(Un)Natural: The Ethics Of Transgenics
by Steve Elwart, Senior Analyst Koinonia Institute
And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
Genesis 1:11,12 (KJV)
God is the author of all life. It was He who created every kind of thing, living and non-living. He designed every living thing, using the building blocks of DNA. This begs the question, “Is it right for Man to be modifying God’s design with Genetic Engineering (GE)?”
Some would say that using biotechnology to modify the basic components of human life is an abomination. Using Genetic Engineering (GE) to alter a species is a violation of God’s order of things. Others would say that GE is actually complementing God’s design, something Man has been doing for thousands of years.
What Is Genetic Engineering?
Genetic engineering is the collection of techniques used for different purposes: to isolate genes; to modify genes so they function better; to prepare genes to be inserted into a new species; and, to develop trans-genes.
The process of creating a transgene includes isolating a gene from the tens of thousands of other genes in the genome1 of a species. Once that gene is isolated, it is usually altered so it can function effectively in a host organism. That gene is then combined with other genes to prepare it to be introduced into another organism, at which point it’s known as a transgene.
A transgenic organism, sometimes called a chimera,2 is one that contains a transgene introduced by techno-logical methods rather than through selective breed-ing.
Transgenics allow scientists to develop organisms that express a novel trait not normally found in the species; for example, a type of rice known as golden rice has elevated levels of vitamin A. Scientists have also developed sunflowers that are resistant to mildew and cotton that resists insect damage. Possible transgenic combinations can be broken down generally into three categories:
1) plant-animal-human combinations;
2) animal-animal combinations; and
3) animal-human combinations.
An example of a plant-animal-human transgenic combination would be one in which the DNA of mouse and human tumor fragments is inserted into tobacco DNA. The harvested plants contain a potential vaccine against non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.3
Other transgenic plants have been used to create edible vaccines. By incorporating a human protein into bananas, potatoes, and tomatoes, researchers have been able to create prototypes of edible vaccines against hepatitis B and cholera.4 The vaccines are proving to be successful in tests on agricultural animals and humans.
GE in the Supermarket
Recombinant DNA technology, or gene-splicing, has been used for a number of years now to supplement our diets. Most of the corn, soy and canola grown in the U.S. is genetically engineered with molecular techniques.
More than 80% of the processed food in our super-markets contains ingredients from genetically engineered crops. In North America alone, there are currently more than four dozen GE foods and crops being grown. Consumers have eaten more than three trillion servings of food that contain ingredients from genetically engineered plants.
The Chinese are investing heavily into biotechnology research to increase their crop yields. The government has focused on their internal priorities to in-crease domestic yields at lower costs to farmers.
Genetically engineered pest-resistant cotton, for ex-ample, comprises nearly half of all cotton grown in China, and the savings in pesticide and fertilizer applications have cut costs by 28 percent and raised the average small farmer’s annual income by $150, according to a study conducted by researchers from the University of California at Davis and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Dangers of GE
The problem with GE is that this biotechnology can quickly run afoul of the Law of Unintended Consequences. GE foods are viewed by many as inherently unpredictable and dangerous for humans and for the future of sustainable and organic agriculture. As Dr. Michael Antoniou, a British molecular scientist points out:
…gene-splicing has already resulted in the unexpected production of toxic substances…in genetically engineered bacteria, yeast, plants, and animals, with the problem remaining undetected until a major health hazard has arisen.
Opponents fear GE foods could trigger the emergence of new diseases due to the use of viruses and bacteria to modify some GE foods. These new diseases could be resistant to antibiotics. GE foods:
• Raise the risk of developing cancer;
• Trigger food allergies as a result of a food that causes allergies in some people being placed in an-other organism;
• Harm the ecosystem by removing a pest that could be an important source of food for another animal; and
• Can be toxic to an organism and lead to its extinction.
It took a Chernobyl in the Ukraine and a Fukushima in Japan for people to understand the unrealized dangers in nuclear energy production. Is it possible that the ecological implications of genetically modified organisms will remain unaddressed for many years and that only God’s design itself—not its scientists’ perceptions—will one day reveal the true impact of GM organ-isms on the environment?
Recent experiments in the UK have shown that the GM crop plants tested for survival in the wild were no better adapted than non-GM crop plants. However, there is some concern that transgenes in GM plants may spread to other wild plants and create weeds that are more difficult to control.
This danger has been recognized. It is considered unwise to introduce herbicide tolerant genes into rice where red rice is a weed and into sorghum where Johnson grass (Sorghum halepense) is a weed. Outcrossing to these important weed species could invalidate the use of herbicides to control them.
Higher Life Forms
While there are concerns about genetically engineering crops, there are further concerns about genetically engineering higher life forms.
This year, scientists have successfully introduced human genes into 300 dairy cows. The result has been for the cows to produce milk that have the same properties as human breast milk.
Researchers believe that the milk from these cows will serve as an alternative to human breast milk and baby formula, which is seen as inferior to mother’s milk.
The genetically modified cows are not without problems. Researchers accept the fact that the technology used to genetically modify the cows can affect the development of the cloned animals. In this case, the cows suffered a 38% mortality rate within six months of their birth.
