The essay below is one that I wrote during my undergraduate studies for a course titled Christian Ethics. I am a Christian and understand that not everyone will agree with the arguments presented within it. However, please understand that the paper is not an argument for or against Christianity, but is merely a discussion of how biotechnology and bioengineering should be approached from a Christian perspective. Enjoy.
A Christian Perspective on Biotechnology & Bioengineering
“The rise of science was not an extension of classical learning. It was a natural outgrowth of Christian doctrine: nature exists because it was created by God.”
– Glenn T. Stanton (Stanton 2011)
Bioethics is defined as the study and consideration of moral dilemmas arising from applications of biotechnology and medicine to humanity. According to T.L. Beauchamp and J.F. Childress, four ethical principles constitute the core of bioethics, which includes respect for autonomy, justice, beneficence (“the mandate to treat others in their best interest”), and nonmaleficence (“First do no harm”) (Collins 2006). However, a Christian understanding of ethical dilemma is most often derived from the Bible. It extends beyond the principles designated as the foundation of the bioethics discussion. Although the Bible has no explicit directions towards bioethical dilemmas, Scripture can be analyzed in order to determine what God would prefer us to do based on moral principles. Advances in technology have occurred throughout all of time, and they will continue to do so. After all, humans were forced to make knives, spears, etc. because they lack the claws that animals have to accomplish various tasks (Ronald Cole-Turner 2011). Ultimately, the dilemma regarding biotechnological advances for Christians is a complex discussion, often with no definitive answer, that is dependent on the affects it has towards a relationship with God.
The advocation for use of technological enhancements in order to increase and enrich human capacities is a movement known as transhumanism. Advocates of the movement, known as transhumanists, encourage the use of technology to enhance human capabilities to an extent that it radically alters the human species, forming something known as “posthuman” (Ronald Cole-Turner 2011). Many Christians’ responses to future advancements may be to ignore the situation altogether in hopes that the transhumanist movement dissipates. However, the exponential rate of technological advancement indicates the necessity of Christians to thoroughly consider these bioethical dilemmas. In spite of success or failure of transhumanism, the integration of technology and human biology appears inevitable. A core disparity between the Christian and transhumanist views of technology is that Christians are not willing to “assume that human beings are sufficiently wise or good to be trusted to guide the process whereby technology affects the future of evolution” (Ronald Cole-Turner 2011). Christians must understand the sinful nature of humanity and take caution to circumvent it.
Many people fail to realize the extent to which we not only already practice enhancements made possible by technological and biological enhancements, but we actually encourage doing so in many respects. Vaccines used for immunizations are enhancements that lead to proliferation of cloned immune cells, as well as the alteration of DNA. A prominent topic of discussion is the concept of medical genetics, in which DNA testing allows determination of various risk factors for specific diseases including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and more (Collins 2006). It seems that much of our judgment regarding enhancement of the human body is dependent upon the context of the situation. For example, injectable growth hormone is a valuable tool for children afflicted with pituitary deficiency, and its use in such children is deemed readily acceptable. On the other hand, should a parent administer such medication to a child already in sufficient health to increase the child’s height and/or size, this would most often be considered an immoral practice. Another topic of fervent future discussion will regard the use of a growth factor known as IGF-1, which has demonstrated increased muscle mass in animal research over numerous repeated trials (Collins 2006). Such treatment could alleviate or even cure degenerate muscle diseases, enhancing the lives of numerous people. However, its use is also highly undetectable using modern technology, and would most likely be used in athletics to increase performance (Collins 2006). The question for Christians is whether such advancement is ethical in one respect or ethical/unethical in both.
It seems inappropriate that the entire argument of Christian ethics relies on situational judgment. A subjective argument is fallible at some point for almost any situation. Therefore, it must be determined if the alteration of the human body using technological advancement is immoral on all grounds or not. Christians must devise an objectiveargument towards the subject matter at hand. Although it is more than likely that opposing positions will exist even amongst those sharing a common faith in Christianity, the core elements with which the two sides derive their positions should ultimately resemble one another. All Christians should consider the same points to which they construct their arguments, and ensure the use of the ultimate source in determining controversial solutions, the Bible.
