BreakPoint: The Genetic Arms Race

Human Dignity at Stake

A new genetic technology is being called a weapon of mass destruction. I’ll tell you why that may not be hyperbole, next on BreakPoint.

In late July, the MIT Technology Review published news many of us have been dreading: A team of scientists at Oregon Health and Sciences University have successfully created genetically-modified human embryos.

This is an early step, to borrow a headline from the Technology Review, toward “engineering the perfect baby.” It’s an early step in creating a parental arms race in which people with resources scramble to create their vision of the “perfect baby,” with, potentially, the eye color, intelligence, and other traits they desire.

And it’s an early step in playing God with human genetics, one that could very well place humanity on intimate terms with the Devil.

Using a technology known as CRISPR, which enables scientists to edit the genome of anything from bacteria to humans, the researchers “[changed] the DNA of a large number of one-cell embryos” in a way that demonstrated “that it is possible to safely and efficiently correct defective genes that cause inherited diseases.”

Now that last part about “genes that cause inherited diseases” should sound familiar. Because every step down the modern biotechnology slippery slope has been justified in similar terms: as a way to alleviate human suffering. Thus, anyone who objects or even expresses misgivings about proposed innovations is forced to defend himself against charges of indifference to human suffering.

The problem is, of course, that the slide down the slope never stops at alleviating suffering. At the very least, the definition of “suffering” is changed to include whole classes of people who were not even envisioned when the justification was first offered. The classic example of this is euthanasia which has spread from the terminally ill to the hopelessly ill to those who are merely tired of living.

Likewise, no one should believe for a moment that this technology, if perfected, will be limited to, as the National Academy of Sciences has recommended, the “elimination of serious diseases.” Only someone who hasn’t been paying attention would expect the NAS’s “red line” against “genetic enhancements” to be honored.

All it takes is one scientist who decides, as the saying goes, that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, and the parental arms race will be on, if not in the U. S. then somewhere else.

And mind you, it’s not only us culturally-nervous Christians who are disturbed by what CRISPR and germ-line editing portend. In early 2016, the Obama administration’s Director of National Intelligence, Lt. General James Clapper, listed gene-editing technologies like CRISPR as a potential “weapon of mass destruction.”

In his report, Clapper warned that the technology’s “deliberate or unintentional misuse might lead to far-reaching economic and national security implications.”

And the report continued, “Research in genome editing conducted by countries with different regulatory or ethical standards than those of Western countries probably increases the risk of the creation of potentially harmful biological agents or products.”

But as Robert Gebelhoff of the Washington Post has pointed out, there really isn’t much difference between the kind of genetic engineering that took place in Oregon and the eugenics that Clapper warned us about.

For starters, both involve a distinction between “desirable” and “undesirable” traits. While in some cases “undesirable” will seem obvious, in most cases the criteria will “be determined by a worldview that prizes physical perfection above all, only considers temporal criteria of value, and uses some image bearers as tools while eliminating others.”

Christians can neither be indifferent to human suffering, nor to the lessons of history. Even if this technology isn’t a national security threat, it’s still a threat to something even more important: human dignity.

 

The Genetic Arms Race: Human Dignity at Stake

As John points out, the latest biotechnological “success” is not only ethically questionable, but, carried to its logical conclusion, will result in the dehumanizing process of life itself. To read more on this topic, check out the links in our “Resources” section.

Resources

CRISPR—a weapon of mass destruction?
  • Science | February 11, 2016
New Technology, Same Old Eugenics: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
  • John Stonestreet | BreakPoint.org | March 10, 2016
Top U.S. Intelligence Official Calls Gene Editing a WMD Threat
  • Antonio Regalado | MIT Technology Review | February 9, 2016
Engineering the Perfect Baby
  • Antonio Regalado | MIT Technology Review | March 5, 2015
First Human Embryos Edited in U.S.
  • Steve Connor | MIT Technology Review | July 26, 2017

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  • Just One Voice

    Wow, this makes me nervous. Probably because I’m one of those people that would be considered unfit for humanity, and therefore discarded. (Quick window into my life: I’ve struggled with epileptic seizures my whole life. But IN YOUR FACE, SCIENTISTS WHO KNOW SO MUCH! ‘Cause here I am, speaking for myself & for many others who have lived to overcome obstacles thrown in our path! Okay off my high horse. Sorry, slightly sensitive spot there from being labeled and having a supposed “disability”).

