[Note: Revised and expanded 6/15/2015.]
Bioethics is an expanding field with direct implications for our lives. Here, we’ll reflect on the possibility and implications of gene therapy and enhancement. While I was at the Evangelical Philosophical/Theological Society Conference in 2012, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a talk about this very topic, and that will be the focus of this post. Unfortunately, the speaker had been switched around and was not listed in the booklet that I have. Furthermore, I never caught the speaker’s actual name (I tried to write it down when he was introduced, and got Gary Alkins, though I have tried searching online for that and haven’t come up with it), so if someone knows what it is, please let me know. I’ll reference the speaker as “speaker” throughout this post.
The central relevant moral question under discussion was: “Should genetic technology be used to not only heal but also to enhance the human condition?”
A Vital Distinction
An important aspect of this discussion is the distinction between gene enhancement and therapy. Gene therapy is the use of genetic research and information to cure illness. Speaking very hypothetically, suppose that we were able to discover the exact genetic code for illnesses like sickle cell anemia, isolate it, and replace it with a non-anemic code before a person was even born; that would be gene therapy. Genetic enhancement takes this a step further. It allows for modifying people genetically to enhance certain features such as physical strength, endurance, mental aptitude, and the like. It would, in a sense, create “super humans.”
Using our knowledge of genetics for therapy, the speaker argued, is perfectly justified. We are called by Christ’s example to treat illnesses, and gene therapy can be seen as an extension of this. There was little time spent defending the moral permissiveness of gene therapy, as the primary question was whether genetic enhancement is morally permissible.
There are several arguments for genetic enhancement. These include:
1) The “natural lottery” argument: if we have the capacity to genetically enhance humans but do not, that means we are, effectively, just playing a genetic lottery to see if our children turn out well. Parents have a moral duty to act against the natural lottery.
2) We encourage environmental enhancement (i.e. seeking better education, putting children in brain-stimulating environments, encouraging sports for their physical well-being, etc.), why is genetic enhancement any different?
3) We already manipulate chemicals (caffeine, vitamins, etc.) for our well-being, why not genetics? In the end, what matters is human well being.
4) Genetic enhancement is simply the next logical step for humanity. If we agree that therapy is good because it stops genetic defects, should we not also hold that enhancement is good because it pushes people to fill their greatest potential.
Against these arguments, the speaker argued [updated section 6/15/15 with some counter-responses]:
A) Genetic enhancement could never match the ideal outlined in these arguments, wherein every human being is enhanced on a number of levels. Instead, it would very likely increase the split between the haves and have-nots by allowing those who have much to increase their dominance over society. The haves could afford to continue enhancing and remain a kind of super-human society while the have-nots would never be able to catch up.
However, a possible counter-argument to this reasoning would be to note that there will always be people who are advantaged and people who are disadvantaged. It’s unclear as to how this should serve to undermine the moral base for genetic enhancement.
B) There is a great good in letting humans accomplish things which stretch their skill set. Think about the steroids controversy in sports. We intuitively know that those who used performance enhancing drugs had an unfair advantage over those who did not. Similarly, those who would be genetically enhanced would have an unfair advantage over those who were not enhanced in almost any conceivable area of human achievement.
It is unclear, though, whether genetic enhancement would undermine the good of accomplishment and human achievement. Indeed, one could argue that genetic enhancement, in fact, bolsters human achievement by widening the scope of possibility for humans. From a pragmatic perspective, though, it sure would make it hard to keep on top of sports records and the like! We’d have to build bigger baseball parks to make home runs harder to hit! But seriously, the argument from human achievement does not seem sound to me.
C) What of bodily autonomy? Who’s to say that it is a good for parents to meddle with their children’s genes. What if a child does not want to be extremely strong, or what of their parents choose to give them giftedness in music, but they simply don’t like to do music? What if the children hate what their parents chose for them: hair color, eye color, etc.? Unlike the “natural lottery,” such attributes related to enhancement actually do have blame to assign to someone. Is there no bodily autonomy involved?
