Ethical Concerns of American Evangelical Christians Relative to Genetic Interventions and the Human Genome Project, 1974 to the Present

By Davis, John Jefferson | Ethics & Medicine, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Ethical Concerns of American Evangelical Christians Relative to Genetic Interventions and the Human Genome Project, 1974 to the Present


Davis, John Jefferson, Ethics & Medicine


The purpose of this brief study is to identify, on the basis of a review of the published periodical literature, the major ethical concerns of Evangelical Protestants in the United States regarding genetic research and the Human Genome Project, from 1974 to the present.i It is hoped that the results of this research can assist scientific researchers in the communication and interpretation of the implications of genetic research to the Evangelical Protestant and other religious communities. Better communication is needed, in that many members of religious communities are not adequately informed concerning the nature and significance of genetic research, and some research scientists may not be well informed concerning the nature and strength of the ethical concerns and fears of religious communities.

Evangelical Protestants, the target group in this study, currently represent at least 20 million Americans, based on stated beliefs and practices.1 Sociological studies have found that Evangelicals are more likely than other religious groups to vote in elections, lobby political officials, and educate themselves about political and social issues.2 While this study is focused on the Evangelical Protestant community in the United States, its significance is not limited to this population. Prior sociological studies have shown that attitudes and ethical concerns of Evangelicals are shared in significant degrees with Orthodox Jews, Muslims, Mormons, and traditional Roman Catholics.

For the purposes of this study, the term "Evangelical" is understood to refer to a trans-denominational religious subculture of theologically conservative Protestant Christians found in denominations including, but not limited to, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregational, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Mennonite, Independent, Holiness, and Pentecostal; and which are characterized by (1) a high regard for the authority of the Bible; (2) belief in the deity of Christ and other historical Christian doctrines; (3) an emphasis on individual religious conversion experiences; and (4) concern for the practices of evangelism and missionary activity.3

Citations in the periodical literature in Evangelical publications during the period in question were located through the use of the American Theological Library Association's comprehensive Religion Database on CD-ROM. This paper will report on the range of ethical concerns identified, and reflect on the significance of the four most frequent of these concerns. Finally, it will give suggestions for researchers and teachers to communicate genetic discoveries to Evangelical and other faith-based communities in ways that can maintain public support and understanding for ongoing work in this area.

The Major Ethical Concerns

In a recent editorial in Ethics & Medicine Nigel M. de S. Cameron (2002:3) exemplified the recognition by evangelical scholars of the significance of the emerging genetic technologies when he stated that the "...most challenging questions faced by our civilization in the 21st century will lie just here, in the unfolding biotechnology agenda." Nothing will "...matter more for the future of the planet," he stated, and especially for its human inhabitants.

The earliest citation identified in the literature searched was the 1974 article by Harold Kuhn, "Wesleyanism and Genetic Engineering," published at a time when concerns were beginning to surface in the general public relative to recombinant DNA research.4 Some sixteen different types of ethical concerns were identified in the period 1974-present:

* the possibility of discrimination against racial and ethnic groups

* issues of confidentiality and privacy

* impact on the gene pool and/or biodiversity

* political tyranny and "Brave New World" scenarios; procreative rights

* issues of reductionism and human dignity

* impact on family values and parent-child relations

* questions of "Are we wise enough" to manage genetic technologies

* scientific hubris

* threats to the balance of nature

* the safety of recombinant DNA technology

* genetic engineering as an expression of "Playing God"

* concerns relating to abortion and the sanctity of life

* the possible military abuses of genetic technologies

* the possible dangers of germline interventions

The four most frequently mentioned concerns-"family values" (16 citations), "political tyranny" (18), "sanctify of life" and abortion (37), and "reductionism" (38)-will be studied in more focused analysis below. …

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