“In the Image of our Choosing” – Christianity Today’s Piece on Genome Editing

The current issue of the journal Christianity Today has a three-page story on genome editing, written by pastor-theologian Dr Nathan Barczi called “In the Image of our Choosing” (Christianity Today, March 2017: pp. 48–51). Founded by Billy Graham 60 years ago, the journal describes itself as the “leading, nonprofit media ministry for the evangelical church”. 450,000 people reading the print edition and over 10 million using its online presence are mentioned in justifying this self-description. The article makes some important and valuable contributions. I’m discussing it here because some points deserve highlighting. Barczi does not dismiss genetic modifications wholesale, but works on the question what uses can be legitimate. Some of his arguments deserve more careful scrutiny, however, as they may have unintended implications.

Science and technology are by no means inherently bad – you just need to know where to “draw the line”

Barczi reports about fascinating encounters between geneticist and Harvard professor Ting Wu and Christian congregations. Wu and her husband George Church explore far-reaching genetic interventions, partly deep into the human biology. When the New York Times reported recently that the American Academy of Sciences argued in favour of modifying the genes of human embryos, for medical purposes, the newspaper finished the article quoting Church: “why would small or large enhancements accompanying the fixes be unacceptable?”

In the interest of wider societal transparency, Wu discusses such questions with regular church goers. A fascinating overview of these encounters is given here. Barczi’s article essentially expands this discourse and takes it to a wider readership, perhaps of a more traditional Christian leaning.

Barczi’s title, “In the Image of our Choosing”, raises the question if certain ways of modifying the human genome can be an encroachment on God’s role as creator. The tradition of the image of God holds that every person is created in God’s image, whether we affirm that or not. But interestingly, and with good arguments, Barczi goes on to argue that a modification of human genes is by no means to be seen critically on the whole.

Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam – WikiMedia Commons

Barczi presents the Jewish-Christian notion of humanity as created in the “image of God” as the touchstone of theological bioethics. This constitutes human dignity:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:26)

Barczi then unpacks the concept in these ways:

  • God’s own initiative is highlighted, humans are merely responsive.
  • God’s initiative is played off against rationality or emotion that might function as a criterion of human personhood: to whom should we attribute dignity? Barczi is against thresholds that human must cross in order to enjoy human dignity.
  • The human response to God’s creative act must be shaped as rule over the earth (Genesis 1) and stewardship, which takes place in constant relationship with God.

How does that relate to the potential modification of human genes? Francis Collins, director of the American National Institutes of Health (who is also known as a Christian) argues against designing certain traits of a child genetically, perhaps intelligence or looks. The article is sympathetic with the description of this as objectifying, and objectification is presented as problematic. Children should be welcomed as they are, and the striving to make them conform to certain standards raises the question if respect for their person is conditional on their ‘measuring up’: “do children become more like commodities than precious gifts?” Barczi agrees with Oliver O’Donovan’s conviction that children must be “begotten, not made”.

Barczi illustrates this with an episode recounted by his pastor colleague. His daughter is sometimes addressed by strangers on the street, who remark on the extraordinary beauty of her eyes. The argument is that human characteristics strike us as remarkable precisely because they are contingent, not planned.

By contrast, if we enable parents to enhance their child with extra capabilities or characteristics, new conventions might result that are then given normative status: non-enhancement might come to be seen as immoral neglect. If enhancements become a live option for parents, non-enhanced people might come to be seen as deficient, perhaps even treated as second-class citizens. If that is a realistic perspective on enhancements, however, then people with Down’s would be among the first to be eyed with suspicion.

For Barczi, these questions come down to the difference between healing and enhancement. This is not a trivial point, as even the medical modification of an embryo’s genome is illegal in the UK and many other countries and very much restricted in the US. For Barczi, the point is that “we need scientific knowledge to distinguish between therapy and enhancement”. This point is illustrated with the test case of editing out cancer genes that would result in cancer only at age 60. Is that still therapy or is that enhancement? (Or should we perhaps call that enhanced therapy?)

Barczi leaves us with a tough nut to crack. In what circumstances is a genetic intervention a legitimate affirmation of life, and when is it a problematic manipulation? In my opinion, much depends on the type of cancer and its probability. A cancer prognosis may come with an indication of likelihood. A certain mutation of a BRCA gene does not necessarily result in breast cancer, but creates a certain danger. With Huntington’s, things might perhaps be clearer, although the age at which the disease materialises cannot be predicted. In my own opinion, we need a wider public discourse that questions the presumption that healthy people have a 0 % cancer probability. Is there at all such a thing like a “clean genome”? But in my own opinion, a certain cancer prognosis can well justify a presumption in favour of therapy, if therapy is indeed available. There are other interesting cases, however. I would clearly distinguish between Huntington’s on the one hand and, say, a genetic predisposition to a cleft palet, diabetes, or potentially, obesity.

