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05 February 2016

Genetic manipulation: medical breakthrough or moral mistake?

On Monday a group of London-based scientists were the first in the world to be given the legal go-ahead to use a new "gene editing" technique on human embryos.

The team, led by Dr. Kathy Naikan, is expected to start using the technique to alter the DNA of healthy, living, human embryos for the purpose of reproductive research. The embryos are being donated by IVF patients and are to be destroyed after seven days so will not be implanted into human wombs.

How should Christians respond to this pioneering scientific announcement? Is this a wonderful and powerful new way we can love our sick and vulnerable neighbours? Or is it a multi-pronged insult to our sovereign creator?

As with all medical ethical issues, the answer is complex.

Medicine has been an incredible opportunity for gifted Christians to manifest love to our neighbours in world-changing ways. And scientific research into new treatments continues to create ever greater ways for medics to care for patients.

Furthermore, genetic defects are responsible for a huge number of illnesses and diseases, including type I diabetes, cystic fibrosis and sickle cell disease. Thus the potential of therapeutic gene-editing is vast and revolutionary, with the possibility of treating and/or preventing a vast range of illnesses.

However, this new research poses difficult ethical issues for Christians, particularly components of the research like experimental testing on embryos and genetic alteration of human DNA.

The first ethical problem is that of the status of the embryo: if embryos are not human, then there is no real ethical difference between embryo experimentation and tissue culturing. But if an embryo is a human, then voluntary destruction of embryos seems indistinguishable from taking a life.

However, I think that the Bible is clear in saying that human life starts in the womb. Psalm 139:13-16 reads: "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb… Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be."

The psalmist describes the artistry and care God puts into crafting the unborn child, and the intrinsic value that is given to the embryo, as God gazes on it and sees its upcoming life.

Therefore, human embryos are beloved children of God who are fearfully and wonderfully made in His image – not tissue on which we can experiment.

The second issue is trickier: is genetic manipulation trying to "play God" and improve on His creations? