Unto Us a Child Is … Gene-Edited?

Paul Mundey

December 20, 2018
As we approach Christmas, song and spoken word remind us: “unto us a child is born.” There are various faith issues related to birth beyond the Advent theme of immaculate conception; for example, concerns related to human-initiated fertilization, abortion, and gene modification just to name a few that have rumbled through religious communities for some time. 
However, there’s a current birth-related dilemma brewing for people of faith as Chinese researcher, He Jiankui, defends his recent (and unsettling) experiments in human genome editing. As the Harvard Crimson reported: 
The global controversy over He’s work began [at] the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing … [where] He said he had successfully altered a gene in human embryos using CRISPR-Cas9. … He said he then implanted the embryos in the womb of a woman who later gave birth to twin sisters. … He said he used CRISPR to disable a gene called CCR5 in an effort to make the twin sisters resistant to H.I.V. … dubbing the sisters “Lulu” and “Nana.”
There is much here for religious reaction. Yet, to date, religious response has been limited mostly to existing resolutions by various conciliar groups, churches, and denominations, such as the 1989 World Council of Churches statement, “Biotechnology,” the 2006 National of Council of Churches statement, “Genetic Science for Human Benefit,” the 2008 Vatican Statement, Dignitas Personae (DP), as well as several essays by religious leaders. 
The statements and essays that do exist offer what Ronald Cole-Turner has described as “cautious, conditional approval” of gene modification—that is, as long as gene modifications are therapeutic interventions (e.g., to heal maladies) exhibiting best practices and not non-therapeutic excursions employing risky, elective procedures or seeking eugenic “enhancements” intended for cosmetic alteration or elevation in social status. Those religious voices that have spoken generally do not favor therapeutic interventions utilizing germline gene modification (gene editing of egg or sperm cells resulting in heritable alterations) since the result is a permanent change to the DNA. Cole-Turner does offer a caveat, stating that while “religious support for germline modification is not unanimous, [most] leave the door open to the possibility of this technology [within certain] moral conditions.”
Though the responses of faith communities to He’s aggressive experimentation are presently few and mostly nascent, outrage from the scientific community has been plentiful and forceful. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, a geneticist, and an outspoken Christian, has expressed vehement outrage and concern: 
NIH is deeply concerned about the work [of] Dr. He Jiankui. … This work represents a deeply disturbing willingness by Dr. He and his team to flout international ethical norms. … It is profoundly unfortunate that the first apparent application of this powerful technique to the human germline has been carried out so irresponsibly. … NIH does not support the use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos.
Others in the scientific community have also voiced concerns, including 122 Chinese scientists who labeled He’s intervention “crazy” and his claims “a huge blow to the global reputation and development of Chinese science.”
But, we might ask, should there also be theological outrage with He’s experiments? In short, I think there is good cause for theological concern here. Three issues emerge: First—hubris. Upon seeking ethical counsel before his genetic intervention, He was informed that his planned procedure did not conform to “best practices” within the scientific community. And yet He proceeded despite his colleagues’ judgments. As Julia Belluz has written: “He says he’s ‘proud’ of his work and that it has more to do with public health than ‘designer babies’ … [b]ut if a rogue scientist … can smash through norms and meddle with the human genome to feed his own ego or scientific curiosity, the worry is that many more dangerous applications of CRISPR could be in store.” Though He’s hubris is perhaps not so rare in the scientific community, it is nevertheless grievous, failing to prioritize the common good.
Second—justice. There’s mounting evidence that the informed-consent process utilized by He was insufficient, to put it mildly. As Ed Yong notes in The Atlantic:
It’s not clear if the participants in He’s trial were … aware of what they were signing up for. He relied on an AIDS association to reach out to the patients and falsely described his work as an “AIDS-vaccine development project.” He [said] he personally took the volunteers through the informed-consent process, along with another professor. But taking consent is a specific skill that requires training; He had none.
He not only ignored proper protocol but engaged in deception, ultimately inflicting grave injustice on the most vulnerable, at the very moment they long for empowerment.
Finally—dignity. A case can be made that therapeutic gene modification enhances quality of life and human dignity. However, mounting consensus suggests that He’s genetic intervention was a non-therapeutic gene modification out of step with best practices, risking quality of life and human dignity. As Julian Savulescu, a professor of practical ethics at Oxford, declared: “If true, [He’s] experiment is monstrous. … The embryos were healthy. No known diseases. … There are many effective ways to prevent HIV in healthy individuals: for example, protected sex. And there are effective treatments if one does contract it. This experiment exposes healthy normal children to risks of gene editing for no real necessary benefit.” Francis Collins echoes Savulescu’s concern: “I hope there would be no bad consequences for [‘Lulu’ and ‘Nana’]. At this present time, it’s hard to know.”
Theological outrage is a justified response to He Jiankui’s reckless experimentation, even while there is great promise for therapeutic gene modification. However, He’s rash behavior has triggered anxiety—not anticipation—of the child to be born.
Moving forward during this holy season, we accent hope, not anxiety, for there is much to envisage. Earlier this month, for example, the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center announced positive outcomes from targeted gene therapy to alleviate sickle cell disease, an intervention funded by the National Institutes for Health. Given the pervasive religious commitment to healing, there inevitably will be religious support of therapeutic gene modification. Such future work and commitment must be attentive to issues of hubris, justice, and dignity. But it must also be mindful of Divine empowerment, for God has not erected a “no trespassing sign” at the edge of the genetic realm. Rather, God has placed a “caution sign,” encouraging us to proceed with restraint, reliant on Divine discernment, expectant of Divine wonder.  
Image credit: Genome Research Limited (Flickr)

Paul Mundey is an ordained minister and moderator-elect of the Church of the Brethren, one of the historic peace churches. He was a visiting scholar at Princeton Theological Seminary during the 2016-2017 academic year. Mundey has served in denominational and pastoral roles, including a thirteen-year tenure as a member of the national staff of the Church of the Brethren, and a twenty-year pastorate at the Frederick Church of the Brethren in Frederick, MD. He is currently establishing a ministry of writing and consulting. His blog Transformation appears weekly at www.paulmundey.blogspot.com.

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