetic discrimination by insurers. This sounds like a good idea. However, so long as the primary avenue for quality health insurance is a private market, it’s difficult to regulate this kind of underwriting criterion. After all, insurance is about pooling risk; requiring private insurers to take on high risks that could otherwise be excluded could result in higher premiums to lower risk insureds and ultimately could produce far less social welfare overall.
    The real problem is that a partially regulated market of employer-supplied private insurance might not be the best way to supply access to healthcare. Dare we talk about national health insurance? (I’m sure that idea conflicts with something in Leviticus…..)

  • http://abisomeone.blogspot.com/ Peggy

    I put my vote in for a summary post, RJS, as well….

  • Andie

    I third that!


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