Office of Theology and Worship holds conference on the meaning of being human PDF Print E-mail

A Report on the Recent PC(USA) Conference on Genetics and Christian Faith

by the Rev. Randall Otto

Rapid advances in genetics herald the dawn of a new era of research in the enhancement of positive traits in humans, animals, and plants, as well as the treatment and potential eradication of disease. The historic announcement in June, 2000 by the Human Genome Project public consortium that it had assembled most of the 3 billion letter sequence of the human genome, the genetic blueprint for a human being, has been hailed as the starting point for a new era of genetic medicine. The isolation of human stem cells in November, 1998 has given rise to the hope that these undifferentiated embryo cells could be chemically programmed to produce healthy tissue for treatment of degenerative diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. Finally, the cloning of Dolly the sheep in Scotland in 1997 has necessitated consideration of the extent and prudence of further cloning, particularly of human beings. In an effort to explain and explore the significance of this dizzying array of scientific advances proffering pervasive improvement of the human condition, the Office of Theology and Worship offered the "What Does It Mean to be Human?" conference on the campus of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, November 9-11, attended by pastors and theologians, physicians and other health care providers, and pharmaceutical and genetics researchers.

The conference began with a presentation by Dr. Kenneth Culver, Executive Director of Pharmocogenetics for Novartis Pharmaceuticals, on the potential benefits to be derived from genetic advances. The Human Genome Project will mean that accurate diagnostics can be developed, mechanisms of disease identified, and genetic susceptibilities identified for all disorders, resulting in the development of new molecular therapies and preventive methods. These methods include

    1. pharmacogenetics, the development of bioengineered pharmaceutical products;
    2. gene therapy and repair, techniques used to treat inherited diseases by replacing, manipulating, or supplementing nonfunctional genes with healthy genes;
    3. somatic cell nuclear transfer and cloning, as was done with Dolly when a cell from a sheep’s udder was fused with a denucleated egg cell to make an embryo with the same genetic make-up.

At present, particularly in the United States with celebrities such as Christopher Reeve and Michael J. Fox urging this research, the focus is on how pluripotent stem cells might be reprogrammed to make replacement cells to treat degenerative conditions. While the prospect of ameliorating these conditions is tantalizing, the status of the embryo, from which most stem cells presently derive, is a serious ethical issue acknowledged but unaddressed by Dr. Culver.

The Significance of the Human Embryo
Dr. Rebecca Pentz, a clinical ethicist at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, did well to point out the importance of this issue. Stem cells may exist throughout the human body and stem cells from blood are regularly used in the treatment of leukemia. However, the greatest potential for treatment of degenerative diseases lies with human embryos derived from reproductive clinics or abortions. There are roughly 150,000 frozen embryos available from in vitro fertilization treatments which may either be donated to other couples seeking a child, donated to research, or destroyed. Dr. Pentz urged that human embryos either be used by the fertilizing couple or adopted to others; they should not be used for stem cell manipulation.

A different approach has been taken by the Church of Scotland, represented by Dr. Donald Bruce of its Society, Religion and Technology Project (SRTP). In its paper "Therapeutic Uses of Cloning and Embryonic Stem Cells" (pp. 3-4), the Project draws attention to the spectrum of belief concerning the status of the human embryo. On the one hand, some view the early embryo as "a ball of cells and nothing more. Because it is undeveloped and would not survive out of the womb," this view sees research on human embryos as permissible, with embryos also serving "routinely as a source of stem cells." The other end of the spectrum is the view that the embryo has the status of humanity from the moment of conception. This view allows "no research or use that was not for the benefit of that particular embryo" and "rejects any technology that involves created dispensable embryos, including the provision of replacement cells." Once God has created life, even in embryo, humans may not destroy it. "This is a matter of principle, regardless of application. Those holding this position would advocate only the use of stem cells or replacement which were derived from adult tissue. Any use which involved embryos would be ethically impermissible."

The Church of Scotland General Assembly, after considering a range of embryological issues in 1995, adopted what it believes is a mediating position. Dr. Bruce described this as "emergent human status" which allows some research for fertility up to fourteen days, the time when the embryo has become implanted in the woman’s uterus. In its paper, the SRTP says the Church of Scotland "affirmed the sanctity of the human embryo from conception but granted that there were limited circumstances under which such research might reluctantly be allowed prior to the ‘primitive streak’ stage, bearing in mind the seriousness of certain medical conditions. These were primarily seen as infertility and genetically transmitted diseases." The SRTP then asks, "Does the proposed embryonic stem cell research and cell replacement therapy fall within existing ethical categories or does it represent an ethical step change in the use of the embryo?" It answers in the latter, saying "a measure of instrumentality towards the embryo has been accepted." Although current legislation in the United Kingdom upholds the "special status" of the embryo, "it is hard to see how the embryo would retain any ‘special status’ if it is now merely a convenient resource for replacement cells. The new proposals would seem to go a significant step further in treating the early embryo only as a means to an end." Thus, the SRTP concludes that the Church of Scotland’s "mediating position" is based not on the "special status" of the embryo, but rather on the pragmatic potential of the embryo: "we conclude that what is envisaged would be a profound ethical change in what is considered right about the embryo," since the embryo is viewed "just as a means to an end."

