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6. The Person in Light of Human Genetics

The emerging results of the Human Genome Project deepen and complexify many of the key anthropological issues already discussed in light of evolutionary biology and sociobiology. Moreover, although I have not included ethical issues in this essay, they are unavoidably intertwined with theological concerns in the fields of genetics and genetic engineering. Presumably, for example, one can discuss such ideas as God’s ongoing creative action through the evolutionary process (against atheistic views of evolution, for example), the identity of the human species and the goodness of human genetic diversity (against racism, sexism, and so on), and the goal of curing medical disease. Genetics, however, brings these three into poignant interaction, since they all crucially involve the human genome, its relation to the genomes of other species, and the possibility of genetic alteration.

Science minisummary The purpose of the current $3 billion Human Genome Project (HGP) is to map and sequence the human genome. When complete, we should know the position of the roughly 35,000 genes in human DNA and the sequence of the base pairs, A, T, G, and C that compose each gene. The purpose is both pure science and medical ethics: by identifying the genetic basis for the 3000-4000 human genetic diseases, eventual cures may be possible (and certainly otherwise impossible). But HGP raises tremendous ethical, legal and social issues. From its inception a small but significant portion of research funds (3-5%) were set aside for interdisciplinary research on these issues.

There has been increasingly careful theological and ethical reflection on both HGP per se and the much broader scientific and technological context in which it is located. We now have instructive summaries of the ecumenical conversations of the World council of churches and the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U. S. A. by Roger Shinn,Roger L. Shinn, "Genetics, Ethics, and Theology: The Ecumenical Discussion," in Genetics: Issues of Social Justice, ed. Ted Peters (Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 1998), 1-48.of Roman Catholic reflections by Thomas A. Shannon,Thomas A. Shannon, "Genetics, Ethics, and Theology: The Roman Catholic Discussion," in Genetics: Issues of Social Justice, ed. Ted Peters (Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 1998), 1-48.and of Jewish reflections by Laurie Zoloth-DorfmanLaurie Zoloth-Dorfman, "Mapping the Normal Human Self: The Jew and the Mark of Otherness," in Genetics: Issues of Social Justice, ed. Ted Peters (Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 1998), 180-204....Karen Lebacqz has written on justice issues related to the Genome Project.Karen Lebacqz, "Fair Shares: Is the Genome Project Just?" in Genetics: Issues of Social Justice, ed. Ted Peters (Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 1998), 1-48; see also Karen Lebacqz, "Fair...In a wide-ranging survey, Ted Peters brings these conversations together under eight major issues which entail, in turn, deeper theological assumptions about God, evolution, and the human person.Ted Peters, "Genes, Theology, and Social Ethics: Are We Playing God?" in Genetics: Issues of Social Justice, ed. Ted Peters (Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 1998), 1-48.These issues include: genetic discrimination; an intensification of the abortion controversy; patenting and cloning God’s creation; genetic determinism and human freedom (and what Peters calls the “gene myth”); the ‘gay gene’; somatic vs. germ-line intervention; and ‘playing God’.

Peters takes a bold considered position on each issue after careful reflection and extensive involvement with participants on both sides. For example, on the issue of genetic discrimination, Peters believes that the ethicists’ appeal to the ‘privacy defense’ will be hard to implement in practice, and argues instead for “information without discrimination”. He modulates a concern for patent issues with our need to encourage the development of genetically based therapies. Peters believes that cloning raises ethical, but not specifically theological, issues since nature is created, not sacred. Moreover, cloning, even of humans, is not in principle unethical, finding it somewhat analogous to the situation of identical twins. God’s love is impartial to our genetic makeup, and what makes each of us unique transcends our genes and involves all of life’s experiences and relationships. The real problem is with unforeseen consequences. Genetic determinism actually takes two, contradictory, forms: “puppet determinism”, in which genes determine all our behavior, and “Promethean determinism”, in which we can guide our evolutionary future armed with genetic knowledge. According to Peters, both belong to the ‘gene myth’ and are misleading, and, ominously, they link such issues as genes, crime, class, and race. Regarding the ‘gay gene’, Peters’ point is that even if there is something like it, science alone does not determine its ethical interpretation. Somatic therapy may be morally desirable for curing disease but not for enhancing the quality of life for healthy individuals. Germ-line therapy is highly problemmatic because we do not know the potential long-term consequences, and because it raises the specter of eugenics. As for ‘playing God’, Peters argues theologically against viewing the DNA, or any part of creation, as sacred, as Jeremy Rifkin and others suggest, drawing on both creatio ex nihilo and creatio continua Instead, given his insistence of Trinitarian prolepsis, Peters claims that God gives the world a future and continually creates new things. With Philip Hefner, he views the imago dei as the “created co-creator”. Thus the human is inherently maker; we cannot not be creative. The ethical issue concerns the particular future to which we direct our energies.See also Ted Peters, Playing God?: Genetic Determinism and Human Freedom (New York: Routledge, 1997); Ted Peters, "Playing God with Our Evolutionary Future," in Evolutionary and Molecular Biology:...

Contributed by: Dr. Robert Russell

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