The American Nobel Prize Winner James Watson explicitly addresses those who believe that all human life is a mirror of God and who attribute therefore a sanctity to human life which excludes any human attempt to use it for ends such as medical research. Watson himself affirms that life is not created by God but is the product of an evolutionary process which follows Darwin’s principles of natural selection. Religiously motivated laws which, for example, enforce the birth of genetically disabled children, says Watson, create unnecessary suffering for their parents. In the long run – thus the Nobel Prize Winner – these religious voices will be isolated and their views will be ignored.
Watson’s line of argument shows: In the current debate on the new possibilities of modern biotechnology there is more at stake than just the pros and contras of a certain method. It mirrors a possible change in ethical culture. It questions the validity of fundamental ethical values which were so far embedded in a broad societal consensus. Human genetic technologies touch our deepest convictions about the value of human life.
· Human genetic technologies force us to clarify our understanding of human beings as creatures of God. Especially in issues of human genetic technology religious language is invoked in public.
When U.S. President Bill Clinton announced the completion of the Human Genom Project in a globally broadcast press conference on June 25, 2000, he used theological language: “Today we learn the language in which God created life”.
What is the meaning of such theological affirmations in this context? How do churches respond to this claim?
· Human genetic technologies involve an assessment of the weight of different goods such as the possibility of healing sicknesses and the integrity of early human life. Sometimes ethical dilemmas cannot be avoided. Then, it is all the more important to carefully analyse and assess the ethical aspects of the problem and thus come to a responsible decision.
· Human genetic technologies are based on a distribution of resources for health that has to be questioned. Human genetic technologies depend on resources which are extremely unequally distributed in the different parts of the world. The use of large resources to help parents have a healthy child is questionable when health and nutrition can be provided for children in other parts of the world can be saved with a fraction of these resources and affordable drugs are not at reach for victims of HIV/Aids.
· Human genetic technologies may have an impact on the ecology of values in a society and redefine the place that sickness and disability have in it.
4. HOW THEOLOGY CAN GIVE ORIENTATION
The Sanctity of all Life
God's salvation in Jesus Christ not only means fullness of life for the human community, but the restoration of all creation to its goodness and wholeness. God's Holy Spirit comes to renew the whole creation. As the early church confessed: God, the Creator, the Son and the Holy Spirit are one in the Holy Trinity. According to the creation stories of the Bible, the earth was meant to be home for all living creatures, which live in different spaces, but linked to each other in a web of relationships. The human community is placed within the wider community of the earth, which is embedded in God's household of life. It is this vision of a truly ecumenical earth, that emphasis the sanctity and inter-relatedness of all life.
Jesus Christ as the Basis
Christians understand what it means to be human in the light of Jesus Christ as the one human being in which God’s creative will for human beings has shown on earth. Biblical notions and the stories about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus do not provide a blueprint for contemporary ethical decision making. But if we live in a certain tradition and make the story of this tradition into our own story, our perspectives on the world are shaped by this story. As Christians we believe that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is a powerful resource for a meaningful life. We believe that it can give us life fostering guidance in the ethical questions of our times.
Relationality from below
The understanding of human beings as relational beings is fundamental. It does, however, not suffice just to speak of some general humanity with some general relationality. Such humanity and such relationality are qualified. Jesus is the vulnerable human being, the tortured human being, the powerlessly abused human being. Relationality, theologically understood, is therefore, relationality from below. To look at human relations as Christians, requires to look at them from the perspective of the deprived, dispossessed and vulnerable.
Understanding this qualification of relationality has clear consequences for the assessment of modern human genetic technologies. Not only does it question all efforts technically to improve human beings, but it also deeply ingrains the perspective of the disabled and physically “imperfect”. Discussions about the selection of human beings, genetically worthy or unworthy to live, are seen differently, if this perspective becomes once own perspective. Human life is given by God. Its beauty does not depend on human assessment. The conviction that human lives are not at the disposal of human goals or wishes is expressed in rejecting all efforts to apply the cloning technique to human beings.
Human beings as an end in itself
Since every human being is created by God, no human being may be used as a pure instrument for any other purpose. Human beings are always ends in themselves and never only means to another end. Therefore, every human being is irreplaceable. This is what the notion of the “dignity of the human person”, which lay the groundwork of the modern human rights’ tradition, means. If the Tongan people have resisted the economic exploitation of their blood, they have shown a clear intuition for this dignity. The affirmation of human dignity stands against all forms of the use of human genetic technologies which subject human beings to pure economic interests.
Dignity instead of commodity
Human lives are more and more shaped by an economic paradigm which is dependent on the trade of commodities in the market place. The danger is obvious that this paradigm even shapes human attitudes toward life instead of nurturing this attitude toward life with the paradigm of dignity.
