Genetic research has been a subject of controversy almost since its inception. Some of the concerns about genetic engineering and investigation were based on questions about the practicality or potential consequences. There are very real reasons to be concerned about the accidental creation of a super-plague or a new breed of viruses escaping from a genetics lab. Indeed, there have been near misses when viruses used in genetic research for their abilities to shred and recombine DNA have spontaneously begun constructing something new from the DNA pieces they were exposed to and prompted panicked researchers to pull the plug on the experiment.Despite the very real logistical and practical concerns, the biggest issues with genetic research have almost always been ethical or religious in nature. From the sources of potential materials for study to the very real social and cultural consequences of successful genetic engineering, religious leaders and ethicists have been wary of many facets of genetic engineering. Every time there is a breakthrough in genetics, so called experts come from both extremes of the argument, and those who claim humans should never have so much as sequenced DNA shout nearly as loudly as those who want carte blanche for genetic modification of any and every kind. Given the complexity of the field of genetics, the average person can have trouble deciding where they stand on different facets of the subject. As such, some people ignore the debate all together. Others set up camp on one side of the argument and refuse to listen to any evidence that threatens their position simply because the nature of the subject is too difficult to sort through objectively.
Christians are no exception to this rule. Many believers claim they want a moratorium on any and all genetic research even when they have little to no idea what all genetic research entails. Similarly, some Christians are perfectly content to ignore the controversy surrounding such a complex subject until such time as it directly impacts their lives. Neither of these are good responses to debates that could alter the landscape of medical ethics for generations. So, what should Christians think about genetic research?
Firstly, Christian opinions on genetic research will vary wildly since Christians are a diverse group, and the Bible has little to say about anything resembling genetic engineering. The closest it comes is the passage in Leviticus 19 that forbids breeding two kinds of cattle or sewing a field with two different kinds of seed. Given that few to no Christians believe they are bound by the Old Testament laws, this passage has limited bearing on most Christians’ opinions on genetic engineering. Instead, Christians are more concerned about either the use of fertilized embryos in research or the potential for genetic research to result in humans playing God.
Many Christians disagree with the idea of using fertilized embryos for research purposes. The destruction of fertilized embryos is part of why some Christians feel that in vitro fertilization is wrong. Unfortunately, some genetic research relies on the use of fertilized embryos as that is the safest and easiest time to make changes to the genetic code and have the changes “stick” in a full grown human. Fertilized embryos are also the best, and sometimes only, way to watch how changes to the genetic code affect the entire organism.
On one hand, the deliberate destruction of fertilized embryos goes against what many Christians believe. On the other hand, not all Christians hold that life begins at conception, and there is a great deal to be learned from studying the development of a human embryo. The same debate is true of stem cell research. Harnessing the power of stem cells could allow doctors to cure any number of diseases, but stem cells are found in the greatest quantity in human embryos and fetuses. In the same manner, studying the development and effects of genetic alterations on a human embryo could pave the way for cures for genetic diseases and disorders, but those studies require human embryos.
Genetic research is not limited to studies on the human genome, a fact that many people seem to forget. Genetic research and modification also encompasses efforts to make crops that are more disease resistant or produce higher yields. Such research could help mitigate or eliminate food shortages across the world as farmers would be able to reap a larger harvest from the same plot of land. Genetic research can also help create strains of crops that require less water and thus lessen the burden on farmers in dry areas or during droughts.
Genetically modified crops make many people cringe, but the reality is that genetically engineered crops are no less healthy than organic crops. Genetic modification is not a pesticide that was sprayed on the leaves of the plants. The changes were made before the seed ever sprouted. It is also not a new phenomenon. Humans have been crossbreeding and artificially selecting the highest yielding or sturdiest crops since agriculture began. What most people think of as genetic research did not come about until recently, but that did not stop humans from breeding and crossbreeding organisms until they were nearly unrecognizable from their original forms. Compare any image of teosinte, the wild version of maize, and modern corn. They look like they have nothing in common, yet humans did not even know what genes were when they first began breeding corn. Whether anyone likes to consider it or not, genetic alterations are a natural part of the process of domesticating organisms.
There are many risks to genetic research, that is true, and there are many potential ethical problems entangled in the practice. That said, genetic research could also lead to an extraordinary amount of good. Food shortages could be eased by the creation of crops that are genetically modified to withstand drought, and genetic disorders could become a thing of the past. Like almost anything, genetic research could be a force for incredible good or the ends used to justify horrific means. It is up to each Christian to decide for themselves where they feel the line should be drawn when it comes to genetic research and how far that research should go.