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Spectial Section -- Human Destiny

Revolution in biology drives revolution in theology, ethics and law

Special Projects Editor

In the 1970s, the theological notion of human beings as “co-creators” came into vogue, suggesting that God and human beings were partners in the enterprise of continuing the unfinished work of creation. To be a co-creator was not to be a passive recipient of God’s gifts or even just a steward of creation, maintaining the status quo, but, rather, a participant with God in bringing the earth and its inhabitants to fulfillment.

For many, the concept served as both invitation and challenge. In an era of positive theological energy and hope for social change, the concept bolstered the belief that human beings of good will could, in partnership with God, work toward building the Kingdom of God on earth.

Today, though, in a scientific context, the term co-creator has taken on previously unimagined meaning. Theologians have subjected it to heightened scrutiny as a huge new life-sciences industry develops new ways to heal — and reengineer — the human being. What are we to make of the work going on in laboratories all over the world, leading toward medical advances that will make our own era look to generations of the future as backward as medieval medicine looks to us today? Work that may eliminate diseases that for centuries meant suffering and shortened lives, and will almost certainly someday allow parents to have a child who is a clone of one of them or of someone else.

Scientific advances, however morally debatable, have already made test-tube babies routine, sex selection of children possible before conception and will soon make it possible for parents to pre-select many other characteristics as well.

Perhaps the only apt historical comparison is the splitting of the atom earlier in this century, begetting the possibility of previously unimagined destruction, but also leading to the development of radioactive medicine and a new, albeit controversial, way of producing electricity without burning fossil fuels.

Lee M. Silver, biology professor at Princeton University and author of Remaking Eden, has coined the term “reprogenetics” for the various new technologies. In one of his bolder futuristic prophecies, he predicts that if reprogenetics were to continue uncontrolled, two separate human species could emerge, one genetically enriched, the other like the folks we know, and neither able to reproduce with the other. Segregation by genotype.

While some regard such a development as far-fetched, many ethicists and theologians warn of grave negative implications for society and justice if genetic therapies and enhancements become available only to an economically privileged group.

Given the potential consequences, many feel it would be prudent to put brakes on research driving us to such a questionable future, or at least to flash a yellow light. Yet the United States has long taken a laissez faire approach to reproductive law. “The law has not kept up with the changes in reproductive medicine,” wrote Lori B. Andrews in her new book The Clone Age. Although assisted reproductive technology constitutes a $2 billion industry in the United States, only a few states have enacted comprehensive regulations. In contrast, every state has elaborate systems in place for regulating adoption, notes Andrews, professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Chicago-Kent College of Law, as well as director of its Institute for Science, Law and Technology.

Moreover, experts warn, social forces driving biotechnology are so deeply rooted in Western culture as to be virtually unstoppable. They include a near-religious belief in progress and a compelling desire of parents to equip their children with every possible advantage. Today, for parents with economic resources, that may mean good doctors and schools, after-school sports and exposure to art and music. Tomorrow that may mean genetic manipulation to bring about a higher IQ, a few added inches of height, a special talent, a pleasing personality or face. The right genes, experts predict, will be available at a price, making a marketable product out of the raw material of human life. Already, reproductive clinics advertise online for egg donors, and some female college students pay tuition by selling their eggs, despite warnings of risks to their own health.

Even apart from the long-term biological implications of tampering with human genes, Andrews is among science-watchers who worry about pressures on designer kids. “Are you going to be upset if the baby isn’t doing algebra in the crib?” she wondered in a recent interview published in the Chicago Tribune. Already, she said, reproductive technology has led to lawsuits “that look like product liability suits, making it appear that children should come with a warranty.”

Surprisingly, except for a spate of articles when the news of Dolly, the sheep cloned in Scotland, became public, discussion of work underway in biotechnology is sparse. Biotechnology critic Jeremy Rifkin, in his book The Biotech Century, has expressed astonishment at the reluctance of leaders in science, media, government or business to engage in public debate “over what is likely to be the most radical experiment humankind has ever carried out on the natural world.” It is an experiment, he warns, fraught with risks, pitfalls and dangers.