    This kinda reminds me of the movie “Paycheck.” When power of this level falls into the wrong hands, just like the article quotes, we’re talking about a potential WMD.

    Also makes me re-think passages like Amos 5:18-20.

    • Scott

      Thanks for sharing part of your story!.. I just have one question though… how on earth did you suffer through the movie Paycheck? I made it just over half way and couldn’t do any more. I’m not sure that movie is good enough to be considered a “B-movie.” (please forgive me if you like it. : – )

      On another note, I really struggle with verses like Amos 5:18-20! Thank God that verse is in the OT and Jesus took the penalty for our sins… soooooo many sins.

      • Just One Voice

        Hi Scott!

        Yeah I like the movie Paycheck (there’s only one out there, right? Ben Affleck?) I think I only watch it once a year, or maybe less! I guess I like the whole story of how he “engineers” his way out of trouble & the future destruction of the world.

        Peoples’ movie tastes can be really interesting eh? What did you not like about it?

        How exactly do you struggle with Amos 5? I have to re-think it sometimes ’cause when news like this headline comes forth, I catch myself just selfishly wanting to get out, wanting the story to be at the end, etc. The key word, though, being selfishly. 🙂

        The story is not on my time, nor is it about me or a single group, but about the entire human race.

        • Scott

          “there’s only one out there, right? Ben Affleck?” Yes, thats the one.

          “I guess I like the whole story of how he “engineers” his way out of trouble & the future destruction of the world.”

          I can see that… Unique twist to the age old “save the world” theme. I guess I didn’t like the acting, editing (scenes and storyline could have flowed better), writing and the effects left a little to be desired. I don’t mind that it seemed a bit far fetched, but the combination of all the rest of the elements I mentioned didn’t do it for me.

          “How exactly do you struggle with Amos 5?”

          Because I am a sinner… and when I was an atheist… I was a world class sinner. You mentioned versus 18-20. Those are not comforting verses… Yes I know Jesus paid the penalty for my sins. But verses like that remind me of what I really am, and as a human I struggle with that. : – )

          “The story is not on my time, nor is it about me or a single group, but about the entire human race.”

          This is true… and yet that story is made up of billions of sub stories… and those are very much our own. It comforts me to know God is the author. : – )

          • Just One Voice

            I was thinking of this discussion last night & realized, “I can’t leave him with verses that bring discomfort!” I instantly thought of this passage.
            I only hope it leaves a more peaceful & comfortable trail 🙂

            Psalm 103:8-13 The LORD is merciful and gracious,
            slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.

  • James Perryman

    Why do so many cringe at GMO’s in food yet applaud this as acceptable progress for the human race?

  • Sam Benito

    From the linked article footnoted at the bottom: “First Human Embryos Edited in U.S.” –

    “[N]one of the embryos were allowed to develop for more than a few days . . .”

    It’s hard to say this without sounding melodramatic, but the stone-cold truth is that that is a diabolically euphemistic way of saying those tiny human beings were brought into brief existence just so they could be experimented on and then left to die (or outright murdered).

    I wonder what those little ones will say to us on Judgment Day for standing by, mute. More ominous still, what their Maker will say.

  • Phoenix1977

    “no one should believe for a moment that this technology, if perfected, will be limited to, as the National Academy of Sciences has recommended, the “elimination of serious diseases.””
    The problem with this is the definition. Because once you have eliminated the most serious of diseases (for example, Huntington’s Disease, Cystic Fibrosis or Alzheimer’s) new disease will become the new most serious diseases. So yes, the very definition means a slope. The real question is, though, if we should think that a bad thing.
    A friend of mine suffers from a genetic disorder for which we know the exact gene defect for quite some time now. Even though he can live a (relatively) normal life he has quite some limitations. I’m quite sure he would like to have his disease to be eliminated from the gene pool with this technique, especially since his niece has recently been diagnosed with the same condition.

