The idea of avoiding some terrible condition in the life of a new child seems laudable. Unfortunately the process introduces a host of ethical questions. To begin with there is the problem of when life actually begins. But that, of course, is inherent in the IVF process. If one believes that life begins at conception and that therefore the embryos represent a human life, then one must also believe that to destroy those embryos is to destroy life. The Catholic Organization for Life and Family has called for a ban on PGD saying it, “inherently disrespects the dignity and worth of human life since it is performed in order to select the most genetically perfect embryos while discarding those that are deemed undesirable.” That, however is not the only dilemma PGD raises.
At the present time the concern about “designer babies” is somewhat premature. While scientists have been able to identify some genes associated with particular traits and conditions, genes in many cases only “influence” certain characteristics of a child. They are not absolute determinants and thus do not guarantee a particular outcome. Scientists still do not completely understand how genes function. Another limiting factor is that while much progress has been made in this area, much of what particular genes influence is still unknown. Researchers cannot identify genes for athletic ability or intelligence for example. Also we know that future children can only inherit genes that are passed on to them from their parents. If the genes that go into making an individual tall, for instance, are not present in either of that offspring’s parents, that child will not inherit such genes. Another obstacle is that at the present time PGD is only done in the IVF process, it is not done in natural pregnancies. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to look down the road and realize that as the science advances the questions raised by PGD are going to become more acute as more and more becomes possible in this arena. It is quite likely that soon such testing will be available in all pregnancies. Researchers at Cornell University were able to create the first genetically modified human embryo back in 2007. Will scientists some day be able to modify genes to produce particular traits a parent desires even though that trait is not present in either parent’s genetic makeup? Who knows how far this science is going to advance?
This makes me uneasy at best. I fear it is not a good thing when human beings start “playing God” and designing what their children are going to be like. At the very least I have concern over the fact that the history of science is replete with unintended consequences. We do not know what the effects will be when we start messing with human genes. In some cases genes may play a role in more than one function. What if a gene that is associated with a particular disorder also happens to be connected to immunity to another? By modifying that gene to solve one problem we might well create a different one. Then, of course there is the obvious problem already posed by medical science. What if ever more accurate tests detect a potential problem or defect in a child in the womb? Our society says to “end the pregnancy” for the sake of that future child and for the parent. But this runs counter to a view of life that says that unformed child is made by God and is therefore precious to him. For a follower of Jesus this whole idea of messing with human genes raises serious issues about trusting the sovereignty of God. Can we trust him to give the children he determines best? Are we refusing to trust him if we take matters into our own hands and start selecting gender and other traits that we desire for a child?
I wish I had answers to all the questions related to PGD and its possibilities, but I don’t. But one thing I do know is whatever I think about it, it’s not going to stop. Roger Pierson, a fertility specialist, said, “We are not going to slow the technology, so the question is how do we use it?” I think he’s absolutely right. This technology is going to advance and it is going to be used to an ever increasing degree in our society. A company called Existence Genetics here in California already offers “preconception screening.” It analyzes the genomes of two prospective parents “to determine which diseases and traits their offspring are likely to inherit.”
I believe that human nature guarantees that no one is going to slow the development of this technology even if there are questions about it. One aspect of human nature that assures this technology is not going away has to do with parental concern. It is a good and healthy thing that parents love their children and want the best for them. Unfortunately human nature tends to distort that natural and healthy desire into “I want the best for my child and I’m going to get it, no matter what.” It is common to encounter parents whose concern for their children is so great that if they have to step over an ethical line in their quest for a perceived good for their child, they’ll do it. At the most innocuous level this can be seen in parents who lie to get their children into a particular school. Such things happen all the time. It is not hard to imagine prospective parents jumping at the opportunity to ensure that their children are more intelligent, more athletic, taller, better looking than others if such things are possible. It certainly is understandable that parents would do almost anything to protect their children from a debilitating or even deadly disease or condition. Who would not sympathize with a parent’s desire for his or her child not to be saddled with some condition or disease that will seriously disadvantage them or even cut their life short? That desire will certainly drive the demand for this technology. But the desire to have the “perfect” child and to give one’s child a leg up in our society will also be undeniable. That’s just how people are, so we had better expect that there will be strong incentive in our society to keep pushing this technology forward.
The second thing about human nature that will impel this technology is the desire for material gain. There is an obvious economic incentive involved here. Given that in our competitive culture parents are likely to be very interested in the “designer baby” technology to whatever degree it becomes possible, there is money to be made in that field. Probably a lot of money. Where a lot of money can be made, human nature will rush in. Scientists and biotech companies will keep advancing this technology if for no other reason than because it will likely prove to be quite rewarding financially. Whatever doubts or concerns I may have is not going to stop that.
I have a lot of questions about this field, as do most people. But what I see is that it confirms what the Bible tells me about human nature. What I see in the Bible is that humanity was warped a long time ago, turned inward. So now we see that people have the “I’m going to take care of me and mine, even if I have to cross over some lines to do it” attitude. That makes sure that the PGD technology will advance faster than our ability to answer ethical questions it raises.
My guess is that this technology is going to create a great challenge for serious followers of Jesus. Extrapolating out to a brave new world in the future it is easy to envision a time when the technology is available for prospective parents to not only screen the DNA of prospective embryos but to actually program them to create desired traits in children. What will Christians do in such a time? What if such technology involves significant ethical compromise for a Christian but “everyone is doing it”? In other words, what will believers do if they know that on the one hand joining everyone else would involve compromising their convictions, but on the other standing on their convictions might well disadvantage or even harm their future children because they might not have the advantages that other children will have? It is one thing for a person to stand on his or her principles when doing so will cause the person to experience hardship or harm. It is quite another when it is one’s child who might pay the price for sticking to one’s convictions.
We are going to have to come to grips with this technology and where it is going. Some of it may fall into a gray area where the determining factors will be personal convictions. Some followers of Jesus may draw a line in one place, some in another. It seems to me that there will be some of it that clearly crosses biblical lines. Whatever the case, once again technology is raising some issues that each of us needs to give some serious and prayerful thought to. This issue is not going away. It also raises for us the question of whether we are willing to obey God even if it proves costly to do so. Many of our brothers and sisters in Christ face this question in very real ways in our world today in places where following Jesus means persecution. It is possible that in the future Christians may have to deal with that question in an entirely new way, a way that will impact their own children.