Ethicists are deeply concerned, too, about privacy and justice. What happens when insurers, employers, business competitors or creditors gain access to genetic information allowing them to assess an apparently healthy person’s susceptibility to some future disease? And even though the moral status of the human embryo is far from settled and remains a major issue in the genetic revolution, theologians are now confronted with the moral status of DNA. Is DNA, the substance of human life, sacred?

Long before related theological, ethical and legal issues have been resolved, science and its handmaid, business, forge ahead, patenting and experimenting with genetic procedures. Given the rapid progress of biotechnology in recent years, the government’s tolerant stance and the vast implications for the future of humankind, the poverty of the discussion is remarkable.

Sparse regulation of reproductive technologies in the United States has left the arena open for abuses, prompting some doctors, lawyers, scientists and ethicists to complain.

In July 1998, a group from the Illinois Institute of Technology, writing in the journal Science, recommended that the federal government adopt regulatory measures. The group noted that reproductive technologies are subject to more legal restrictions in other parts of the world, including the United Kingdom, than they are in the United States. Voluntary guidelines, such as those developed by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, are inadequate, the group said, as is a 1992 law that requires fertility clinics to report success rates to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Oversight by insurance companies is rare because few cover assisted reproductive technologies. Even medical malpractice suits provide little protection, some ethicists say, because the success rate of technologies is generally low, making it hard to determine whether negligence was the cause. As for harmful effects on children, they may be apparent only years later, after statutes of limitations have run out.

Legal measures the group recommended include:

  • A limit on the number of embryos that can be implanted in a woman’s uterus. About 35 percent of assisted births are multiples, compared to 2 percent overall, increasing the risk of health and developmental problems of children and putting added psychological and financial strains on families.
  • A requirement that fertility clinics keep complete records and fully inform patients of benefits, risks and alternative treatments available, including those offered only at other clinics.
  • Obligatory review of new technologies before they are put into operation in fertility clinics.

Oversight over research in genetic engineering is similarly spotty. In 1995, the U.S. government, bowing to pressure from abortion foes, banned funds for embryo and fetal research. The result, critics of the ban contend, is lack of governmental controls, leaving private industry an open field.

Public concern tapers off

Following the announcement in early 1997 that Dolly, the famous sheep, had been successfully cloned in Scotland, there was a swell of public concern and an outcry for a ban on human cloning. Today, although little is known about research with private funds, that once widespread concern seems to have tapered off. So far, no federal anti-cloning bill has been passed. M. Cathleen Kaveny, Catholic legal scholar and theologian from the University of Notre Dame, thinks it is only a matter of time before legislators are forced to pay attention. In fact, she predicts, the genetics revolution will produce a revolution in law. Kaveny notes in an article in the March issue of Theological Studies, that a cloned child could have up to eight different persons serving in parental roles: the scientist who initiates the cloning process, the “template” who contributes the nuclear DNA, the two parents of the template (who are the genetic parents of the clone), the donor of the egg that encases the nuclear DNA from the template, the woman who provides the womb in which the embryo will develop, and the parents who rear the child.

Should people choose to clone a child, they “redefine parenthood not only for themselves,” she writes. “They contribute to a radical shift in our common understanding of the nature and purpose of parent-child relationships.”

“In order to deal adequately with topics such as cloning, genetic privacy and patenting of the human genome,” she wrote, “It will not be sufficient to extend the existing legal framework to encompass new possibilities in human genetics. Instead, it will be necessary to rethink the fundamental normative assumptions undergirding the way the law deals with the broader issues of human reproduction, medical confidentiality, and the relationship of medicine and the market.”

The legal system will need to recognize the ramifications of reproductive technologies for the child, the immediate family structure and the broader society, she said, giving up its tendency to view procreation as “an individual’s private act of self-realization.”

Kaveny believes the Catholic tradition has much to contribute to that debate because it recognizes both the individual dignity and the “essentially social nature” of persons. One way of approaching the questions, she said, would be to ask what legal stance “would give the virtue of solidarity the best chance of taking root in the hearts of our neighbors and in our own hearts.”

