Genetic Engineering

Recently Doug Gray presented a concise, detailed explanation of Genetic Engineering to the Roundtable in Ethics.  He begins with the scientific research that forms the basis for the current biotechnology, with an explanation of terms and events along the way.  He ends by considering the moral and ethical impact of this genetic altering technology.  This is not a lengthy article, and if you are not familiar with the topic, this would be a good source of information for you.

I.          Background ((Background taken from John Jefferson Davis, Evangelical Ethics: Issues Facing the Church Today. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, Phillipsburg, New Jersey, 275-278.))

  • Gregor Mendel’s work with hereditary traits in plants is credited with the birth of modern genetics, although much of the work documented by Mendel was conceptualized long prior.
  • Much of Mendel’s work was popularized by biologists in the early 1900s.  These biologists spoke of hereditary units found on chromosomes of cells (Sutton) and coined the term “gene” (Bateson).
  • By the 1920s, much research and publications spoke of “natural” determination of certain traits through breeding experiments.  In addition, genetic mutation using an external agent (e.g. Muller’s use of X-rays) was demonstrated as possible.
  • The American Eugenics movement (discussed below) and The Final Solution/Aryan Supremacy in Nazi Germany both applied principles of trait selection through controlled breeding researched through the 1920s.
  • Following the discovery of the double-helical DNA structure (1953) and deciphering of DNA’s complete coding sequence (1966), the first recombinant DNA molecules were synthesized in 1972 and allowed for patent by the Supreme Court in 1980.
  • Further developments have continued since 1980, including:
    • Synthesis of human insulin using recombinant DNA technology (1982)
    • Gene therapy trials for treatment of Severe Combined Immune Deficiency (SCID) (1990)
    • Human Genome Project – launched (1990), completed (2003), and now data being analyzed (in process). ((
  • Since the 1970s, the debate has remained ongoing regarding ethical considerations in development and use of genetic engineering with prominent scientists on both sides.  George Wald, Nobel Prize-winning biologist and Harvard professor wrote in 1976, “It (genetic engineering) presents probably the largest ethical problem that science has ever had to face.  Our morality up to now has been to go ahead without restriction to learn all that we can about nature.  Restructuring nature was not part of the bargain … For going ahead in this direction may be not only unwise but dangerous.  Potentially, it could breed new animal and plant diseases, new sources of cancer, novel epidemics.” ((George Wald, “The Case Against Genetic Engineering.” The Recombinant DNA Debate. Jackson and Stich, eds, 127-128 (reprinted from The Sciences, Sep/Oct 1976)))

II.         Eugenics Movement

  • As coined by Francis Galton (cousin of Darwin) in 1883, eugenics referred to the efforts to improve the human race by allowing “more suitable” races or traits to prevail more speedily than possible through natural selection.  The term was derived from the Greek roots that literally translated “good” and “generation” and referred to the “science” of heredity and good breeding. ((PBS Online 1998))
  • Influential geneticist and Harvard Professor Charles Davenport stated in his work Heredity in Relation to Eugenics (1911) that the purpose of eugenics was to improve the human race by improving the selection of marriage mates – “to fall in love intelligently.”  It also necessarily involved control by the state of “propagation of the mentally incompetent.”  However, it did not involve euthanizing those already alive. ((Jonathan Marks, Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, “Eugenics – Breeding a Better Citizenry Through Science.” Working Paper.))
  • Eugenics laws were passed in 32 U.S. states between 1907 and 1937, ((Davis, 277.)) and forcible sterilization could be administered for libidinal crimes or undesirable traits such as insanity, feeble-mindedness, or idiocy (as determined by the “appropriate” oversight boards or panels).  Using American law as a beacon, Nazis extended forced sterilizations to those with physical and/or mental defects.  The Final Solution, or extermination of 6 million Jews, was the ultimate result of the Nazis’ application of eugenics.
  • Thus, the eugenics movement demonstrated that “science” could be used by those with racist or sociological agendas to promote grievous programs.  More specifically, ideologies of behaviorism, isolationism, and naturalism in the 1920s gave rise to eugenics as a means to accomplish desired social ends.
  • Rapidly advancing biotechnology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has given rise to a resurgence of eugenics-style arguments for the betterment of humanity through genetic engineering (defined below).

III.        Genetic Engineering Defined

  • Genetic engineering is a broad term that is used to describe an entire category of activities related to the development and application of scientific methods, procedures, and technologies that permit direct identification and manipulation of genetic material in order to alter otherwise inherited traits of a cell, organism, individual, or population.
  • For purposes of this discussion, genetic engineering will be said to include the following activities:
    • Genetic Testing/Screening – Use of various procedures (e.g. amniocentesis) to identify any one of a growing number of genetically related disorders (ex. Down’s Syndrome).
    • Gene Therapy – Use of various procedures (most popular is through viruses injecting corrected genes into host cells) to substitute more productive genes in a cell with defective ones.  With somatic cell gene therapy, somatic cells are targeted for replacement as a corrective measure for only the specific patient.  With germline cell gene therapy, defective genes lie in reproductive cells that are replaced with “corrected” ones.  These changes are passed along to offspring. ((Debopriya, Bose, “Gene Therapy Pros and Cons,”
    • Genetic Enhancement – Efforts to make someone “better than well” by optimizing attributes or capabilities.  The goal is to have genes supplementing or superseding the function of normal genes to provide the desired enhancement (either somatic and germline cells can be targeted). ((
    • Cloning – Asexual reproduction of an animal or human with the identical genetic make-up of the “parent.”
    • Transgenics – Process of blending genetic material from other species or organisms.  Transgenics allow scientists to develop organisms expressing a novel trait not normally found in the species.  Possible transgenic combinations can be broken down into plant-animal-human; animal-animal; or animal-human combinations. ((Linda MacDonald Glenn, “Ethical Issues in Genetic Engineering and Transgenics”, 2004))


