Will man acknowledge who he is before he is able to alter what he should become?

Carrying with it both risk and benefit, the genetic age is upon us, and one thing is sure—“the future ain’t what it used to be!”

Arthur Kornberg, professor of biochemistry at Stanford University, says of recent advances, “We are on the verge of a revolution in the chemical basis of medicine that is as profound as the revolutionary developments in physics and chemistry early in this century that gave us quantum mechanics and a new understanding of the atom and its arrangements.

“We have already learned how to take apart and rearrange DNA—deoxyribonucleic acid—in which the chemistry of heredity is spelled out. As a result it’s now very simple to create new genetic arrangements, to make new chromosomes and new species.

“In many respcts, these discoveries will change the basis of modern medicine, much as antibiotics did several decades ago.” Perhaps, for instance, within the next two decades a chemical analysis of the brain will provide the first clear explanation of the broad scope of human emotions—a launching pad to the core of consciousness and thought, and their relation to brain structure and function.

We have reached an intersection in human destiny that rattles our complacency and asks, “Where are we going and do we really want to get there?”

Robert Sinsheimer of the University of California, Santa Cruz, notes that today is a time of “intense self-doubt, corroding confidence, and a crippling resolve; a time of troubled present and ominous future.… Hence, it is not surprising that so great a triumph as man’s discovery of the molecular basis of inheritance should provoke fear instead of joy, breed suspicion instead of zest, and spawn the troubled anguish of indecision instead of the proud relief of understanding.”

Science bristles at any interference with its right to freedom of inquiry. It is a camp divided; some say, “It’s our job to do the research, and society’s job to cope with what we do.” But others admit the wake of hazard left by the course of nuclear fission, and, like Alvin Toffler, caution, “If we do not learn from history, we shall be compelled to relive it. True. But if we do not change the future we shall be compelled to endure it. And that could be worse.”

We are developing ways to manipulate the genetic programming of the very structure of life. These methods hold promise for what geneticists call “an escape from the tyranny of inheritance.” This is good news for eliminating genetically based diseases. But, we ask, At what price? A society parented in a laboratory, controlled by scientists, robbed of humanity?

In our society, we develop our ethics by gathering information, discussing it publicly, deciding and acting individually, and, in time, by arriving at a consensus of what appears to be good for mankind. Our personal and social ethical codes are authorized by common consent, then implemented through legislation.

As push comes to shove, self-interest groups are jockeying for position to influence the age. It is imperative that we examine the issues and respond from a biblical understanding of the sanctity of God’s gift of life.

Creating To Specification

The issue of manipulating reproduction triggered public concern with the birth in 1978 in Oldham, England, of Louise Brown, the first baby conceived in vitro (in a test tube). Since that time, Dr. Mukherjec of Calcutta, India, has safely delivered a child fertilized from a frozen embryo, a technique that ushers in the potential of selective breeding from life placed “on hold.” Commercial exploitation of what is now being called the ultimate consumer trip has already been established through corporations such as IDANT in New York. It pays $20 for each “acceptable” ejaculate from some 60 carefully selected regular depositors to its sperm bank. The frozen sperm units are then sold for $35 to subscribing doctors.

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Gemetrics in Chicago offers gender selection through technologies capable of separating X chromosome- and Y chromosome-carrying sperm (male sperm swim faster, making separation easier) and has successfully engineered 10 full-term births, 7 boys and 3 girls.

The surrogate mother (advertised as womb for rent), receives a fee of between $10,000 and $20,000 per term. Dr. Richard Levine, a Louisville, Kentucky, physician, has 25 women under contract as surrogates. Five pregnancies are under way and he anticipates 100 or more babies delivered through his service by the end of 1981. The program hit a snag in January, however, when Attorney General Steven L. Beshear filed for a declaratory judgment on the ground that this violates the Kentucky adoption statutes. In Doe v. Kelley, the Michigan lower court has said surrogate mothering is illegal because a mother may not be paid money for giving up her right to her own natural child. Children may not be sold in Michigan.

