A last stroll through the tortuous ethical jungle that is IVF, genetic engineering and cloning…
Is there anything morally wrong with parents choosing the eye and hair colour of their children, or the inherent abilities they will have? Do we have the right to “play God” in this way? Or were we meant to just accept whatever God gave us?
Throughout history, the whole human race has had to accept certain things in life as being beyond their control. That list used to include things like most diseases, accidental injuries, occasional starvation, the tyranny of distance and so on. But technological and medical advances have given us control over these aspects of our lives, and today we take that for granted.
For example, no one who gets pneumonia today just goes to bed and surrenders the outcome to God’s will (OK, some lunatic fringe cultists do). Instead, they will seek medical treatment, probably consisting of powerful antibiotics, intravenous rehydration and physiotherapy to clear out the gunk from the lungs. In some sense, to apply this treatment is to take the matter out of God’s hands and into our own. Sure, the final outcome is still not certain, and if God chooses for that person to die, they will indeed die no matter how good the treatment they receive. People still die from pneumonia in first world countries today, and people survived it without all the treatment hundreds of years ago. But the fact remains that the human medical treatment has dramatically changed the outcome for patients with pneumonia: whereas you might have had a 70% chance of dying from pneumonia five hundred years ago, you only have a 1% chance of dying of it today.
The medical treatment of pneumonia is an example of how we have taken control of many aspects of our lives today. A logical extension of this trend is for us to take control of life in the womb as we have taken control of life after birth, and perhaps even take control of life before conception itself. Rather than waiting for the person to fall ill with pneumonia and then strive to heal them, why not fiddle their genes before they’re born so that they are no longer susceptible to catching pneumonia in the first place?
I find that to be a fairly convincing argument. But genetically engineering resistance to pneumonia is different to choosing eye colour or hair colour or ability to play the piano. Pneumonia is an illness and everyone would agree that we are committed to fighting illness in all its forms with all the means that God puts at our disposal. In Christianity, we see illness as a result of the Fall and the corruption of our lives and our nature. To fight it is to strive to return to that perfect state from which we fell.
Yet even in Paradise, neither Adam nor Eve got to choose what they looked like or what they were “born” good at (I know they weren’t born; you know what I mean). Until now, this has always been the prerogative of God, and everyone had to just accept what they were given and do their best with it. Is there anything stopping us from changing this state of affairs and taking control of our children’s genes?
I can think of a few arguments against it. Firstly, it is a huge responsibility. Imagine a man who always wanted to be a world champion boxer but never succeeded. He agrees with his wife to have their child born a boy and genetically engineered to be tall, wide and all muscle. However, their little boy grows up desperately wanting to be a concert pianist! Think of the resulting chaos. The parents will resent their child for letting all that money they invested in his genes going to waste. The child will resent his parents for giving him short stocky fingers that are useless for playing the piano, thus destroying his fondest dream. If this state of affairs had come about naturally; if the child had just naturally been born that way, he might have still felt resentment, but not at his parents – it wasn’t their fault. But now, it is. What parents would want to take so great a responsibility on their shoulders?
Secondly, there is the fact of the very real limitation on human knowledge (not to mention wisdom!). Once you start playing with one thing, all sorts of other things might happen that you didn’t expect. Although we are capable of some fiddling with the genes of our children today, we are very, very far from understanding how the whole thing really works; the kind of understanding, I mean, that would allow us to fiddle and know exactly what’s going to happen. For us at the moment, genetics is more like the weather than it is like a mathematical problem. Our predictions have limited accuracy and often go wrong, and the more complicated it gets, the more often we are wrong. If this were nothing more than an experiment with lab mice, it might be acceptable, but we are dealing with human lives here. If the only way to learn to get it right is by making a lot of mistakes along the way, I think that is just too high a price to pay. Otherwise, what makes us any different to the deplorable human guinea pig eugenics experiments of the Nazis in World War 2?
I will leave you with a few more hypothetical questions you might enjoy pondering and perhaps discussing with your friends.
Is it acceptable to use the technology to improve the overall characteristics of the human race; encourage only good looking and intelligent babies to be born, for example?
Is there anything wrong with breeding “specialised” humans: astronauts without legs, or pearl divers with waterproof skin and huge lungs, for example?
Is there anything wrong with genetically engineering completely new and original organs in humans: wings or gills for example?
As you can see, we have barely begun to scratch the surface of this topic. So many questions…
So few concrete answers…