For many individuals, the concept of science crossing the boundaries of Christian ethics elicits thoughts of genetic cloning. The idea of “playing God” is used by both believers and non-believers for this increasingly advancing scenario, and most are familiar with Dolly the sheep (Collins 2006). For Christians, a subject of primary concern regards whether or not the newly formed life form has a soul, and for some, the being is considered an abomination. However, most people often fail to fully contemplate the situation before constructing their argument. A primary question posed by many is whether a cloned individual would have a soul. Before answering this question, it is important to understand that in the case of monozygotic twins, both individuals are derived from the same fertilized egg that splits after conception. Therefore, although their growth and development will cause dissimilarities in the overall identities, they are genetically identical in regards to DNA (Collins 2006). Furthermore, despite a cloned individual sharing the same DNA with that of the donor, the ultimate appearance and personality of the individual would be quite different. The environmental factors affecting the growth and development of an individual are undeniable. While the specific contributions of the nature vs. nurture debate continue to be disputed to this day, it is evident that each plays a role of paramount importance in child development. Therefore, although the clone would be genetically identical, it would be a different person altogether (Collins 2006). It seems appropriate to assume that just because a clone consists of DNA matching that of the donor, the cloned individual is not exempt from a soul and God’s love. Furthermore, it seems extremely brash to alienate the individual based on a circumstance in which he/she had absolutely no control. There is nowhere in the Bible that states existing is a sin, cloned individual or not. Regardless, as the Bible states, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” John 8:7 (BibleGateway.com 2012). We all are sinners, and yet we are all eligible for God’s love.
The Christian view of when life begins is a highly variable concept that often depends upon the specific branch of religion a believer follows. A topic of impassioned discussion, as should be the case, this concept is of vital importance in the ultimate views of assisted reproduction and cloning. During the course of research, it appears that the majority of individuals claiming Christian faith are anti-abortion on the grounds that such an act is destruction of human life. The words “Thou shalt not kill” resonates in the minds of many Christians when the debate of abortion arises. However, a concept less readily agreeable is when life actually begins and, therefore, when something would be considered an abortion. Although technology is a long way from creating a perfect human gene pool, the idea of embryo selection based on genetic code is not only plausible, but an increasingly practiced technique today. In vitro fertilization involves the removal of a mother’s eggs, and fertilization in a petri dish. These cells then begin to divide, and can be implanted into the mother, whom will undergo the typical pregnancy process. However, as early as the eight-cell stage of embryo development, a single cell can be removed in order to perform various DNA testing procedures. This technique is known as pre-implantation diagnosis, and allows diagnosis of genetic defects (Collins 2006). Thus, the cells within the petri dish can be selectively implanted based on the results of DNA testing in order to ensure development of the ideal embryo. Such procedures produce multiple ethical dilemmas including the idea of choosing an embryo of the most desirable traits, as well as the discarding of fertilized embryos that are deemed inadequate (Meilaender 1996). Today, more than a million children around the globe have been born via in vitro fertilization, many of which are born into Christian families (Collins 2006).
It is extremely important to understand that not all technological enhancements are expected to be viewed through eyes of cynicism. An attitude such as this is not what God expects from us either. However, caution should be taken before assimilation of such technology into the human condition. Numerous medical and technological advancements have taken place throughout history that have altered the lives of millions of people in extremely beneficial ways. Many of these enhancements have even resulted in the affirmation of a person’s faith in Christ. It is important to realize that the ultimate Savior is still God. Any form of advancement is made possible through Christ, and Christians must be aware of maintaining their faith in God, not technology. “We need not, I think, fear that seeking medical help necessarily demonstrates lack of trust or faith on our part. Rather, it indicates only that we trust God to care for us mediately – through the love and concern of others” (Meilaender 1996). Thus, it is not against Christian faith to seek out new and innovative medical advances, but to do so must be done with careful consideration of the repercussions of our actions.