Contracts covering parents and surrogate mothers have brought a new dimension into biolaw. Most states prohibit an exchange of money as payment for adopting children. Lawyers and jurists are now considering whether surrogate services violate statutes prohibiting prostitution. Possible arguments charging discrimination may be sounded if a man is permitted to sell his sperm, but a woman is not permitted to rent her womb!

The good news that parents desperate for a child of their own may get one by reproductive manipulation, must be balanced against the potential bad news.

Applications are now being sent to single men and women for these reproductive consumer services—launching yet another assault on the already shaky traditional family. Will in vitro fertilization, embryo transfer, and surrogate wombs for rent be available to single people? Will they be extended to the homosexual? Will laboratory-controlled bioparenting produce a quasi-orphaned society?

Science will reach the ultimate in reproductive manipulation when in vitro fertilization extends to incubation in an artificial womb for full-term laboratory delivery. Scientists have anticipated this technology for the very near future and have already achieved it in part by sustaining premature babies with increasing success—at Children’s Hospital, San Diego, one has been delivered 23 weeks from conception, weighing only one pound one ounce.

There is enormous appeal in the right of every child to be born free of genetic defects, and bioengineered to be the most productive human possible. But what are we to do with the substandard embryo, and who is qualified to decide the acceptable standards? Screening through amniocentesis, ultrasound scanning, and fetos-copy provides options that further complicate the already explosive issue of abortion.

Controversial theologian Joseph Fletcher even claims, “To deliberately and knowingly bring a diseased or defective child into the world injures society, very probably injures the family, and certainly injures the individual who is born in that condition.”

In 1979, a New Jersey court ruled that even though impaired (in this case, with Down’s Syndrome), life was more valuable than no life at all. It observed that the ability to “love and be loved and to experience happiness and pleasure—emotions which are truly the essence of life,” was more important than the suffering endured.

But on the opposite side, in a June 1980 decision involving Tay-Sachs disease, Judge Bernard Jefferson of the California Court of Appeals affirmed the “unbirthright” of a child when he ruled that not only parents, but possibly even a physician and laboratory, could be sued for negligently not having aborted the fetus.

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Dr. Jokichi Takamine, president of the Alcoholism Council of Southern California, says research shows that genetics plays a classic role in predisposition toward alcoholism (10 to 20 percent on the mother’s side; 25 to 55 percent on the father’s side). Since alcoholism is a major sociological problem, this poses the serious question of whether genetic abortion will be called for on such frivolous grounds as predisposition toward alcoholism. Abortion for reasons of depression or gender might be next.

Does the fetus have the right, independent of society or even of its own parents, to be born? Such a question will generate strands in a tangled web that will keep courtrooms tied up in legal debate over many years.

Statistics on longevity show that the number of people living to reach 100 years or over has increased 43 percent in the last five years.

Biomedicine has given us artificial corneas and lenses, artificial intestines, and synthetic joints and limbs. At the University of Southern California, research continues toward developing an artificial pancreas—a device that will monitor the level of blood sugar in the body and, when necessary, automatically dispense corrective doses of insulin.

A nuclear-powered heart that will run continuously and automatically far longer than the average human lifespan is being tested in animals. Scientists at the University of Utah have produced an artificial kidney, to be carried in a backpack. Miniaturization will make it possible to implant surgically an electrodialysis unit. Synthetic blood is being studied, not to substitute completely for blood, but to augment massive transfusions in open-heart surgery and total blood recirculation.

Biochemists at George Washington University think that one day we will be able to regenerate arms and legs; they are encouraged in this by the chemical combination present in children (but lacking in adults) that permits spontaneous regrowth of fingertips. Studies in Philadelphia bring the possibility of regrowing damaged organs through cloning. One scientist at the Wistar Institute introduced hydrocortisone into the culture of “old” human cells, giving them the thrust to continue “reproducing.” Scientists may refine and expand this technology to induce the regeneration of organs.

