Genentic Engineering. Scientists are growing more adept at shifting genes from one plant or animal to another. As their skill sharpens, so will its effect on people's lives -- from having children to getting a job. This is raising some basic ethical, religious, and legal questions.
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Another group increasingly interested in the issues surrounding genetic engineering is the ecumenical community. Some theologists point out that religious opinions range from ``preservationists'' to ``tranformationists.'' The former flatly reject genetic experimentation as tampering with biblical creation and natural order. The latter are cautiously open to gene research -- but usually only that which is intended to lead to better health and nutrition. Both groups tend to reject cross-species experiments.Skip to next paragraph
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Recently, the National Council of Churches -- an umbrella organization for Protestant groups across the United States -- adopted an official policy that embraced ``genetic science for human benefit'' -- such as improved food production and cure of blight and disease. But the council also urged caution on other experiments, especially those that affect family life and values, such as in vitro (or test-tube) fertilization, frozen embryos, and the use of surrogate mothers.
The Rev. J. Robert Nelson, a Methodist minister and director of the Institute of Religion at the Texas Medical Center, is the main author of a 22-page position paper that urges churches to ``undertake programs of research and education on the scientific, sociological, and political aspects'' of genetic engineering ``as well as on the theological, ethical, and moral ones.
Mr. Nelson urges theological seminaries to provide basic education in counseling families about the use of alternative reproductive technologies and the implications of genetic engineering. `Should we become parents?'
One potential issue: the use of genetic screening by prospective parents. The same tests that raise the possibility of job discrimination could also be used by physicians to see if would-be parents carry what are considered to be disease-related genes that might be passed on to their children. Depending on the result, such a test might discourage a couple from bearing children even though medical statistics show a small likelihood of any one child's contracting that disease.
Any notion of custom designing children -- while perhaps ultimately possible though genetic engineering -- is way over the horizon.
``The criteria for religion [in regard to genetic experiments],'' Mr. Nelson points out, include ``the sacred worth of human life,'' ``a commitment to fairness, justice, and love,'' and ``stewardship of creation.''
The Rev. Robert Barry, a Roman Catholic priest and an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Illinois, has done extensive research in this area. He says that his church ``generally encourages genetic engineering that is therapeutic in nature and doesn't alter the fundamental character of the human person.''
``It is the duty of churches to help establish clear guidelines and limitations [for genetic engineering],'' Fr. Barry holds.
Rabbi A. James Rudin, an official of the American Jewish Committee and a member of the New York State Task Force on Life and the Law, is extremely cautious about gene research. ``Genetic engineering is potentially very dangerous,'' he says. ``When you upset the balance of nature, you pay a price.''
Rabbi Rudin is particularly concerned about trying to alter the genetic qualities and sex of a child. He says that he is alarmed by the potential to ``breed'' (`a la Nazi Germany) ``racial superiority or inferiority.''
In proposing a national commission to monitor biotechnology developments that affect human genetic engineering, US Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D) of Tennessee has said: ``We are at the present time woefully unprepared to grapple with the serious ethical choices with which the new technology will confront us. The very power to bring about so much good will also open the door to serious potential problems. If we are not careful, we may well cross the line separating the two.'' Tomorrow: How genes are altered.