Of primary consideration for the decision of ethical righteousness in respect to biotechnological enhancement is whether the soul is modified with such physical enhancements. Is there a link between the soul and body that prevents one from being changed without the other, or are the two separate entities entirely that can be molded and modified independently? Some believe that alteration of the physical body ultimately alters the soul as well, inevitably changing the identity of the individual altogether. Strong proponents of this viewpoint consider such transformation to be “suicide”, and as Susan Schneider states, “…knowingly embarking upon a path that trades away one or more of your essential properties would be tantamount to suicide – that is, to your intentionally causing yourself to cease to exist”(Ronald Cole-Turner 2011). The paradox of physical transformation is prevalent for Christians throughout all of history. This is made evident in Galatians when Paul regularly refers to the death of the “old self” and the identification of a Christian living in Christ. As stated in Galatians 2:19-20, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Ronald Cole-Turner 2011). It seems that the contradiction of utmost significance in differentiating transhumanist and Christian ideals is the ultimate goal at hand. Each aims to undergo a transformation, but while transhumanism seeks to alter the human species beyond recognition physically, Christianity seeks to elicit a transformation of the soul.
Perhaps to appropriately reflect upon the effects of technological advancement to the spirituality of Christianity, one should study a sect of society familiar with separation from the rest of the world. The Amish live according to the principles of surrender, submission, separation, and simplicity, traits that Jesus himself exemplified in His life with perfection. Any technological advancement that is deemed a risk to the spirituality of Amish lifestyle is prohibited from the society (Clark 2010). While to the majority of Americans the Amish lifestyle seems radical and unnecessary, a thorough reflection demonstrates the appeal of such life as well. Their refusal of using automobile allows them to take notice of the nature around them, and appreciate the beauty of the world God has created. Furthermore, the lack of televisions allows increased family interactions (Clark 2010). Comparing the world today to even thirty years ago shows a drastic change in social interactions. Today, we oftentimes would rather send a text message or email, and our dependence on technology encourages a deviation from direct social interaction. The ease with which children can access the Internet allows exposure of young minds to things like pornography and violence. Although I am not advocating the regression of all technological advancement to the point of imitating Amish society, it is important to recognize the tribulations technological advancement can have on the lives of Christians. It is made evident through examining Amish societies that technological advancements most assuredly have the potential to disrupt spirituality (Clark 2010).
The debate regarding whether accepting enhancements is morally acceptable or not in view of Christian ethics is presented admirably by Ronald Cole-Turner in his bookTranshumanism and Transcendence: Christian Hope in an Age of Technological Enhancement. The author states, “For Christian theology, however, if technology is used at all, its role is not to satisfy the will, either before or after the change, but to transform the person in the direction of the new creation in Jesus Christ”. The primary concern of this statement presents the idea that the pivotal point of influence for accepting/rejecting an enhancement is the affect it will have on an individual’s relationship with God. One must determine whether the alteration would enhance or corrupt his/her relationship with God or perhaps, have no effect at all. However, it seems that even a slight risk of distancing oneself from a loving relationship with Christ is something to be avoided at all costs.
One limiting feature of our existences affecting our relationship with God and the world around us is finitude. We are finite beings that have been created by God, and therefore, we have limits to our capacities as creatures. An important trait derived from finitude is the concept of humility, the realization that we are nothing in comparison to God, our Creator (Clapper 2005). Would biogenetic engineering or biotechnological enhancement alter the finitude of our species? As discussed in “Living Your Heart’s Desire”, we were not created to be immortal beings. “We all owe God a death, and there will be no welshing on that debt!” Thus, it seems evident that any technological enhancement that poses a risk of corrupting our humility is most definitely a threat to Christian faith. As Christians, we must understand that we are not meant to live forever (Clapper 2005). Technological advancement devised to extend life is one thing, but enhancements aiming to immortalize human beings is something else altogether. Our finitude is an important aspect of our relationship with God (Clapper 2005), and ultimately, Christians should view death as a transition to the eternal life with Christ in Heaven. Therefore, it seems that advancements posing any form of risk to our finitude should be completely avoided.
