A relatively recent issue, genetic engineering has nevertheless become an important enough internationally to cause public debates. The issue is complex, involving many parts and, of course numerous ethical concerns. Some of the parts enveloped by genetic engineering are cloning, modifications of genetic traits, and bioengineering of plants and certain animal to yield better crop and product. Much can be done using genetic engineering. Although we have a potential to harvest and already do see many advantages as a result of this, a deeper issue looms like a cloud on the horizon: are we prepared for the ramifications involved in this concept that has such high potential?
At the center of the issue is the perspective of the Church. And it is through human dignity that religion and cloning are linked. Genetic engineering, and, specifically cloning is deeply an issue of dignity. For example, the Catholic Church addressed human cloning in 1987, stating that cloning is contrary to the moral law, since it is in opposition to the dignity “both of human procreation and of the conjugal union” (2). Thus, cloning is contrary to our moral and theological beliefs since the normal reproduction does not take course: life is created through neither marriage nor sexual intercourse. God’s plan for us is finding a mate-someone we spend the rest of our life with, have children, pass on our knowledge and genetic material. God’s plan is for us to have two biological parents-those whose genetic, physical, and mental information comes together to produce a new, different being. Cloning completely disrupts God’s plan.
A rather controversial issue, cloning, as most such issues, forces one to take a stand on either moral, ethical, religious, or other grounds. Once faced with such dilemna, various religious movements have had to take such stand, which are rather varied throughout the different faiths. The Catholic Church, for example, has denounced cloning and has specifically called to put a ban on human cloning. “God alone is the master of human life and of its integrity” states Pope John Paul II. “To respect the dignity of man, consequently, amounts to safeguarding this identity of the man “corpore et anima unus,” states the Vatican Council II (3). The biological individuality of a person is untouchable, being made of both spirit and the body. Some other statements of John Paul II in his address to the World Medical Association:
“must not infringe on the origin of human life, that is, procreation linked to the
Union, not only biological but also spiritual, of the parents, united by the bond of marriage.”
“must, consequently, respect the fundamental dignity of men and the common biological nature which is at the base of liberty, avoiding manipulations that tend to modify genetic inheritance”
However, the Catholic Church is rather ambiguous when time comes for taking a stand on certain other issues. The vagueness of the Catholic Church comes in genetic engineering-no literature was found that details the point of view of the Catholic Church regarding topic such as, for example, genetic crop modification. The Church of Rome stands for what will benefit man and society, and its well being, and thus it may be safe to assume that enhanced production of crops, more milk, xenotransplantation, and the many benefits we can harvest from genetic modifications the Church does not oppose. Several advocates of the Catholic Church express their views on the matter through the biblical and evolutionary perspective. One scholar points out that crossbreeding is prohibited to maximize diversity: “You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall there come upon you a garment of cloth made of two kinds of stuff” (Leviticus 19:19).In a Christian tradition, the mixing of DNA is biblically unjust (5). Many Christians are cautious in the genetic alteration of God’s creation.
Also according to John Paul II, the dignity of men transcends his biological condition (3). Thus, the dignity is more important than our biological well-being, a reason why cloning is denounced.
Orthodox Christianity has a very similar position along with Islam. Judaism, on the other hand, has a less firm stand on cloning: cloning is allowed unless it is done for reproductive reasons (even then, exceptions are possible). Cloning for therapeutic reasons, for example, is acceptable. Not without some religious conflicts, however of “the oneness of the human person and the duty to heal oneself’ (4).
Other religions are most straightforward with other forms of genetic engineering. The Buddhists, for example, believe in the karma of the body, saying that “the only ethical limit is suffering”, and thus genetic engineering can be used to improve our physical parameters. “The body is only a vehicle for karma. If the body has been genetically altered or cloned, it’s really not very important.” The main concern is to avoid pain and suffering (4). The main concept is ahimsa-“non-harming”-respect for the intrinsic value of all sentient beings, not only human life (6).
According to the Society, Religion, and Technology Project, a part of the Church of Scotland, it not so much that genetic engineering crosses some forbidden line, as that it affects patterns and relationships in the natural world that we still only partially understand (1). It is a web of life that we are messing with-a web we did not create, a web we are merely a part of.What we do to the web we do to ourselves.”In the givenness of the created order, there is a wisdom we do well to respect. Wider relationships matter as much as the single effect desired by the scientist” (1).
In August of 1999, the Church of England was forced to take a stand on the issue of bioengineering after being asked to lease some of its land for planting of crops under scientific trials-genetically modified crops. The Church turned down the request pending a formal inquiry into “the theological implications of genetic modification” (7). Once the inquiry was completed, several issues were recognized:
-“God’s diverse creation of beauty and balance is diminished if, by applying knowledge, the choices we make result in more ill than good being visited on our neighbours in creation.”
-“Good science is patient. Applied with wisdom and integrity it will always seek to magnify God’s Divine Purpose”
-“if genetic manipulation of a type pertinent to this inquiry is an activity that in principle strays into realms that belong to God, and to God alonethen however beneficial the consequences might be, as Christians we would be required to resist”.
-“It remains true however, that human intervention has been pivotal in pursuing scientific and medical revelation over time; discovery and invention are the result of exercising Gods gifts of mind and reason. The possession of these powers is, in part, what it means for humanity to be created “in the image of God”. Furthermore, the natural order of God’s creation must be recognised and respected, but “unnaturalness” cannot itself be the source of ethical prohibition if the benefits can be shown to be very great. Genetic modification may nonetheless involve some things which ought not to be done today, but which ought not to be ruled out for ever.”
-“Reverence for creation cautions against haste, in favour of humility” (8).
The inquiry decided that the Church should continue to support research and those involved in genetic research where the purpose is healing, however each such quest for support must be approved on an individual basis. Experiments in genetic mutation unconnected with healing, however, “debases human dignity in the sight of God” (8).
It has been stated correctly before that one of the roles of the Church is to caution us where it so happens that the pursuit of knowledge and the ability to perform certain techniques outpaces the complete understanding and knowledge of effects. This, in our history, humanity has done many a time. The Church’s role has been that of a prophet, warning us that just because we can do something, does not mean we should.
1. Church of Scotland webpage. http://dspace.dial.pipex.com/srtscot//srtpage3.shtml
2. American Bioethics Advisory Commission. http://www.all.org/abac/clontx06.htm
3. Dangers of Genetic Manipulation. Address by Pope John Paul II to members of
the World Medical Association. October 29, 1983. http://listserv.american.edu/catholic/church/papal/jp.ii/genmanip.asc
4. Sophie Boukhai. Religion, genetics and the embryo. UNESCO Courier, Sept 1999.
5. Armstrong, Bruce G. Scientific, Ethical and Biblical Considerations of Genetic
Engineering. Central Highlands Christian Publications. 1999.
6. Epstein, Ron. Ethical and Spiritual Issues in Genetic Engineering. Ahimsa Voices:
a Quarterly Journal for the Promotion of Universal Values. 5. Oct. 1998.
7. Church blocks GM trial. BBC News Online: UK. August 4, 1999.
8. Genetically Modified Organisms.http://www.cofe.anglican.org/view/gmos.rtf