Is Genetic Profiling A Eugenics Tipping Point?

Dec 14th, 2019 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

In 1947 C.S. Lewis published The Abolition of Man, in which he charted the “negation of human dignity in the name of progress.”  He lived long enough to see the accuracy of his assessment:  “For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please.”  Historian Joseph Loconte of King’s College speaks of “an echo of another era of medical innovation amid moral ambiguity.”  He is talking about the era of English anthropologist Francis Galton, who coined the term “eugenics” (“good birth”), as he championed the scientific methods of selective breeding and sterilization.  Galton wrote that “What Nature does blindly, slowly, ruthlessly, man may do providentially, quickly, and kindly . . . As it lies within his power, so it becomes his duty to work in that direction.”  Progressive political and scientific leaders in the early 20th century (e.g., Charles Davenport, John Harvey Kellogg and Henry Goddard, whose work was often financed by philanthropist Mary Williamson Harriman) worked for and achieved sterilization laws in the various states and other procedures to improve the gene pool of America.  “Human perfectionism was on the horizon,” they argued.  Viewing the eugenics movement as a frontal “assault on the Bible’s teaching about human nature: a reduction of the individual to mere biology,” conservative and orthodox Christians protested.   For example, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien insisted on “the unique moral status of the human person.”  Undoubtedly, Tolkien’s creation of robotic orcs as servants of Mordor totalitarianism in The Lord of the Rings was directed at the dangers of genetic engineering.  Thankfully, the eugenics movement in America died.  But, is it raising its ugly head again?

The Economist reports on a new technique, using the well-established procedure of in vitro fertilization (IVF), for choosing which embryos should be implanted into the womb of the mother (or surrogate).  That technique is called genetic profiling or more specifically single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPS) profiling.  SNPS are the smallest possible differences between individuals’ DNA—single genetic letters.  [Humans have 6 billion genetic letters!!]  SNP looks for particular SNPS that research has shown are associated with the risk of developing illnesses such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease.  It is possible to construct for each individual a polygenic score, which calculates the risk of developing a particular disease later in life.  “It may also be possible to SNP-profile an embryo and thus foretell its future.  As well as disease risk, height and intelligence, SNP-profiling might eventually be capable of predicting (albeit imperfectly, for environment always plays a role) things as diverse as television-viewing habits, likelihood of being bullied at school and probability of getting divorced.”  In essence, SNP-profiling could develop into a “supercharged version” of an existing process known as “assortative mating (AM).”  SNP-profiling would enhance “letting parents pick tall, good-looking and above all clever offspring.”  This could result in creating a “genetic elite” within a given population.  The paradigm that could develop is simply generate several embryos, then SNP-test them, and you can pick out those you think will grow up to be the healthiest.

The Economist also reports that two firms, Genomic Prediction and MyOme, claim to be able to build up an accurate picture of an embryo’s genome.  Genomic Prediction says it is able to offer couples undergoing IVF a polygenic risk score for each embryo for a variety of diseases including type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, testicular cancer, prostate cancer, basal-cell carcinoma, malignant melanoma, heart attack, atrial fibrillation, coronary artery disease, hypertension and high cholesterol.  Dr. Stephen Hsu of Michigan State University argues that these techniques “would soon be used to select for more intelligent offspring.  He estimates that an IQ gain of between 10 and 15 points would be possible if couples were allowed to choose between ten embryos. He also thinks that further gains would probably accumulate if people selected in this way went on to select their own offspring on the basis of intelligence.”

How should we think about genetic profiling, especially the incredibly sophisticated one called SNPS? Clearly, it produces a legal, medical and ethical quagmire. Because of the crisis of moral authority in western civilization, there is no absolute ethical framework to help address these issues. There is a desperate need for some guidelines, rooted in God’s revelation. Therefore, what follows is a list of guiding principles to deal with reproductive and genetic technologies such as genetic profiling. Arguably not exhaustive, they offer some guidance, rooted in or inferred from God’s Word. These guiding principles do not provide definitive answers to all the legal and ethical challenges; rather, they offer a starting point for discerning Christians.

  1. Human beings are created in God’s image—the fundamental basis for human value and worth. We can then stipulate that humans are always more valuable (intrinsically so) than all other created things. There is an essential, Creation-order distinction between humans and other created things (both living and non-living)—see Genesis 1 and 2. Hence, technology must always seek to preserve the worth, dignity and value of all human beings, regardless of age or stage of development.
  2. Issues and practices associated with reproductive and genetic technologies fall under the stewardship responsibility of humanity to God. In Genesis 1:26ff, God created humans—male and female—in His image and then gave them the responsibility to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth (1:28).” Verse 29 extends this dominion to plants, trees and seeds. God affirms this dominion status, although affected by human sin and rebellion, to Noah in Genesis 9:1-2. Because God is sovereign and humans have dominion status, human accountability is a necessary corollary. This matter of accountability has powerful implications when it comes to reproductive and genetic technologies. These technologies give humans power never realized before in history. But because of human depravity, it is difficult to be optimistic about the ultimate use of some of these technologies. In His common grace, God has permitted the human race to develop these technologies—but we must always remember that we are accountable to Him as to how we use them. With genetic profiling, we simply do not know the long term effects of its widespread use. The sobering fact of human depravity looms over its use.
  3. Human life itself is of higher value than the quality of human life. With the eternal perspective that Scripture gives, the quality of life ethic drives the current use of many of these technologies. Ethicist Michael Sandel writes that “In a world without givens, a world controlled by bioengineering, we would dictate our nature as well as our practices and norms. We would gain unprecedented power to redefine the good. . . The more successfully we engineered IQ and muscle-to-fat ratio, the more central these measures would become to our idea of perfection. . . But it w[ill] never be a perfect world.” [The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering, p. 5.] Because of sin, we live in an imperfect world, and, until the new heaven and new earth, our fallen world will be characterized by disease, tragedies, accidents and old age. The quality of life ethic, therefore, must never trump the infinite value of life ethic detailed in the Bible.
  4. From God’s perspective, concern for the improvement of the “inner man” is always more important than concern for improvement of the “outer man.” No procedure or practice will prevent the inevitability of death. Perhaps that is why the Scripture gives focus to such issues as the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) and the eight quality traits called the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-16). From God’s perspective, these character traits are more paramount than using certain technologies to strive toward the goal of human perfectibility.
  5. Carl Henry, years ago in his book, Christian Personal Ethics (1957), provided an important guideline for wise decision-making when it comes to reproductive and genetic technologies: “Whatever tends to overcome what would be a 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.” In other words, he argued that there is clear biblical warrant for technologies that restore; there is no clear biblical warrant for manipulation toward perfection—an insightful guideline in approaching gene editing.
  6. Finally, human civilization must critically examine the scientific (technological) imperative. Simply because society can pursue a particular medical, reproductive or genetic procedure does not mandate that it must! Especially in the area of genetics, “can” does not mandate “ought.” The potential for power and control and its obvious abuse mandates an examination of this imperative. Perhaps with some of these procedures, such as gene editing, it would be wise to not do them at all.

See The Economist (9 November 2019), pp. 14, 72-74; Joseph Loconte, “Planned Parenthood and the Eugenics Movement,” (17 August 2015); Jamie Dean in World (22 August 2015); James P. Eckman, Christian Ethics, pp. 43-53.

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