So it’s agreed. We’re going to allow genetic modification of the human race. Because we can do it so much better. The ostensible aim is of course worthy – the elimination of mitochondrial disease, which, in its more serious form, affects around 1 in every 6,500 babies. Women, so the argument runs – and it is women who carry this particular genetic defect – have the right to have a healthy child. Those carrying the defect shouldn’t have to run the inheritance lottery they currently face; and now science can help.
What’s not to celebrate?
There are many flaws in this reasoning. First, whatever the current mantra propounded by society (which at the other end of the spectrum happily kills babies deemed unwanted), there is no ‘right’ to have a child. Children are a gift of God, to be cherished and nurtured – not a ‘right’. Children are costly. Most important of all, children are independent human beings, with their own unique gifts and part to play in this troubled and troublesome world. They have a role that is entirely independent of a relationship to their parents.
What they are not is an extension and de facto validation of either relationship and/or the individual(s) involved. Of course, it is desperately sad when a couple see their child suffering because of a defect they are wholly powerless in the normal course of things to put right. But life, both collectively and individually, is full of problems. Everyone on the planet has had, has now, and always will have, challenges with which to contend. It is a part of being human – and the overcoming (which sometimes means living with difficult circumstances) is often actually a path to blessing.
Byron had a clubfoot, Julius Caesar had epilepsy, Michelangelo suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Churchill was depressive … the list goes on and on. No one is perfect and, sadly, the reality for most of humanity (maybe even for all of us) is that ‘struggle’ and overcoming allows the emergence of what we are. It is the chrysalis that nurtures the butterfly.
Although in the current climate this may amount to heresy, none of us actually has the right to a child. If we know that conception will cause suffering to a dearly wanted ‘other’, which we ourselves will find hard to bear, then maybe … just maybe … we should take the brave decision to channel our energies in other directions, and forgo the delights of parenthood.
But what of this hybrid child itself, once conceived? At the time of birth, he or she should be free of the feared defect, and so too will future generations; because this is a change that, once made, can never be reversed. All to the good … but what about other long term and currently unknown effects?
Dolly the sheep, cloned to huge public acclaim in 2003, died from severe arthritis and a progressive lung disease five months before her seventh birthday. Sheep of Dolly’s breed normally have a life expectancy of 11 to 12 years. Out of 277 cloning attempts, Dolly was the only lamb to survive to adulthood, while a significant number of the failures showed visible physical deformity. To state the obvious, we simply don’t know, on current knowledge, what the future health implications of this ‘groundbreaking’ technique might be. Nor do we know, realistically, where the knowledge will lead. Mitochondrial disease today … but why stop there? Why not eliminate heart disease, inherited neurological conditions, cleft palate … red hair? Can we really be certain this is not a genetic forbidden fruit, that will ultimately destroy humanity as we know it?
There is, however, another dimension to the debate, which by and large in this secular dominated age we fight shy of even considering. The Bible says clearly that we are all precious and unique (so far so good). It also says that before we are in the womb, God knows us, and that we have a God-ordained destiny (which also seems pretty good). But this is predicated on the assumption no one exists in isolation and that we are the genetic offspring/inheritors of a known father and mother. In fact, the Bible says explicitly that what a parent does will carry effects, for good or ill, for the next five generations.
It also, of course, has a lot to say about suffering, which is generally regarded as a bad thing. The Psalms especially give a lot of airtime to anguished complaints, but the overall approach, whether addressing individual suffering or the state of the nation, is that getting right with God will see the problem dealt with at source and wellbeing restored. Repentance always plays a major part in this process, while attempts to bypass the Almighty with man-made solutions almost invariably lead to disaster.
In the New Testament we find a slightly more disturbing note. According to the apostle Paul, ‘in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).
The obvious conclusion is that Paul’s thorn in the flesh – a highly unpleasant, but unspecified, demonic attack – was used by God for the apostle’s development. Which surely means that, though suffering is never willed by God, there is sometimes a point to it. A vital and indispensable point, in fact, that leads to enormous blessing. Perhaps then we should reconsider before taking the bold step of trying to remove from humanity every last trace of what we consider defect.
But there’s more, and it’s this perhaps that is the real problem. The Bible teaches consistently that we are spiritual beings, temporarily inhabiting a body. At death we shed that body, but our spirit remains. What we have done in this life, however, somehow determines what happens to us next. So the question surely is, what, if any, is the spiritual significance of this intervention upon the individual thus formed?
In the Bible, children are fruit of the exclusive and life-long union of a man and woman in marriage, who in themselves, together and jointly, bear the image of God. Every child then carries the genetic inheritance of their parents, and it is this that is crucial in determining both their character and destiny. The Bible doesn’t envisage the creation of hybrids – why should it? Even the idea back then would have seemed preposterous. But, if it had addressed the issue, it’s a pretty safe bet it would have been seen as anathema – not just because it breaches the exclusive union of marriage, but because the existence of a hybrid muddies the notion of the image of God.
Let’s return to the OT, to Abraham this time. God promised the patriarch that he would become the father of a great nation. Sarah, however, was getting a bit long in the tooth. In fact, not to mince matters, it would seem she’d hit the menopause, so Abraham decided to help God along. He conceived a child with Haggai, Sarah’s servant, and the outcome was Ishmael.
The result was an unmitigated disaster. Short term, Sarah, the long-suffering wife, reacted with predictable jealousy – so bad that Abraham had to expel Haggai and the child from the tribe. Longer term, and centuries later, the split saw the birth of a ‘rival’ religion, and spawned hatred between Arabs and Jews that persists to this day. Worse than that, it affects the whole planet!
To put it bluntly, in God’s scheme, Ishmael was a child that should never have been conceived. Once born, God did not reject or abandon him – on the contrary, He provided for Ishmael, who went on to found a mighty city. But the child’s existence, both for himself and for the wider world, caused problems that should never have arisen.
Just because we can do something, doesn’t always mean we should. And some things, done for the best of motives, may at first glance look beneficial, but in reality cause enormous harm. If Pandora had known in advance what would happen when she opened the box, she would have run a mile! Perhaps then, rather than playing god and redesigning mankind, we would be better served working to gain a greater understanding of the rules that determine our being, and then utilizing that knowledge to try to find a cure that doesn’t violate nature, and which won’t involve the collateral destruction of other embryos, plundered for the spare parts necessary to engineer change.