The emphasis on the dignity of the human person is irreconcilable with any commodification of human life. Human life is treated as a commodity when its value is weighed against another value. This is what happens when human life is patented. Such patenting gives a power on human life to specific human beings which cannot be justified. Life ultimately belongs to God. The patenting of human life is in opposition to this conviction.
Unconditional Affirmation of Human Life
Every human being is part of God’s creation of which God has said: ‘It is very good’. Therefore God’s love extends to every human being, no matter whether other human beings consider it worthy or not. Current societal tendencies to judge others according to their degree of perfection, be it aesthetical, moral or physical, fail to witness God’s will for God’s creation. New genetic selection techniques such as Pre-natal Genetic Diagnostics open the door for efforts to judge about the worth of human life and therefore for new forms of eugenics. A new culture of affirmation of life which includes human beings who are seen as disabled, diseased or deficient by others is imperative.
Questioning the Notions of Health and Sickness
There are no objective criteria for the notions of sickness and health. What is called healthy, differs in various contexts. While deafness can be seen as a serious deficiency by some, others have learned to live with it and can affirm it. Vice versa many who seem healthy from one perspective can be seen as sick, for example in their social attitudes, from another.
Alleviating suffering is a high human goal. Jesus himself healed the sick and alleviated their suffering. But Jesus acted in relationship. He responded to a call for help. His healing was an affirmation of life. Medical treatments today have to be sensitive to the needs of the patients. Medical efforts fail to meet what they are called to do, if they make patients into objects of a self running medical or scientific enterprise which serves more the glory of the researchers than meeting the needs of the patients.
The Moral Status of the Human Embryo
If illnesses can only be healed by using others, including developing early human life, the price is too high. The churches do not completely agree upon the moral status of the embryo. Some affirm that the dignity of the human person applies to human life from the time of conception on. Others believe that the embryo only gradually develops into a full human being with the full protection of human dignity.
Nevertheless, there is the common conviction that no human being has to earn basic respect and dignity by moral, spiritual or physical worthiness. Such respect and dignity can also not be based on reaching a certain stage of biological development. Dignity is not earned by human beings but attributed by God the creator. Therefore, there is agreement that the embryo, from the very beginning at conception represents human life and can not be treated arbitrarily. Even those who do not exclude research with human embryos in the first fourteen days after conception advocate strong restrictions on ethical grounds. Since therapeutic cloning (“research cloning”) implies that human life is created for the simple reason to be destroyed again for research, it is not compatible with the respect for life which churches advocate for.
Modern human genetic technologies call the grave injustices to everyone’s attention which characterise the global distribution of health resources. Human lives cannot be weighed against each other in an accounting mode. Every human life with its own biography is precious and deserves to be cared for. This is why it is a moral scandal that in many parts of the world the very basic requirements of human health care are not met. Nevertheless the main share of intellectual and financial resources for health care in the world is overwhelmingly directed to the wealthy. Whereas in some parts of the world health problems are caused by an affluent life style, in other parts lack of health is caused by poverty.
Christians believe that there is only one human family created by God. As long as some in this human family are gravely disadvantaged Christians are called to be their advocates. Those responsible in politics and health care must direct their attention to effective strategies for overcoming global health injustice. A more balanced global distribution of health goods is necessary. An ethics of self-limitation in the health care systems of the affluent countries and a common effort to develop basic health care systems globally are called for. If human genetic technologies cannot help in this effort, they should not be given any priority.
Accepting our finiteness
Especially in the affluent countries, people try to do everything to escape human finiteness. Large amounts of money are being used to extend life as long as possible. According to the Bible, however, good life includes finiteness. It is no coincidence that the creation story in Genesis sees the wish of the human being for eternal life as the one temptation which would be like a second fall. God places the Cherubim at the door of paradise to prevent Adam and Eve from eating the fruits of the second forbidden tree - the tree of life - so they would not “take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.” (Gen 3,22f). It is an act of God’s love that God places the Cherubim at the door of paradise. Striving for eternal life on earth is failing to be human. Striving for human made eternal life is striving for a fake paradise and it runs the danger of actually ending up in human made hell. People of faith live with a different promise. They can accept their finiteness, because they trust in an eternal life opened up by God.
The World Council of Churches is in the unique position to provide a platform for ecumenical exchange and debate on genetic engineering so that member churches and ecumenical partners will learn more about each others approaches and are encouraged to better co-operate at different levels. The gap between the challenges posed by genetic engineering and active participation of civil society in the debate is often noticed. This applies even more to the voices of churches and faith communities.