Sunday, April 10, 2011

It's in the genes

 As one pastor's contribution to conversation in preparation for a vote at ELCA Churchwide Assembly, I offer these notes and review.

1) Before reading the proposed statement, I had assumed that it would address embryonic stem cell research directly, at least in some fashion. It does not. I bet many who read the title of the document assume a social statement on genetics would focus on stem cell research. However, one of the implementing resolutions reads: "To direct the Theological Discernment Section of the Office of the Bishop in late 2013 to bring an assessment of the feasibility of developing a social message on hESC research to the ELCA Church Council for consideration" (1276). The only other surprise to me in reading that was to learn that we have a Theological Discernment Section of the Office of the Bishop. News to me.

2) Human cloning is discussed, in my opinion the other hot button issue when it comes to discussions of ethics and genetics. I have a special interest in this topic because I'm a sci-fi nerd, and I wonder what will happen once human cloning becomes a regular and straightforward possibility, something I think is inevitable. On this one, I think the social statement drops the ball in a major way, because it sets up a tragic conflict of interest. Here's what it says:

"As a matter of respect, however, the ELCA affirms the widely held rejection of research into human reproductive cloning because of the unacceptable risk of harm to experimental subjects. This church will continue to reject human reproductive cloning as a matter of respect even if it becomes safe and economically feasible. A person should not be treated as a means to another person's end. Cloning for the sake of repeating another individual's genotype violates this standard. Aims other than the replication of identity may be possible, but they are not compelling today.

However, if individuals are cloned despite societal and ELCA rejection, this church will respect their God-given dignity and will welcome them to the baptismal font like any other child of God" (694-701).

Try reading this from the perspective of a person who is a clone. The social statement says, "People shouldn't have made you, but now, fine, whatever, we'll baptize you even though they shouldn't have cloned you in the first place." This is simply an untenable formulation, and it needs to be struck from the social statement. Whatever is included in the social statement needs to be more sensitive to the situation of future cloned persons. Clones, like twins, are people too, plain and simple.

3) The proposed statement says that rostered leaders should gain a basic knowledge of genetics. It's not clear to me what level constitutes "basic," and I'd love guidance on what precisely to study. So I was hearted to see that one of the implementing resolutions was to compile lists of resources in synods, etc (1260). Regular readers of this blog will know I love bibliographies. For my part, I'll keep reading some good science fiction and science writing every year.

4) I quite like and appreciate the central thesis of the document. In the "executive summary," it reads: "The ethical imperative today is to respect and promote the community of life with justice and wisdom" (3). That's a good sentence, a theological restatement of the golden rule, and each term is elucidated to show how it shapes and directs ethical reflection on genetics. I've tried to memorize the sentence so I can apply it when reflecting on genetics and science topics.

5) The best sentence in the whole document is this one, "The Word became flesh and took on a human genome." That's true, provocative, surprising, and fresh. I liked it in the draft, and I'm glad they kept it for the final proposed social statement. It will in all likelihood find its way into a sermon some time soon. As an intriguing theological caveat, might it be that this is a good explanation for why Jesus didn't have biological children. No God genome passed on...

6) I continue to be proud of "this church" for its commitment to attending to and empowering marginalized voices. The proposed social statement is correct in pointing out that "public dialogue and moral deliberation on questions of genetic research and its application would be greatly enhanced if more people were included and empowered to participate" (318-320). We should "encourage the development of means to enable marginalized voices to be heard in public policy debates" (996). Amen. I have a feeling the sci-fi community is right on this one, and that developments in genetic science will pose grave risks for even greater levels of marginalization than heretofore known. See my point two above on cloning!

7) Another intriguing assertion: "This church believes the use of any technology should be subject to moral assessment" (350). So does this mean we'll start work on social statements on technology, media, computers, cars, etc.? Interesting. I'm game!

8) I was heartened to see one of my favorite doctrines of creation make it into the statement. Most people know the church teaches that God created "in the beginning." Less know that God is about the business of continually creating, creatio continua. Here's how the statement reads, "God's action is not confined to a series of events in the past. God creates continually, orchestrating an interplay between the laws of nature and contingent events to create and sustain all that exists" (393-). Genes are just one amazing and complex example of this creatio continua. If you're reading this and you're a preacher, bone up on creatio continua and sneak it into a sermon very, very soon.

9) Finally, the proposed social statement encourages readers not to be resigned in the face of the overwhelming complexity and forbidding nature of genetic science (473). It encourages us to confront this resignation head on, but doesn't offer advice on the how. Here's my pastoral suggestion. Might the best antidote to resignation, complacency, or negligence, be sheer wonder and awe before the majesty of God's ordering of life through genetic means in the first place? The best antidote for acedia and its kin is beauty, and genes are beautiful. We shouldn't "have to" study genetics. Genetic science is so beautiful we should naturally be attracted to taking a look for ourselves.

In fact, an insight like this last one is sort of lacking from the social statement in its proposed form, unless I overlooked something. Maybe it needs a little sentence like, "And isn't it beautiful!?"

 In all likelihood I will post a second review of the document after we discuss it in a proposed forum with the half dozen scientists who attend our congregation who work in genetics-related areas at the university.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this interesting review, Clint. I especially appreciate your comments on the human reproductive cloning section. You zero in on the problem with the statement about human dignity and welcome to baptism. Of course the church, and every one of its members, should do this. But I find it kind of shocking that this should be a statement starting with "however, if" it happens anyway. Rather, it seems to me, this should be the starting point for the discussion, even if there are still good reasons to express caution about any future human cloning.