For Catholic theologian James J. Walter, an ingredient fundamental to the ethical debates, now and in the future, is an understanding of underlying theological premises. Such premises play a central role, he said, in the ethical conclusions we reach.

For example, is it proper to speak of human beings as co-creators? Or should we be described, as some prefer, as stewards of creation? Or, as some who take a more human-centered approach might prefer, are human beings the masters, subject only to some degree of social control?

Theological anthropology — the role of the human being in relationship to God — is everyone’s starting point, though many remain unaware of their own premises, he said. For some believers, it’s “Human beings shouldn’t play God.” For nonbelievers, it might be “It’s wrong to tamper with Mother Nature.”

There are “tons” of controversy in Catholic circles over various models of the divine-human relationship, Walter said. “This is where the battle lines are being drawn.”

That’s appropriate, Walter thinks. If Christians and ethical persons are to have any effect on public policy, he said, it won’t be so much by focusing on conclusions about various technologies but on challenging the inadequacy of some starting points. For example, he said, if freedom of choice is our key value, “then that trumps every other value, and we are predisposed to supporting every kind of reproductive technology we can develop.”

A debate in theology

On the other hand, a conservative who favors the stewardship model might oppose as “playing God” any tampering with human genes at all. Protestant theologian Paul Ramsey took that view. With an eye to limiting all efforts to manipulate genes, he wrote in 1970, “Men ought not to play God before they learn to be men, and after they have learned to be men, they will not play God.”

Jesuit Fr. Karl Rahner was among the first Catholic theologians to describe human beings as “co-creators,” according to Lisa Sowle Cahill, a Catholic theologian who teaches at Boston College. “He first developed that idea in the late ’60s or early ’70s when the tradition was very closed. So he developed a theology that emphasized human freedom and self-determination,” she said. “It was very important as a corrective. But in today’s political and economic milieu, freedom is taken for granted, and any restraints are adamantly resisted.”

As a result, Cahill said, the term doesn’t work as well today. The complementary notion is sin, not just individual sin, but social sin. The way human beings behave is due partly to God, partly to Satan, she said.

A refinement of the term co-creator that Walter prefers is “created co-creator.” That phrase underscores the essential difference between God and humans, he said: Only God can create “ex nihilo”: from nothing.

Walter set forth some operative theological models for the relationship of human beings to God in the November 1997 issue of New Theology Review. He places himself among theologians who view creation as unfinished, history as indeterminate. God has not created a closed, finished system, leaving us only to discover creation’s fixed laws. Rather, God continues to create in history, he believes. The world is evolving, open to new possibilities.

More than stewards, whose moral responsibility is mainly to protect and conserve what has been created, human beings, while “utterly dependent on God for our very being,” are responsible for “creating the course of human history.” That, Walter believes, gives Christians a green light for moving cautiously toward genetic therapies to cure disease. Such efforts “are not fundamentally contrary to God’s creative and redemptive purposes,” Walter wrote, though he remains wary of procedures that would alter genes of future generations.

Another Catholic theologian, Thomas A. Shannon, also offers a thorough overview of theological perspectives, Catholic and Protestant, in his forthcoming book, Made in Whose Image? Genetic Engineering and Christian Ethics (Prometheus). Shannon is professor of religion at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass. Shannon points out that many Catholic leaders including Pope John Paul II are open to developing genetic therapy as long as certain restrictions are applied.

If medicine and law are due for revolutions, theology, too, will undergo dramatic changes in the decades ahead, Shannon predicts. He foresees a shift on the horizon as critical for theology as the shift from Hebrew to Greek philosophical categories in the early centuries of Christian thought.

Catholic theology has been formulated in terms of a Newtonian world-view: one that is essentially static, he said. But two scientific fields, first astronomy and now genetics, have demonstrated that world-view is inadequate.

“A core agenda,” Shannon said, “is how to rearticulate the Catholic vision of both theology and ethics in terms of a reality that is very dynamic. We need new theological insights and language to capture that.”

Click here for the glossary and bibliography.

National Catholic Reporter, October 15, 1999