With scientific advances, sometimes you need to read between the lines. At first glance, all looks well with a successful new test developed by researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. They can now test unborn children to discern if they have cystic fibrosis, b-thalassemia, or sickle cell anemia—ailments caused by a single mutated gene. Actually, tests already exist that can detect cystic fibrosis before birth. But they require doctors to insert a needle into the mother's womb, which sometimes results in miscarriage. The new test, announced online by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, requires no such invasive measures. It compares the baby's DNA in the mother's blood with her own DNA. The key breakthrough came when researchers employed digital technology to count individual mutant or normal DNA sequences.
"This new study addresses a problem that has been puzzling investigators in the field of noninvasive prenatal diagnosis over the last ten years," said study coauthors Dennis Lo and Li Ka Shing.
So far, the new test is prohibitively expensive, and must undergo further trials with a larger sample. But this latest breakthrough fits a recent trend. Stanford University researchers announced in October that they can detect Down syndrome with a blood test. Until now, invasive testing—called amniocentesis—has been reserved primarily for higher-risk mothers in their late 30s and 40s. Discovery of Down syndrome by amniocentesis amounts to a death sentence for about 90 percent of these children.
That's the story inside the story of this latest advancement that no one bothered to mention—not the BBC, nor The Wall Street Journal, nor the company that stands to benefit from this new test. Why else would parents want to test for cystic fibrosis? One can understand parents' desire to know beforehand so they can prepare. But the Down syndrome case study suggests other motives at work. If its pattern holds, the number of abortions will increase when prenatal testing becomes safer and more widely available.
Francis Bacon first said "knowledge is power." His axiom endures in our so-called "information age." More knowledge than we can handle is but a click or two away. Yet not all knowledge is good, as we who feel the consequences of Adam and Eve's fall (Gen. 2:1617; 3:67) well know. As we see in the case of prenatal testing, foreknowledge can be deadly. Foreknowledge properly belongs to God, not to those he created in his image.
Yet human pursuit of this powerful knowledge persists, even if the way it's wielded should give us pause. Consider the cottage industry of apocalyptic books about looming disaster due to environmental degradation and population growth. It's not that we should ignore climate change or population concerns. It's that these books threaten readers with a future no author can fully know with any certainty. A quick perusal of the apocalyptic section in any used bookstore should make this clear.
Christians are not immune to the vain grasp for foreknowledge. Teen Mania founder Ron Luce has warned that trends reveal only 4 percent of teenagers will be "Bible-believing Christians" when they grow up. This glimpse into a gloomy future gives Luce tremendous leverage with audiences of panicked parents and evangelical leaders. They want to trust his forecast, even though his statistics do not withstand scrutiny. Fear sells.
The Bible tells an entirely different story about fear and the future. The topic was an important one for Jesus. He knew us to be anxious people, worried about what we would eat and drink, concerned about whether our health would improve or decline. So he pointed out other creatures God cares for who lack the human capacity to peer into the future. To worry is to act like an unbeliever. "But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you," Jesus said. "Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble" (Matt. 6:3334, ESV).
Some of Jesus' clearest words about the folly of foreknowledge relate to his return. In the same discourse when Jesus gave signs of the close of the age, he said that not even he knows when the end will come (Matt. 24). Why should God want to keep us ignorant of such an important time? Because our sinful nature would otherwise kick in, and we would procrastinate. We cannot handle foreknowledge. By withholding the future from us, God builds our faith in him as we learn to trust the only one who controls the future. We learn humility, for our lives are a "mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes" (James 4:14).
At the root of the quest for foreknowledge is control. Testing children for genetic abnormalities gives concerned parents a measure of control over the situation. But abortion can only negate the pregnancy; it cannot make their children healthy. We have much less control than we want or think we have. And that is the good news, because the God who knows all that was, all that is, and all that will be holds out the promise that by faith we can have peace with all that he brings to pass.
Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.
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