Studies at Cal Tech and laboratories around the country are pushing hard toward a method of shutting off the body’s aging process. Once the genetic time clock is found, researchers can regulate it.

With the millions of possibilities from recombinant DNA and genetic surgery, scientists anticipate the eventual control of genetically based diseases. This alone might extend life to a length reminiscent of the patriarchs! Some futurists are even convinced that we are approaching what they call an “Impending Society of Immortals.”

Behavior Modification

Neurobiologists are discovering that memory, concentration, fear, aggression, joy, love, peace, and a long list of other human functions and emotions are directly linked to chemical and electrical transmitters in the brain. A few whiffs of vasopressin can stimulate memory in cases of amnesia and senility. Lithium is aiding the successful treatment of mental disorders. At Stanford, researchers have found that naloxone, a chemical known to block the action of endorphins in the brain, has brought relief to severely impaired schizophrenics who have auditory hallucinations.

Others, in test runs, are successfully stimulating the brain electronically to ease chronic pain, give back the use of paralyzed limbs, and, in some cases, to modify behavior.

All this is good news, but we may be given pause on learning that over one million school children in the United States are now on some type of drug that modifies behavior for the purpose of improving their function, both in and out of the classroom. Ritalin and Dexedrine arc those drugs most commonly used.

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Research at the Tulane University School of Medicine shows that students injected with ACTH (adrenocorticotrophic hormone) and MSH (melanocyte-stimulating hormone) were better able to spend longer and more effective periods in concentrating on their studies and also to remember geometrical figures that were flashed before them.

Since calculators, computers, videotapes, and an increasing number of “external” aids are an acceptable part of the educational process, proponents of gene therapy ask why we should not program “internal” biochemical and biogenetic change for future generations. To a school system plagued with violence and deteriorating academic achievement, control through behavior modification and gene therapy is tempting. The great leap forward in scientific discovery has awakened public response. That we may eliminate the problems of retarded children and schizophrenics, empty our mental hospitals through genetic and chemical processes, and wipe out sickle cell anemia, Tay-Sachs, Gauche’s, and other genetic diseases to free our children from “the chromosomal lottery,” is all good news. But again, we ask ourselves, At what price?


How does scientific freedom intersect with social responsibility? A decade ago, international experts gathered together at a symposium in New York to consider “Ethical Issues in Human Genetics.”

At that time, Robert Sinsheimer of Cal Tech (he is now chancellor of the University of California, Santa Cruz) was a powerful voice of caution with his penetrating statements. “For what purpose,” he asked, “should we alter our genes? To whom should we give this power? To those who have already perverted physics into atomic weapons, chemistry into poison gas, or electronics into guided missiles? If we make men gods, are they to be gods of war?”

He further declared, “One of the greatest threats to the rational development of genetic modification will appear if it should become captive to irrational nationalist purposes. For this reason I think it is imperative that we begin now to establish international cooperation in, and regulation of, this entire enterprise.”

In June 1980, by a slim 5-to-4 margin, the U.S. Supreme Court applied the patent law written by Thomas Jefferson in 1793 to new forms of life created in the laboratory—living organisms. (The generally accepted definition of “living” is that a substance be capable of reproducing, a process such as occurs in cell division.)

The Supreme Court deliberately chose not to address what one might regard as the deeper issues, either of philosophy, or ethics, or biological hazard. In their opinion, that was not their job (but rather, the responsibility of Congress). Their job was simply to decide whether or not, under the terms of the patent laws of 1793 and subsequent modifications, living organisms were or were not included. They decided by a margin of one vote that they were included and could be patented.

In an interview with Dr. Sinsheimer, I asked, “Is this going to head us into a commercial exploitation of certain genetic consumer items?” He replied, “Sure—no question about it!” Such commercial development of biotechnology could well limit free exchange of information at the level of laboratory research.

