Genetics, Biotechnology and the Future

The genetics and genomics revolution has at its core information and techniques that can be used to change humanness itself as well as the concepts of what it means to be human. The age-old human fantasies of the mythical chimeras of the ancients, supernatural intelligence, wiping disease from human inheritance, designing a better human being, the fountain of youth, and even immortality now have biotechnical credence in the theoretical promises of genetics and genetic engineering. Not only can humanity's collective genetic inheritance be shaped by selecting which embryos are allowed to develop via pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, but genetic engineering, the availability of the human embryo for experimentation, and combining genes from many species require only sufficient imagination to catalyze the designing of a new humanity.

To talk about some of the implications of these technologies, Wake Forest University School of Medicine held a conference entitled Genetics, Biotechnology and the Future: Medical, Scientific and Religious Perspectives on January 24, 2004  in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in partnership with The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity. The conference was co-sponsored by the Bioethics Task Force of Wake Forest University, Christian Medical and Dental Associations, Piedmont Bioethics Network, and Trinity International University.

The conference brought together leaders from medicine, science, law, ethics, religion, and patient advocacy to examine how genetics and biotechnology should be used to shape our future. The overall goal of the conference was to spur in-depth deliberation across spheres of influence during the formative stages of genetic and biotechnological disciplines. The conference, promoted through Bioethics.com and other international venues, was a stimulating and rewarding experience featuring insightful exchange among the various fields.

In addition to discussing the genetic revolutions, competing conceptions of the human embryo's moral status were also debated at the conference. Greater support was voiced for a view in which "respect" entails more than just insisting that the benefits of killing be great enough. An embryo is a human being--genetically human and a being who will develop through a lifelong cycle, like other human beings, as long as suitable nurture and environment are provided. To diminish that being's status, because of the stage of development at the moment, appeared arbitrary to many--though some supported doing so.

While science is billed as morally neutral, there are many fallacies with this oversimplification. Science lacks moral neutrality not only in the priorities set but also in the hypotheses proposed and the questions asked, because the prevailing philosophical values of our culture influence all of these. The swaying of scientific aims by philosophical values is more fundamental to science's impact on our future than the actual gains of explorations themselves.

The conference noted that the medical profession--countering the narrowly focused, specific question-answering capabilities of science--humanizes scientific activity. The patient advocacy role of a physician takes the empirical-pragmatic scientific "logical way" of medicine into account, but guides patients to act consistently with their whole persons, not just their physical bodies. Medicine at its best never advocates a cure at the expense of denigrating a patient's soul. Medicine begins the ethical reflection on the "should we" questions. Recently, though, medicine has increasingly been preoccupied with patient autonomy and utility, and the need for the valuable counterbalance that can be provided by religious influences has become more apparent. Autonomy and utility should not trump all other ethical concerns.

To read current justifications of human cloning, embryonic stem cell research, and genetic intervention, though, one would think that constraining any scientific freedom is the ultimate evil. On the contrary, the greater evil arguably lies in allowing scientific development to proceed without ethical moorings. One would also think from current discussions that great medical benefits constitute their own justification; whereas common sense tells us otherwise. We don't remove all of the vital organs from a single healthy person just because a larger number of people can be enabled to live as a result.

Religious perspectives have a significant role to play in the ethical use of genetics and biotechnology--to connect autonomous choices with larger communal concerns. Religious views help ensure that scientific advances not only expand choices and produce benefits but do so without undermining our humanity and dignity in the process. This conference shattered the oft-quoted misconception that those who hold strong religious opinions are antagonistic to scientific investigation. Rather, all spheres of influence agreed on the high value of scientific and medical investigation with an aim to restore human health and alleviate disease and suffering. The consensus was that society should no longer allow these spheres of influence to remain separate and isolated in theoretical blindness. Rather society must prioritize cross-disciplinary examination to ensure that the future of human genetics and biotechnology is not only scientifically sophisticated and medically productive but also truly humane.

It is a cultural necessity today to have bioethics dialogs among informed citizens representing all spheres of influence. More opportunities like this are needed that bring together people of differing views to discuss and assess some of the most crucial issues of our time. 


Editor's Note: The above text has been adapted from an article appearing in the Journal of International Biotechnology Law 1:2 (March, 2004): 53-55. The journal  invited the authors to write the article, which discusses the most important ideas that emerged at the Center's latest regional conference, for its March 2004 issue.

To inquire about holding a CBHD conference in your area, please email the Center at info@cbhd.org.