However, as Elijah argues, parents violate “autonomy” of their children all the time. This means there is some difficulty with determining how genetic enhancement would be a qualitative, rather than quantitative difference for this violation of autonomy. The opponent of genetic enhancement must establish that there is an objective difference between enhancement and other forms of violating autonomy, and must also show this difference is enough to ground a rejection of enhancement.
Enhancement and Theology
There are numerous theological issues involved in the debate over genetic enhancement. First, what might it mean for the image of God? Humans were created as “very good” and in the “image of God.” What does it mean to be in that “image of God” and does enhancement change that in any way?
For Christians, the ultimate fulfillment of God’s plan comes in the New Creation. The notion that humanity needs a genetic upgrade reflects the worldview of naturalism. Christians do not hope in their own ingenuity but rather in God’s plan for creation. That does not mean we cannot get actively involved in healing, but it does mean that we do not need to violate persons’ humanity by enhancement. One might argue that the assumption involved in enhancement is that our bodies are not good enough and that we need to improve them. However, such an assumption is not the only possible basis for enhancement. One could argue, instead, that enhancement is based on the notion that we are to keep fighting against the impact of sin in the world and one way to do this is to become stronger, smarter, and the like through the tools God has given us through scientific research.
Although we are fallen creatures, that does not imply that we are creatures capable of getting out of our own fallenness. No enhancement we can do can bring us ultimate salvation.
It seems to me that the arguments against enhancement may seem initially sound, but each one has its own problems.
It seems that if parents select for certain attributes, then parents can be held morally culpable for the genes their children develop. Thus, if the child dislikes an attribute, they could feasibly hold their parents responsible for that selected attribute. Interestingly, this may work both ways too: a child could hold their parents responsible for not changing an attribute. Yet this latter argument seems to make a mockery of parenthood, holding parents responsible for nature. I’m not sure, though, that this culpability is enough of an argument against genetic enhancement.
In the theological sphere, one may wonder whether someone could just as easily argue that because we were created initially “very good,” a pursuit of bodily perfection could be viewed as a fight against the Fall and the curse. I tried to ask this as a question, but there wasn’t time at the end to get to all the questions. The speaker did an excellent job noting possible counter-arguments to their points, and I thought gave a very fair presentation overall. It seems that the best argument against genetic enhancement may be the bodily autonomy argument, but this one has its own significant problems.
I’d like to know what your thoughts are on this topic: Do you think enhancement is moral? Why or why not?
I have written on a number of other talks I went to at the ETS/EPS Conference. I discuss every single session I attended in my post on the ETS/EPS Conference 2012. I also discuss a panel discussion on Caring for Creation, and a debate between a young earth and old earth proponent.
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Definitely a complicated issue, especially in cases where it might be difficult to distinguish between therapy and enhancement.
Hypothetical example (and not a great one, admittedly):
Let’s imagine there was a gene therapy protocol that could be used to raise a child’s IQ to 140. This might be considered “gene therapy” if it’s given to a mentally retarded child (IQ = 50), but at what point does it become “gene enchancement”? What if it’s given to a child with an IQ of 80…or 90…or 120?
Basically, I can imagine it becoming incredibly difficult to define where “gene therapy” ends and “gene enhancement” begins, particularly if a gene therapy is developed that results in *above normal* physical attributes.
Right… and then you could make the argument that everyone is “above normal” in some categories, so is it really enhancement to choose which categories will be above normal? The issue is so complex it is mind-boggling.
I think the main problem with genetic engineering is the danger that we might do more harm than good. It’s extremely complicated, and with our current technology it’s very hard to tell what the side effects of any enhancement might be. For example, if you completely cure sickle cell anemia, that leaves the person vulnerable to malaria.
Certainly we don’t need to do genetic enhancement. On the other hand, it’s an interesting field for scientific research. I hope religion doesn’t stop people from doing this research and learning all about God’s magnificent creation.
You don’t have to associate genetic enhancement with the Fall. Genes are merely physical, but the Fall was mainly a spiritual thing. Maybe there’s no connection between them.
By the way, I don’t see any great difference between therapy and enhancement. The actual work of gene manipulation is the same, isn’t it?