Revolution in Biology Drives Revolution in Theology, Ethics and Law

By Schaeffer, Pamela | National Catholic Reporter, October 22, 1999 | Go to article overview

Revolution in Biology Drives Revolution in Theology, Ethics and Law


Schaeffer, Pamela, National Catholic Reporter


In the 1970s, the theological notion of human beings as "co-creators" came into vogue, suggesting that God and human beings were partners in the enterprise of continuing the unfinished work of creation. To be a co-creator was not to be a passive recipient of God's gifts or even just a steward of creation, maintaining the status quo, but, rather, a participant with God in bringing the earth and its inhabitants to fulfillment.

For many, the concept served as both invitation and challenge. In an era of positive theological energy and hope for social change, the concept bolstered the belief that human beings of good will could, in partnership with God, work toward building the Kingdom of God on earth.

Today, though, in a scientific context, the term co-creator has taken on previously unimagined meaning. Theologians have subjected it to heightened scrutiny as a huge new life-sciences industry develops new ways to heal -- and reengineer -- the human being. What are we to make of the work going on in laboratories all over the world, leading toward medical advances that will make our own era look to generations of the future as backward as medieval medicine looks to us today? Work that may eliminate diseases that for centuries meant suffering and shortened lives, and will almost certainly someday allow parents to have a child who is a close of one of them or of someone else.

Scientific advances, however morally debatable, have already made test-tube babies routine, sex selection of children possible before conception and will soon make it possible for parents to pre-select many other characteristics as well.

Perhaps the only apt historical comparison is the splitting of the atom earlier in this century, begetting the possibility of previously unimagined destruction, but also leading to the development of radioactive medicine and a new, albeit controversial, way of producing electricity without burning fossil fuels.

Lee M. Silver, biology professor at Princeton University and author of Remaking Eden, has coined the term "reprogenetics" for the various new technologies. In one of his bolder futuristic prophecies, he predicts that if reprogenetics were to continue uncontrolled, two separate human species could emerge, one genetically enriched, the other like the folks we know, and neither able to reproduce with the other. Segregation by genotype.

While some regard such a development as far-fetched, many ethicists and theologians warn of grave negative implications for society and justice if genetic therapies and enhancements become available only to an economically privileged group.

Given the potential consequences, many feel it would be prudent to put brakes on research driving us to such a questionable future, or at least to flash a yellow light. Yet the United States has long taken a laissez faire approach to reproductive law. "The law has not kept up with the changes in reproductive medicine," wrote Lori B. Andrews in her new book The Clone Age. Although assisted reproductive technology constitutes a $2 billion industry in the United States, only a few states have enacted comprehensive regulations. In contrast, every state has elaborate systems in place for regulating adoption, notes Andrews, professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology's Chicago-Kent College of Law, as well as director of its Institute for Science, Law and Technology.

Virtually unstoppable

Moreover, experts warn, social forces driving biotechnology are so deeply rooted in Western culture as to be virtually unstoppable. They include a near-religious belief in progress and a compelling desire of parents to equip their children with every possible advantage. Today, for parents with economic resources, that may mean good doctors and schools, after-school sports and exposure to art and music. Tomorrow that may mean genetic manipulation to bring about a higher IQ, a few added inches of height, a special talent, a pleasing personality or face. …

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