What is a Human Being?
Dr. V. Elving Anderson, Professor Emeritus of the Institute of Human Genetics at the University of Minnesota, emphasized that genotype (genetic makeup) does not equal phenotype (observable characteristics). There are numerous factors that converge in human behavior. Genetics can only study variability. Genes never act alone; their action is often indirect as they are turned on and off in different parts of the body during different times in development. Because genes interact with the environment through life, humanity cannot be reduced to genetics, though genetics by its very nature, Dr. Anderson conceded, is reductionistic. Genes are necessary, but not sufficient, to explain development, behavior, and human being.

Dr. Ronald Cole-Turner, Sharp Professor of Theology and Ethics at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, seemed, on the other hand, to come perilously close to reducing humanity to genetics when he pithily stated, "no genes, no soul." The soul, as he sees it, is a set of capacities which is dependent on biology. The existence of the soul is determined by biology.

While Dr. Cole-Turner accented the psychosomatic unity of humanity in opposition to dualism, which sees the soul as independent of the body, his version of this unity appears to approach a materialistic reductionism wherein the soul cannot exist apart from the body. This contradicts the apostolic testimony that departure at death is to "be with Christ" (Phil. 1:23), that "to be away from the body" is to be "at home with the Lord" (2 Cor. 5:8).

Dr. Cole-Turner’s view of the Fall also evinces this materialistic reductionism. Asserting the need for a "new version of original sin," he suggested that humans have inherited a set of genes of limited moral and spiritual integrity unable to effect a holy life. The Fall is thus for him a commentary on the human genome, not an event in the Garden. While this depression of the spiritual into the physical as genetic might help to alleviate the theological problem of the transmission of sin, it founders on the objections posed against materialism since David Hume. Succinctly put, being human presumes more than the physicochemical and biological causation inherent in materialism. Being human includes consciousness, will, desire, imagination, perception and emotions that are not reducible to material explanations.

Being human entails being-in-relation, both to others in community and to God. Relationality is certainly a prominent theme in the modern discussion of the image of God and the trinitarian nature of God. Yet, as I have attempted to show elsewhere on these respective issues ("The Imago Dei as Familitas," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 35 [1992]:503-13 and "The Use and Abuse of Perichoresis in Recent Theology, Scottish Journal of Theology, forthcoming), relationality is vacuous for either apart from a substantial ontological basis which demonstrates what is related to what and how. Human beings, like the three persons of the Trinity, are not merely relations, but persons who, by having an actual essence, exist in relation. In the case of human beings, they share a generic nature derived from their father Adam; in the case of the trinitarian persons, they share a simple nature eternally derived from the Father, who as unbegotten is the fons Trinitatis (fountainhead of the Trinity).

Concerns for Human Being in the New Genetics
The recent advances in genetics are a two-edged sword, capable of piercing through many of the susceptibilities and mechanisms of disease that currently afflict humans, yet also capable of reducing human social community and heightening sinful selfishness. Dr. Sondra Wheeler, Carr Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary, questioned how the new genetics will affect how we think of ourselves and others. Will we welcome the children who are born to us or will we become selective not only in traits we desire but also in the acceptability of children who possess those traits? Will we demote ourselves from being pro-creators to being manufacturers who produce human beings according to market demand or personal satisfaction? Gene therapy, she noted, is a worthy goal, as long as it is kept in mind that we are not creators; we do not determine, but rather discover and foster, human being. Genetic intervention may be very helpful, but what if we fail? Will we who have attuned ourselves to the desirability and even acceptability of certain traits be able to exercise care and compassion toward those who do not display such traits? Will we be able to love the child who does not measure up?

Dr. Brent Waters, Executive Director of the Center for Business, Religion and Public Life at Pittsburgh Seminary, concluded along similar lines, warning that we risk reducing life as a gift from God to the body to a commodity at the disposal of our autonomous will with the only constraints being those that are self-imposed. The consumer mentality prevalent today replaces procreation with reproductive projects based on the right to buy and sell gametes and rent wombs, all having the effect of enhancing personal independence. Yet, as Dr. Waters pointed out, human beings are not just malleable bodies surrounding autonomous wills, but rather social beings meant to live in community. The church, as the body of Christ, demonstrates that community and interdependence of the parts which share a fundamental equality. The church must continue to promote healing in a holistic sense, yet must also help the medical and technological world fixed on alleviating all suffering as unnecessary see that some suffering, i.e., certain genetic traits, may serve higher ends in increasing our sense of compassion and care for others and our dependence upon God’s grace and love. This biblical sense of the "giftedness of life" was powerfully portrayed in medieval Europe, where the Down’s Syndrome child was called "God’s holy idiot," not mockingly but sincerely, because his capacity to love and accept others without reservation was viewed as a special gift of God. This capacity to love, accept, and care must be fostered in the church according to the gospel as the essence of what it means to be human, to be made in the image of God and restored to that image in Christ Jesus our Lord.

These primary presentations and the supplementary breakout and roundtable discussions by other theologians, ethicists, and researchers in genetics provided helpful information and provocative insights into the challenges posed to society by the new genetics. As Dr. Anderson said, genetics is reductionistic by nature, "it takes away the context." It is up to pastors, he said, to "restore the context." Perhaps now more than ever, then, the church must understand and uphold what it means to be human.

Randall Otto is pastor of Deerfield Presbyterian Church in Deerfield, NJ. He teaches for the Eastern School of Christian Ministries, Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and formerly served as Research Director for UCC Friends for Life.



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