This article originally appeared in Christianity Today on January 10, 1994.
It finally happened. Researchers at George Washington University successfully cloned human embryos last October. The experiment, the first of its kind to be reported, was intended to enhance current in-vitro fertilization methods. The result, however, has reinforced our greatest fears about biomedical research: It can—and will—do anything, regardless of moral or ethical questions. It is time to insist that a deliberate and careful process be established to guide biomedical technology.
Cloning may attract the most attention, but other questionable biomedical practices have become almost commonplace. For example, in Virginia, a child born a year ago without most of her brain is being kept alive on a ventilator. The child, dubbed "Baby K," cannot think, see, hear, or feel, yet receives care at her mother's insistence (against the advice of hospital officials). The hospital has taken the matter to court.
In 1991, the National Institutes of Health sought to patent over 2,000 gene sequences from human brain DNA. Many of us were astounded to learn that the United States Patent Office, aided only by centuries-old patent law, could offer such protection. The requests are still pending.
Almost daily we learn of startling and wondrous developments in our ability to control nearly every facet of human life. Such control—whether through efforts to lengthen life (or end it) or to create it in controlled laboratories—is becoming more readily available at a rapid pace. Despite the obvious benefits, some developments have begun to alarm researchers, ethicists, religious groups, and laypeople across the country. Each technological advance propels us into unfamiliar ethical territory. We are left groping for ethical guidance to accompany our new-found knowledge. So far, we have received little.
Who should ask the questions?
Elected officials have a certain responsibility to raise these concerns and to ensure that thoughtful dialogue takes place. In the past, I have called for a moratorium on patenting human and animal mailer in order to provide time for a rational discussion of the profound questions raised by genetic engineering, and proposals to patent life. But simply clamping down on patenting of scientific research is not a solution.
What is most disturbing about our attempts to resolve these ethical issues is that we do not even have a framework for discussing them. We do not even have consensus on where the cases should be examined: the Baby M surrogate motherhood case was heard in state civil court using slate contract law; Dr. Jack Kevorkian has been challenged under state criminal law; even the U.S. Patent Office, of all places, has been drawn into these dilemmas. Where does proper authority lie?
The first step is to build a shared framework for addressing these questions. To that end, I have posed that Congress establish a 15-member Ethics Advisory Board that would be charged with the task of reviewing issues of biomedical ethics and advising Congress and the President. Such a board will not only provide ethical guidance to policymakers, but will help increase nationwide dialogue on the important bioethical issues before us.
The Office of Technology Assessment recently found that the United States is virtually alone in the industrialized world in not having such a commission. The reestablishment of a permanent commission is not a universally supported idea. Students of this issue know that past attempts have taken place with mixed results. We have learned much from the past, however.
It is my hope that such a board will have thoughtful participation from persons in the scientific, educational, governmental, and religious communities. These issues cut straight to the core of how we as a society perceive the sanctity of life, the limitations of human intervention, and the sovereignty of God. Perhaps as never before, Christians need to help shape the national consensus that is sure to evolve on this vital issue.
Soon after the United States dropped the first atomic bomb, poet E. B. White wrote, "The quest for a substitute for God ended suddenly. The substitute turned up; and who do you suppose it was? It was man himself, stealing God's stuff." If the church remains silent on this issue, we may allow technology once again to steal God's stuff.
These are indeed tough issues, and I often have difficulty determining what I believe to be the Christian perspective on biomedical research. I have not received formal theological training and am not qualified to probe seriously the dimensions of biomedical developments in a biblical context. But others within the Christian community have, and I would encourage open dialogue on these matters within the Christian community, especially on the campuses of the many seminaries and Christian colleges across the land.
Christian scholars and scientists must enter the dialogue in the larger community as well, for decisions are already being made on the biomedical front. If the church is absent in this discussion, we should not be surprised at the way society begins to decide how to handle new developments in technology.
A few years ago I discussed with a prominent scientist the ethical issues raised by genetic engineering. He told me science has only two options when dealing with this new technology. One is to stop research altogether. The other is to discover what science can achieve and then turn the results over to society to decide how it is to be used. A short time later, a public stock offering for a biotechnology company broke all previous exchange records. Science had made a discovery and handed it over to society—which at that moment was being represented by Wall Street!
In Isaiah, we are asked, "Will the pot contend with the potter, or the earthenware with the hand that shapes it?" (Isa. 45:9, NEB). As creations of our Lord, we are contending with the Creator. While we may enhance our knowledge of the workings of the planet, we must develop an ethic to guide our actions in relation to it. As Christians, we put our society at risk when we do not claim a voice in the direction and progress of science.
By the Hon. Mark O. Hatfield, the senior senator from Oregon.
This article originally appeared in Christianity Today on January 10, 1994.
Copyright © 1994 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today interviewed Mark Hatfield for a 1982 cover story
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