As Christians, we must be sure to consider God’s desires in constructing our decisions. The ultimate question to answer in regards to the ethics of a biotechnological enhancement is whether the modification would strengthen or weaken our relationship with God (Ronald Cole-Turner 2011). It seems that any form of modification with a possibility of distancing us from a relationship with God is ultimately not worth the risk. The transhumanist concept of creating the “perfect being” is a flawed concept, and for Christian understanding, a deviation from the beings God created us to be. We are meant to be finite, sinful beings, who experience times of brokenness that only God is able to mend (Clapper 2005). The creation of a being that exists without these limitations would fail to obtain a meaningful and dependent relationship with God. According to The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers, science is a gift from God consisting of orderly & predictable creation patterns that are meant to be discovered, minds with the capability to understand the abstract nature of the world around us, and a curious nature to seek an understanding of the things we encounter (Collins 2006). The search for discovery within the realm of science is constantly seeking out new advancements that will lead to unavoidable radical innovations. Reflection on such enhancement must be considered by Christians, and avoidance of such innovations is a futile and thoughtless act. Human enhancement is an evolutionary process, and although many Christians frown upon hearing the word evolution, this should not be the case. “The theory of evolution, after all, is a theory about how life has change over time; it is not a theory about how life first appeared” (Collins 2011). The discussion of coexistence between Christianity and evolution is another topic of fervent discussion altogether, but the acceptance and reflection upon its effects on humanity must be acknowledged.
At the core of the transhumanist debate amongst Christians is a primary question:How far is too far? More often than not, the answer to such a question, even amongst Christian sharing a common faith, resides in a gray area of no definitive solution. Is advancement that encourages affirmation of Christian faith ethically acceptable even if it changes the physical manifestation of the being? If human beings exist as a duality between the physical body and the soul, where is the balance or fulcrum to which we can change one without altering the other too much? Can one even be changed without the other or are the two so intrinsically linked that modification of any physical component will ultimately alter the soul of that person? Christians seeking to construct an argument towards bioethical dilemma must be sure to consider each of these questions when doing so. Although no universally accepted definitive answer can be surmised, the use of the Bible and an understanding of the Christian faith should allow us to at least construct a common ground of understanding. Ultimately, we must determine the affect such enhancements or modifications will have on our relationship with God. As Christians, we must consider the affects the technology would have on the various aspects of our relationship with Christ, such as finitude and sinfulness. Any act that dissipates the finitude that makes us human, or elicits amplified sinful behavior must be avoided completely. At the core of the debate lies the concern for what is truly best for the future of human beings. “For the Christian, what is good for human beings is what truly transcends us and raises us to an unexpected exhaltation” (Ronald Cole-Turner 2011). The ultimate goal of Christianity is to develop a loving, strong relationship with God, and any form of behavior that negatively impacts this relationship is just not worth the risk.
BibleGateway.com (2012). “Bible NIV.” Retrieved 16 April 2012, 2012, fromhttp://www.biblegateway.com/.
Clapper, D. G. (2005). Living Your Heart’s Desire: God’s Call and Your Vocation. Nashville, Upper Room Books.
Clark, M. S. (2010). A Pocket Guide to Amish Life. Eugene, Oregon, Harvest House Publishers.
Collins, F. S. (2006). The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. New York, NY, Free Press
A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. .
Collins, K. W. G. F. S. (2011). The Language of Science and Faith. Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity Press.
Meilaender, G. (1996). Bioethics: A Primer for Christians: Revised. Grand Rapids, Michigan, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. .
Ronald Cole-Turner, E. (2011). Transhumanism & Transcendence: Christian Hope in an Age of Technological Enhancement. Washington, DC, Georgetown University Press.
Stanton, G. T. (2011). The Ring Makes All The Difference: The Hidden Consequences of Cohabitation and the Strong Benefits of Marriage. Chicago, Moody Publishers.