On the critical subject of risk, or “biohazard,” Sinsheimer warned of advertently or inadvertently creating something we do not want: “Dangerous organisms already exist, but that doesn’t mean one couldn’t add new ones, or one that had particularly noxious qualities. I don’t think it’s likely, but it is possible.”

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By its guidelines, the National Institutes of Health still forbids many experiments as too dangerous. This raises an old paradox: “If the research is safe, why will science agree to restrictions?” and, “If science agrees to restrictions, how can it claim the research is safe?”

In August 1980, the news broke that Ian Kennedy, a virologist at the University of California, San Diego, studying the sindbis virus, had cloned a rare African forest virus, semliki, which had a higher risk classification and was not approved for cloning under NIH safety guidelines. This was believed to be the first such violation of the federal government’s regulations on cloning and recombinant DNA. The university’s biosafety committee put the cloned material in a special “containment” freezer and launched an investigation. Kennedy has vacated his position.

Sinsheimer commented, “This illustrates one of the concerns people have had—that scientists do make mistakes, and accidents do happen. You don’t always accomplish what you set out to accomplish. That’s why some of us felt that’s a reason for maintaining more stringent guidelines. This is an illustration that all procedures are fallible.”

In waving the flag of caution, Sinsheimer is joined by many other internationally respected scientists. In a letter to Science magazine titled “The Dangers of Genetic Meddling,” Erwin Chargaff of Columbia University says, “You can stop splitting the atom; you may even decide not to kill entire populations by the use of a few bombs, but you cannot recall a new form of life! Once you have constructed a viable E. coli cell carrying a plasmid DNA into which a piece of eukaryotic DNA has been spliced, it will survive you, and your children, and your children’s children.… The world is given to us on loan. We come and we go; and after a time we leave earth and air and water to others who come after us. My generation, or perhaps the one preceding mine, has been the first to engage, under the leadership of the exact sciences, in a destructive colonial war against nature. The future will curse us for it.”

On the other hand, Arthur Kornberg calls for a balanced response: “Any knowledge can be misapplied. Whether scientists engage in improper activity will ultimately depend on the ethics and morality of the community. But if you operate in a climate of fear in which you see only the unfortunate and evil developments, then you simply can’t make any progress.”

Christian Perspective

Some knowledge accumulates faster than the wisdom to manage it. Some have defined this as “dangerous knowledge.” Looking at some recent discoveries, we are tempted to exclaim, “We ain’t wise enough to be this smart!”

A Christian response to the good news/bad news on the biogenetic manipulation of life comes from Lewis Smedes, professor of ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California:

“Christians are given two ingredients that exist in tension. One of them is our belief in the supremacy of a sovereign God. He is a God who superintends life. But he superintends it in a way that is collaborative with human agencies. He even does this to the point of working out his divine providence through such radically new technologies as genetic tampering or genetic manipulation—or to use much nicer words, genetic surgery or genetic counseling.

“The second ingredient in the tension is the human propensity for evil. The potential for evil in this new technology is great. Are we going to live in a society where some people have the prerogative of basically altering the humanity of other people, whether it is still in the embryo stage of growth, or fully developed? The arrogance of that is enough to give us pause. Plain and simple common sense says, ‘Please go slowly, with all careful deliberation. We have at stake the future of the human race!’ ”

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As those who survived the experiments at Auschwitz will attest, political control of scientific technology has etched its horror across history. It is a legacy we must remember.

The expanding dimensions of knowledge present the Pandora dilemma—promise in counterpoint with peril. We too may become the victims of our own unleashed curiosity. Will the decisions we make as a generation change not only the course of human destiny but the very structure of human life? To quote Chargaff, will “the future curse us for it”? We pray not.

As never before, it is crucial that Christians rise responsibly to defend a root of its biblical foundation—the sanctity of human life.

“In the beginning God created.… God created man in his own image, … male and female created he them.”

If man is to play God, then Genesis will need to be redefined.

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