Moral Aspects of Medical Technology (19)

Herman C. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Genetic Engineering

In our last article we began to call attention to some of the truths of Scripture which have to be considered as we approach this whole question from a Biblical point of view. We mentioned three items: 1) That just because science is able to do something, this does not mean that per se what science does is morally permissible. Man must rule science, not science man. 2) That the whole theory lying behind genetic experimentation and engineering is evolutionistic and humanistic. 3) That genetic engineering deals with the basic processes of life; and, because man is created by God with both body and soul, such tampering with life’s most basic processes will result in untold harm to the soul.

There are other points which need to be made in our consideration of this subject.

In the first place, it must be remembered that it is argued that genetic engineering is to be used to the “good” of man, i.e., for his improvement. We have quoted a couple of ethicists already who have called attention to this fundamental danger in the whole approach. Allen Verhey quoted C.S. Lewis as saying, “What we call Man’s power of nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over others with Nature as its instrument.” Joseph Fletcher, as we noticed in an earlier article, insists not only that the majority must decide what is good, but that this decision must be enforced legally. If, e.g., it is deemed good by the majority that all babies are now to be conceived in vitro so that they can be checked for genetic weaknesses or diseases, this will be considered good, and this “good” will be enforced by law.

One can readily see the picture. Babies born with defects and transmittable diseases are not “good” by the definition of the majority. Such children are a burden on their families and on society. Their presence in society brings the risk that they will pass on these diseases to others. The hope of mankind is to rid the world of illness and bring health to all. So, in order to avoid these evils, each child must be conceived in vitro so that any possibility of this happening may be destroyed. If the conceived child can undergo corrective surgery while it is still only a single cell, wonderful. If not, it can be destroyed. Fletcher argues passionately for this and accuses the old-fashioned Biblical moralists with being a drag on society.

But who determines what is really good? The answer is that the majority do. The trouble is that the majority in this world are ungodly people who have not the fear of the Lord in their hearts. So the wicked will be determining what is “good” for all, including God’s people.

And from a more practical point of view, not even the majority of wicked men will determine this, but the scientists will be the final arbitrators. They know what can be done; they alone can perform these medical “miracles;” they know better than anyone else what the long range consequences are; they are the ones who will finally have the power to determine for all what is really good. But any definition of good according to the Word of God is not even considered. So a cadre of scientists, a priesthood of elite manipulators of life will be in absolute control. It will be an unbelievably horrible time for God’s people when this happens.

In the second place, and in close connection with what we have said above, the believer must understand fully that good must be determined in the light of God’s Word. I would not be able to count how many God-fearing families have received of the Lord a Down’s syndrome child or a child with other severe defects who have not said, “The presence of this child in our family has been truly good,” They are not merely uttering pious phrases in a desperate attempt to come to terms with what has happened. They mean this with all their hearts, so much so that they consider such a child to be a special gift of the Lord Who, in special grace towards them, gave them a treasure which few others possess. I know they mean what they say. I have heard them say it with shining eyes. And I have stood at the side of parents who lost such a child when the child had been with them for fifteen or twenty years and who bore a grief greater than the grief of the loss of a “normal” child. These things are good; not by any worldly criteria, but by the criteria of the Scriptures.

The same thing must be said of death. The goal of the genetic engineers is, among other things, to stop the aging process and to overcome disease and death. We know that this will never happen. Scripture speaks of disease and death as part of the curse which has come upon this creation. It is God’s Word of fury against sin. Genetic engineering cannot reach out and cut away so as to silence this voice of God. History has proved that. One disease is conquered only in order that it may make room for another, yet more dreadful disease. Polio and tuberculosis have been conquered, but have moved aside to make room for cancer. Ordinary syphilis has become susceptible to antibiotic treatment, but the result is strains much more difficult to destroy and AIDS which threatens to become a plague like the bubonic plague of the Middle Ages. In some countries the life-span of a man may be 80 or 85 years. But if one considers all mankind throughout the world, it is still true what Moses wrote that we tarry here in the world threescore years and ten, and perhaps fourscore years if our strength is great. But even then these years are filled with trouble and sorrow. All this is true because the root cause is sin. And sin cannot be eradicated from a corrupt and depraved nature by genetic engineering.

But the child of God sees all these things in quite a different light. He can still sing with the Psalmist, “Affliction hath been for my profit. . . .” God increases spiritual blessings through suffering, sickness and disease for those who are washed in the blood of Christ. It is a great mystery, a great mercy, but the Scriptures make it all abundantly clear. And when death comes, death is the door from this life to heaven. What then makes death so terrible? “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Is death so bad for the one who waits upon Jehovah? What pastor has not sat in awe at the bedside or in the living room of humble saints of God who express the deepest fervent wish to go to be with Christ?

Yes, we have certain responsibilities to maintain our health, to do what we can to cure our diseases. Scripture does not forbid us to seek help when illness strikes. And it can even be argued from certain points of view that we have an obligation to do this. But health and life in this world are not ends in themselves and must not be made such. The Christian must not be so enamored of the conquests and triumphs of medical science that he forgets that his chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, and that his one and only comfort in all of life is that he belongs to Jesus.

In the third place, we must never forget that our own aims and purposes of life are not the betterment of mankind and social progress. Perhaps sometimes we are deceived into thinking that we have certain obligations and responsibilities towards the advance of the human race. This is not so. That we are to seek the good of all men is surely our calling. But here we come to that elusive word “good” again. What does it mean to seek the “good’ of our fellow men? Surely it ought to be clear to anyone who has even the slightest acquaintance with the Scriptures that this “good” is a man’s salvation from sin. We are called by God to seek the salvation of our fellow men insofar as in us lies and in the place in life in which our God has put us. When we seek that man’s salvation we seek his good in the only sense of the word that really counts. Yet we know too that it is not God’s purpose to save either this present world nor all men in it. The elect remain as a hut in a garden of cucumbers. But the elect are pilgrims and strangers in the earth who look for their home in heaven with Christ. They know with an absolute and unshakeable certainty that the wicked and this present world shall presently be destroyed. They spend their years here as pilgrims and strangers. They have a city which hath foundations. To do anything less is to become a promoter of that devilishly deceiving social gospel which has gotten a stranglehold on so much of the church world.

Finally, if all these things are kept in mind and if the child of God lives out of these principles, then the answers to the specific questions of genetic engineering can be found. Generally speaking, of course, we cannot have any objection to efforts which are put forth to alleviate disease and cure sickness insofar as that is possible. And if genetic engineering is capable of doing that in a given individual, it is one of the means God gives His people to alleviate their suffering here below. But any kind of tampering with the basic processes of life is to be sharply and uncompromisingly reprobated. I suppose that the line may not in the future be always so easy to draw. But one who lives out of faith will know what the Lord wills for him.

Of one thing I am sure. We have not seen the end of this by any means. The problems will grow more difficult, the temptations more severe. But genetic engineering as it now seems possible will be a mighty tool in the hands of Antichrist to bring about his ungodly utopia in which God’s people will not only have no place, but in which they will be persecuted for their faith. It is incumbent upon us to prepare now for the evil day which shall surely come.