    No invention of men has ever been not used as a weapon. Einstein thought his nuclear research would lead to a trustworthy energy source, not the Manhattan Project. And Louis Pasteur would turn in his grave if he knew his discovery of vaccination was re-invented to make biological warfare possible. That doesn’t mean the original discoveries and it’s goals were bad. Mankind took them and turned to to the dark side. That doesn’t mean we should stop vaccinating our children or stop using electricity. It only means we need to remember how things can be misused.

    • Scott

      “No invention of men has ever been not used as a weapon. Einstein thought his nuclear research would lead to a trustworthy energy source, not the Manhattan Project. And Louis Pasteur would turn in his grave if he knew his discovery of vaccination was re-invented to make biological warfare possible.”

      So much truth about humanity in your statement. Us Christians recognize it differently than you do but we see the flaws inherent… and Jesus points us away from such tendencies whether we listen or not.

      Just curious, what is the genetic disorder your friend suffers from?

      • Phoenix1977

        Osteogenisis imperfecta, or “brittle bone disease”. Playing a video game with too much enthusiasm can cause him a broken bone or two, not to mention what a simple fall from a small height would to to him.

        • Scott

          That’s terrible… quite some limitations indeed.

        • Steve

          Had his mom known this prenatally, maybe she would have chosen abortion.
          You would have missed out on that friendship and he would have missed out on life. Would you want that?

          • Phoenix1977

            I thought we were discussing gene therapy here?

          • Phoenix1977

            Oh, and osteogenisis imperfecta only shows in genetic diagnostics if you are truly looking for it. Since the disease is quite rare (as I am sure you know yourself as well) it’s not part of the standard prenatal screening. But I think you know that as well.
            So what your comment actually is, is a cheap way to score points on a subject we weren’t even discussing. Except I’m not interested in taking the bait.

          • Steve

            I understand this is about gene therapy, but gene therapy is also a life issue. In the course of testing for various imperfections, decisions must be made. During the course of development of this therapy not all maladies will be able to be fixed. More will be able to be discovered than are currently tested for now (OI, for instance).
            So my question is not a cheap way to score points, it is very relevant about real world choices that are made in the course of these evolving technologies.
            I am merely asking you a question that is no longer hypothetical or one that is applied to someone that you would never know, but about an actual individual.
            The question is: if your friend’s mom were able to tell prenatally that he had OI and there were no gene therapy for it and she chose to abort him, what would you think about that?

          • Phoenix1977

            “The question is: if your friend’s mom were able to tell prenatally that he had OI and there were no gene therapy for it and she chose to abort him, what would you think about that?”
            I think that would have been her choice and none of my business.

          • Steve

            I thought so. Very sad. One person’s entire existence determined by the choice of another.

    • Steve

      “Our children”? You mean the ones that annoy you so much?

      • Phoenix1977

        Good point.

  • RWaters

    CRISPR is one of several biological editing tools but, the latest and greatest. Since the National Human Genome Research Inst. in D.C. began its Human Genome Project, I have remained interested in how the NIH conducts Ethical, Legal, Social Implications standards (ELSI). The NIH isn’t messing with babies but disease. To your point, John, the world is messing around with CRISPR: for environmental, criminal, social, warfare – many realms – to change human behaviors. The human DNA is a “final data”; there is nothing of ourselves left to protect once this bio-data is loose but, to slip in another truth: the Church lost the abortion war, the same-sex marriage war and we’ll likely loose this one too. How many churches really care?

    • Phoenix1977

      “How many churches really care?”
      I think the correct question would be: “What does society care what the churches say?”

      • Heather

        Don’t lose hope. Remember our hope does not depend on whether society listens to us or not. Our hope is grounded on the fact that God listens. He is the one who commanded us to pray and promised that His power and dominion would be released this way. My Faith and Hope tell me that I do not pray in vain.

        • Phoenix1977

          “My Faith and Hope tell me that I do not pray in vain.”
          But your god has not the greatest track record when it comes to interfering, does he? When was the last time your prayers actually made a difference to the world?

  • Lobanz D’Grate

    I wonder is parents of CRISPR babies can decide if they will be gay or not? They found the gay gene right?