Theology and genetic engineering

By Brian Edgar

The new and rapidly developing rDNA technology which lies at the heart of modern human genetic engineering has provided a new foundation for the science of eugenics which, as a consequence, is now more to the forefront of scientific research and public attention than at any time since it fell into disrepute in the 1940′s. The possibilities inherent in human genetic engineering (GE) now available appear as both amazing and terrifying. On the one hand there is the hope that thousands of inherited defects and illnesses, simple and complex, will be completely eliminated. On the other hand, there are suggestions of the creation of an animal-human hybrid,  a domesticated slave class, or a part human species.While these more extreme possibilities should be discussed, it is unhelpful if the focus falls only upon them because there are theoretical and technological difficulties which may make them impossible and it tends to take attention away from the more immediately realisable therapeutic possibilities.   Nonetheless, because rDNA has implications not merely for the physical form of humanity, but also for the intellectual, affective and spiritual nature of the human person the present situation requires a thorough-going theological reappraisal of the foundational issues pertaining to the nature of the person, the meaning of being human and the ethical questions concerning  the appropriateness of human “self-creation”.

What is needed is a theoanthropology which can interact with, rather than simply provide an  alternative to, other approaches to the meaning of the person and the ethics of GE. In this paper I will outline several approaches to GE in the context of a number of theological principles which, in one way or another, bear upon the nature of the person and the ethics of genetic engineering.  Together they provide guideposts for developing an ethic of genetic engineering.

This article was first published as ‘Re-designing People: Dimensions of a Theology of Genetic Engineering’ in Interchange: Papers on Biblical and Current Questions (1996) No. 51, 4-29.

The full text is available here:  Re-designing People

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