Critics of the technology are very concerned that the cause of their deaths are unknown and there are no estimates to the risks of whatever killed the cows being passed onto the humans that drink the milk. Helen Wallace, director of biotechnology monitoring group GeneWatch UK, said:
We have major concerns about this research to genetically modify cows with human genes. Ethically there are issues about mass producing animals in this way.
A Slippery Slope
Besides the obvious clinical problems with GE in plants and animals, there are ethical ones as well. Many people ask where all this will lead. A major objection to Genetic Engineering is that once you design a new genetic makeup for plants and other forms of life, there is no logical place to stop.
Even if the intent at first is to correct a genetic defect, once that is done, there is no logical reason to avoid using this technology for eugenic5 purposes. Few would disagree that diabetes, cancer and sickle-cell anemia are diseases worth eradicating, but what is to keep us from saying that color blindness, left-handedness, or small stature are “disorders” to be corrected by GE?6
Modifying God’s Creation
There is the moral question of whether man has the right to tamper with the natural order of things. God gave man dominion over “fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”7 The question today, though, is does that give Man the right to modify God’s creation?
One of the greatest fears raised about genetic engineering comes for the concern for those who do not “measure up” in the Brave New World. If we can modify children to avoid certain inherited traits, will those same traits become future liabilities?
Will having red hair (or no hair for that matter) make you a “second-class citizen”? Will people with be-low average IQs now be expendable? Will they be forced to undergo forced sterilization as has happened in the past? Above all, who will be given the authority to decide these things? Will we cede these choices to the government as we have so often recently? These are very disturbing and very real possibilities.
While sounding like something out of science fiction, these types of decisions are being practiced today in regard to the unborn among us.
If an unborn child has a debilitating genetic defect, the mother is strongly encouraged to abort the child. Not only can pressure to abort be applied by the doc-tor and the family and friends of the pregnant woman, but social sanctions can be imposed to do the same.
Professor Allen Verhey, who teaches Christian Ethics at Duke University, wonders if health insurance plans in the future will refuse to pay for the care of a Down syndrome child whose problems could have been predicted and prevented by abortion.
Suggestions along this line are already being made and are a real danger in socialized medicine.
In support of such policies, in January 1978, Sir Francis Crick, codiscoverer of DNA and a Nobel laureate, was quoted in the Pacific News Service as saying:
…no newborn infant should be declared human until it has passed certain tests regarding its genetic endowment and that if it fails these tests it forfeits the right to live.8
Another issue concerns the “dignity of persons.” GE involves experiments and procedures that can be detrimental to the health and even life of an individual. It is therefore argued that any procedures that would violate the freedom, dignity or integrity of persons are wrong.
Examples of these procedures would be the commercial use of embryos, the mixing of human and non-human genetic material, and cloning. As theologian Carl Henry says about appropriate uses of these technologies:
Whatever tends to overcome what would be deterioration in the created order and seeks to restore what God purposed in Creation is on far safer grounds than all kinds of novel and experimental enterprise.9
These procedures can tend to dehumanize Man by reducing him to nothing more than a complex of chemicals. Even now, unborn children are called “tissue.” They are no longer recognized as human beings.
Also, as we learn more about the architecture of man, we find that our physical makeup is governed by more than a single gene that can be turned on or off like a light switch. They are complex in and of them-selves and are dependent on a host of environmental factors.
A Call for Ethics
So where does this leave us in regard to the morality of Genetic Engineering? As in many things, some uses of GE may be moral and others immoral. The technology per se is not immoral any more than the Inter-net or television is immoral. It is Man’s use of it and his motivation that is at issue.
If we attempt to thwart God’s power for our own personal gain, then the use of genetic engineering cannot be condoned. Also, for whatever reason, if the use of the technology is for eugenic purposes or to create biological weapons, it is clearly immoral.
As Christians we must be the “Watchmen on the Wall” in regard to the use of this technology. We should question—loudly—technology and techniques that might lead to hasty or untested results. We need to provide a moral compass to assure that the results of genetic engineering do not degrade the integrity of Man nor make a mockery of God’s creation.<<<* * *
Any questions or comments can be directed to:
Steve.Elwart@studycenter.com.This article was originally published in the
June 2011 Personal Update NewsJournal.
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1. A genome is a full set of chromosomes; it contains all the inheritable traits of an organism.
2. A chimera is an animal that has two or more different types of genetically distinct cells, (i.e. human & nonhuman mammal).
3. Richter, R. 1999. Tobacco plant vaccine shows promise against non- Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Stanford online news, January 27.
4. Leahy, S. 2001. Edible Vaccines. Environmental News N e t w o r k , J u n e 27. http://www.enn.com/news/enn/06/06272001/vaccines_43784.asp
5. Eugenics involvestrying to improve a population (either plant or animal) by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable characteristics.
6. J e r e m y R i f k i n ,“ Wh o m D o We Designate to Play
God?” E/SA 11 (November 1983): 23 uses an illustration similar to this as an example of the
slippery slope we are on with genetic engineering.
7. Genesis 1:26
8. Francis A. Schaeffer, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer : A Christian Worldview. (Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1996).
9. Martin Mawyer, “Genetic Engineering Raises Moral Questions,” FuJo 4 (1985): 63.