Hold onto your socks, it’s time to think calmly about a topic that quickly, and sometimes frighteningly, blurs the line between science and science fiction: directed evolution — altering our genetic makeup in ways that can be passed down to future generations.

Want to hear the scary part first? Consider that in a matter of years, we will most likely have the ability to change snippets of genetic information in an early stage embryo (created by in-vitro fertilization and then implanted in a mother’s womb) and thereby create a child who is taller, or stronger, or less at risk for cancer, or, more controversially, less likely to be homosexual.

Even for people who aren’t religious conservative or environmentally radical, that degree of power over a child’s genetic endowment can seem frightening and too open to abuse. Will those with money and access create über-offspring who eventually rule over the genetically inferior? Will children become commodities, with parents picking and choosing traits from a genetic menu? Will scientists unwittingly damage such children even as they seek to enhance them?

These monstrous scenarios are explored by Ron Green, director of the Ethics Institute at Dartmouth College (and former undergraduate thesis adviser to ReligionWriter), in his new book, Babies by Design: The Ethics of Genetic Choice. But as scary as these possibilities are, Green takes a progressive view and firmly asserts that the benefits of such genetic intervention may, in some cases, outweigh the risks. These ethical questions are not simply academic brain-teasers, asserts Green, founding director of the NIH’s Office of Genome Ethics, because scientific advances are rapidly bringing the hypothetical to life. He writes:

Whether in ten, twenty, or thirty years, the first deliberate inheritable modifications of human genes will take place. … Having vastly expanded our control over the world around us, our species is now rapidly developing the ability to alter the world within. The question is not whether we will do this but when and how.

[Most people, of course, don’t keep up with the latest developments in genetic engineering, but Green shares at least one breakthrough that shows how truly amazing the progress is. He describes how University of Utah researcher Mario Capecchi and fellow scientists have discovered a way to not only add specific genetic material to targeted areas of the human genome, but also “unzip” and remove the added material at a later date. Previously, genetic interventions were both cruder and permanent. (Not coincidentally, Capecchi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in October.)]

Does Genetic Intervention Infringe on God’s Power?

But back to the headline question: What would God do? That is, does religious faith or compassionate humanitarianism obligate us to improve lives and relieve suffering? According to Pope John Paul II, the answer is yes.

Writes Green: Although that pope “took a very conservative position on many new bioethical questions, [he] repeatedly approved of gene therapies so long as they respected other Catholic reproductive norms (such as the bans on contraception and IVF) and were aimed at curing or preventing disease.” Of course, the former pope’s word is not the be-all and end-all on religio-ethical debates for most people, but it is certainly significant that a leader of such stature gave the green light to genetic modifications, even those that can be inherited.

In spite of such religious A-OKs, however, many people — regular folks and bioethics professionals alike — have serious reservations about tinkering at all with the human genome, which the United Nations has declared the “heritage of humanity.” Writes Green:

According to a long tradition in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths, the original divine act [of creating Adam] repeats itself every time a new human comes into existence. … For those influenced by these traditions, human control of genetic makeup represents a Promethean seizure of God’s power. Some, like Leon Kass, the former head of President Bush’s bioethics council, regard genetic intervention … as the effort by limited and puny creatures to seize control of the one domain that is God’s alone.

RW agrees with Green that this conservative view, that genetic intervention is inherently blasphemous, is problematic. Green points out that even the very conservative are comfortable with other modifications of God’s creation, such as surgery. To RW, however, this conservative view also has some theological problems.

If you believe that God is all-powerful, then how can “puny” human power ever threaten that power? Omnipotent means omnipotent, right? RW sees this same theological problem on the Catholic ban on birth control — can God’s will really be thwarted by a condom? As many parents know, even the best-laid birth control plans can be overturned with a surprise pregnancy.

Is It Right to Enhance Our Children?

Where Green intentionally pushes the envelope is his argument that gene intervention for enhancement, rather than just therapeutic, purposes should be considered. Think plastic surgery rather than heart surgery. Plastic surgery, of course, is often looked down upon as a shallow pursuit of skin-deep beauty. Yet procedures like LASIK, which correct vision, are considered more acceptable.

What if you could have an operation to improve your memory? That might not seem like such a bad idea, if the associated risks were low. If so, what is your argument against a genetic intervention that would give your unborn child — and his or her offspring — enhanced mental capacities?

Green argues that most of us suffer from a “status quo bias” when it comes to thinking about changing our DNA. If it seems unfair to genetically enhance a child’s athletic abilities, Green invites us to consider the fact that genetic endowments are already unfair. Athletes like Lance Armstrong, Green points out, have been shown to have key inherited traits — long femur bones, lungs capable of taking in large amounts of oxygen — that give him an inborn advantage over competitors. In other words, the current playing field is not as level as it seems, and genetic enhancement could, in some cases, even work to make things more fair, writes Green.

Green’s message throughout the book seems to be: Yes, the new world of genetic modifications presents complex and sometimes scary possibilities, but we don’t need to reject them out of hand; we can think rationally about them. Such a calm, careful and even hopeful voice serves an important purpose — but as divisive public debates over stem cell research, abortion and Terry Schaivo have showed, such thinking often becomes lost in the shouting.

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