Reading the "signs of the times" demands Christians' vivid attention to the public debate. As a consequence of the call to witness the gospel in our times, it also needs passionate participation in this debate. There is hardly an issue these days for which this is more true than that of bioethics.
In this area, the developments are so rapid that the ethical debate has already moved on when the newest textbook is printed. In spring 2000 a professor would tell students about the Human Genom Project (HUGO) and about its ambitious endeavour to decipher the genetic code of humanity by the year 2005. Half a year later his script would have been ready for recycling: on 25 June 2000, the American President Bill Clinton and the two leading researchers gave a press conference in which they announced that the project was nearly completed. The news conference was broadcast worldwide and surrounded by the aura of a historic event. No wonder that theological language was used to underline its importance: "Today we are learning the language in which God created life," said the American president. The church's participation in the debate is virtually forced, when the main actors speak in a vocabulary which contains theological terms such as "God" and "creation".
No one doubts that the issues involved are so fundamental that they touch religious concerns. There is, however, deep disagreement about the conclusions to be drawn. Many scientists share the ethical reservations voiced by religious traditions towards the new technological possibilities. Other leading scientists have explicitly attacked such reservations. The American Nobel Prize winner James Watson explicitly addresses those who believe that all human life is a mirror of God and who attribute, therefore, a sanctity to human life which excludes any human attempt to use it for ends such as medical research. Watson himself affirms that life is not created by God but is the product of an evolutionary process which follows Darwin's principles of natural selection. Religiously motivated laws which, for example, enforce the birth of genetically disabled children, says Watson, create unnecessary suffering for their parents. In the long run--thus the Nobel Prize winner--these religious voices will be isolated and their views will be ignored.
Watson's argument shows that in the current debate on the new possibilities of modern biotechnology there is more at stake than just the pros and contras of a certain scientific method or procedure. It has, in fact, to do with a possible change in ethical culture, questioning the validity of fundamental ethical values which have so far been embedded in a broad societal consensus.
This brings us to the contribution of the churches. In cultures strongly influenced by the Christian tradition, even those who do not share the churches' religious heritage acknowledge their important contributions to the fundamental ethical structure of society. In the debate about questions of modern biotechnology, as in questions concerning the development of the global economy, the churches have a special quality: they are globally organized and share their heritage across national, racial, ethnic and cultural borders. But they are, at the same time, deeply rooted in the local context, living their faith in their local parishes, always feeling connected in faith to people continents away. These qualities make the churches ideal actors in global civil society, and their contributions are especially important in issues which transcend national contexts and which can only be addressed globally.
The ecumenical movement, from its very roots and long before the term "civil society" was used for this activity, has seen participation in global civil society as an integrative part of its call. This was true in regard to questions of genetic engineering at a very early stage.
The ecumenical movement and biotechnology (1)
Already in 1970, the WCC convened scientists from all over the world to discuss the rapid development of science and the ethical implications of it. …