For all due caution, Barczi finishes the article with the case that scientific and technological progress is not the enemy. He cites O’Donovan’s conviction that whatever happens takes place under God’s “ruling power of history”. “Playing God” is nothing we need to be concerned about because that job is already taken. Society can be fairly pragmatic in not demonizing genetic modifications, but asking what is a wise use of the technology.

What is commodification?

The Evolution of the Commodification of Man – Occupy Posters at flickr

As far as non-vital traits are concerned, Barczi illustrates the moral superiority of biological contingency over engineering with the real-life example of strangers stopping to comment on a girl’s naturally pretty eyes. But what if strangers stop to comment favourably on a woman’s curves? Barczi does not find comments about the eyes commodifying, but I’m not so sure.

The feeling of commodification is not an entirely clear criterion in ethics, but we certainly need to consider this argument very carefully. In my opinion, the point is not so much how relatives and society judge a child’s characteristics, but how the woman perceives herself. This would amount to an argument about autonomy. Autonomy is a concept that raises questions of its own, so that is, I think, where work needs to continue.

What does creation in the image of God mean?

Barczi’s understanding of creation in the image of God raises further questions. Certainly he is careful to make a legitimate point. When focusing on humans, their part is only a secondary one, they respond to God rather than being the protagonists. That might rule out letting people jump through certain hoops to see if they qualify as persons and enjoy the dignity that comes with that status. The ethicist and former priest Joseph Fletcher, for example, argued that an IQ score between 20 and 40 is biological no-man’s land, but someone with an IQ below 20 is no longer a person. This would be the type of criterion that Barczi would be very wary of.

However, the legitimate response to divine creation is then specified as something highly active and complicated: ruling the earth. This invites the response that people with intellectual disability are not particularly well suited to subdue the earth or exercise stewardship. By contrast, voices in the theology of disability such as S. Hauerwas and H. Reinders make the non-conformist point that precisely the powerlessness and vulnerability of people with disability highlights their dignity.

This is in tension to the fact that people with disability want to be “director’s of their lives” (van den Ven et al. in T. Shakespeare, Disability Rights and Wrongs). But if we follow Barczi in calling the “imago dei” the only justification of human dignity, and if – crucially – we then spell the imago dei out merely as subduing the earth and being in relationship to God, then the unfortunate conclusion is that non-disabled people are human to a higher degree than people with disability. That does not seem to be Barczi’s intention at all, but it might be an unwelcome consequence of his definition of the image of God in terms of subduing the earth.

However, the biopolitical aspect of creation in the image of God (subduing the earth) has been complemented with a highly personal aspect. Gen 1 highlights creation of humanity as male and female. These ancient writers of course envisioned all or most animals as sexed, but they highlighted sex differences only in humans. This has been taken as a sign of sexuality, partnership, or personal intimacy, as opposed to mere reproduction in the animal kingdom. This opens up space for highlighting the particular dignity of partnership or friendship. This is a domain that should in no way exclude people with disability. Disability must not be reduced to functional or medical aspects.

How does genetic modification map unto the agency/response binary?

But even if the biopolitical dimension of the imago dei didn’t figure as prominently, the question is if the contrast between divine agency in creation and human response is helpful ethically. In being created in the image of God, we’re “responding” to God, we’re not active. We’re not constituting ourselves. We are begotten, not made. This raises the question if gene “therapy” is more responsive and genetic enhancement is more active. We might argue that medical interventions are more vital, they make a greater difference to the person. In that sense they might be seen as more active rather than responsive, and then therapy would be the problem, not enhancement.

Further, with only these two categories (active/passive) available, prevention remains doubtful. Since Barczi can’t get around this ambiguity, he’s calling for “scientific” criteria to distinguish between therapy and enhancement. But there will never be scientific criteria of this sort. He’s asking a moral question, and morality is about how human behaviour is supposed to differ from nature. Of course empirical findings can help us make up our minds here. But the question is always if we are going to accord the status of a criterion to certain scientific observations or not, and with what reasons. Empirical features can figure prominently in a moral argument (so ethics must be emirically well-informed), but it is always a human decision what features have true moral salience. Ethics can’t be reduced to science, so we can’t wait for some scientist to solve this moral issue for us, just as we can’t wait for embryologists to relieve us of our responsibility in deciding – to the best of our empirical knowledge – when human life actually starts.

What does O’Donovan’s emphasis on God’s power add?

To invoke God’s “ruling power of history” here doesn’t help. Presumably Barczi’s point is that genetic modifications are not inherently wrong, but that they can be put to wrong use – the heavens are not going to come crashing down one way or the other. But to invoke God’s omnipotence muddies the waters in ethics. God’s activity as creator and God’s providential work in history do not relieve us of our responsibility, and the alternative to using it wisely is sin, whether or not the heavens will come crashing down.