IV.        Three Frameworks for Consideration

  • Deontological – emphasizes what is intrinsically right in a situation as the primary consideration, while costs, benefits, and consequences are secondary considerations.  For genetic engineering, deontological ethics would require consideration of fundamental values such as the sanctity of human life, and individual and/or societal justice. ((Davis, 281.))
  • Teleological – emphasizes the value of the goals or purposes being pursued and the likelihood of bringing about valued or desired ends.  Teleological theories can take one of two courses – classic utilitarianism and Greek (e.g. Aristotle) virtue ethics.  With genetic engineering, the degree to which various processes aim to bring about virtues that lead to happiness (e.g. genetic enhancement) or avoid suffering (e.g. heal disease), then they would be considered ethical.  Genetic engineering intentionally used to develop weaponry or disease would be unethical.
  • Utilitarianism – emphasizes the consequences or outcomes either utilizing a cost-benefit analysis or attempting to determine what would cause the greatest good for the greatest number.  At our current time, utilitarian considerations in genetic engineering are dubious at best, as many of the consequences related to gene therapy, genetic enhancement, cloning, and transgenics are not fully known.  In addition, unintended consequences are rarely considered in proactive utilitarian analysis.


V.         Five Factors for Consideration

  • Norms – Implied in deontological ethics – does the activity line up with the precepts and principles of scripture?
  • Context – Certain activities are appropriate only if undertaken in the proper context.
  • Intention – The right intent or motive is required for an action to be pleasing to God.  While this is true, good intentions are not sufficient to make something right.
  • Means – The methods or processes to attain a desired result, consequence, or end must be right for the action to be morally acceptable.  Just ends do not justify immoral means.
  • Consequences – To some degree considered in the utilitarian perspective.  The consideration here is whether or not all probable or reasonably potential consequences (in all time frames) are acceptable.

VI.        My Position – Genetic engineering, in and of itself, is an amoral form of biotechnology.  However, the research to develop genetic engineering and the use of genetic engineering techniques must be considered as moral and ethical decisions.  The use of genetic engineering in humans is acceptable to the degree that: 1) it does not violate biblical commands, precepts, and principles, 2) it is used exclusively in somatic cells, and 3) it is conducted with the explicit consent of the individual receiving treatment.  While the upside of transgenics provides the potential to benefit humanity, the dangers of potential and/or unintended consequences are so severe that transgenic research should cease until an acceptable legal and ethical framework can be established for research of this type.

  • Biblical Support
    • All of God’s creation is good and thus worthy of care and respect. (Gen. 1:31)
    • Man is made in the image of God and as such is esteemed with value above the remainder of creation. (Gen. 1:26-28; Heb. 2:5-8)
    • This value extends to conception. (Ps. 139:13-16)
    • Man’s understanding of God’s creation and ways is limited and warped. (Prov. 14:12)
  • Logical Support
    • Much of the “leading edge” research in genetic engineering is conducted under the guise of “betterment” of the human race and preservation of human life.  However, much research is conducted using embryonic stem cells and umbilical cords gathered in a manner inherently inconsistent with the stated goals.  Thus, only genetic engineering research conducted in a manner that does not require the destruction of human life would be logically consistent.
    • The foundational ideologies used to promote genetic engineering stem from naturalism and Darwinian evolution.  However, genetic engineering, particularly germline therapy and enhancement, cloning, and transgenics are directly contrary to natural selection.  Only somatic cell therapy is neutral, or not inconsistent, regarding natural selection.
    • To the degree that somatic cell therapy is obtained via research methodologies that do not violate the sanctity of human life, this therapy may be viewed in a manner similar to prescription drugs, radiation treatment, chemotherapy, or other forms of treatment developed through the use of biotechnology.
  • Contextual Support
    • Transgenics can be viewed similarly to the development of nuclear energy that resulted from splitting the atom.  Many scientists working on the Manhattan Project did not intend to develop technology to be used in such destructive weaponry as nuclear bombs.  Rather, they desired to push the universe of scientific knowledge.  However, with new technologies often come unintended consequences.  With transgenics, many scientists are pursuing the leading edge with the same intent.  However, with transgenics, the potential exists for creating reproductive viruses that could destroy significant amounts of plant, animal, and/or human life.  Given that these organisms are created to be resilient, the propensity for adverse effects rises.


    Recombinant cells – result from new combinations of genetic material

    Behaviorism – the theory that human or animal psychology can be accurately studied only through analysis of objectively observable and quantifiable behavioral events, in contrast with subjective mental states.

    Naturalism – a combination of philosophical and theological beliefs that all phenomena and truth is derived from science and the study of natural processes.  Teleological (design and purpose in nature) explanations and revelation are defined as invalid.

    Libidinal – of or related to the libido, which in psychoanalytical terms refers to sexual instincts, desires, and drives.

    Somatic – of the body (already in existence), but not reproductive to subsequent generations (to differentiate from germ cells).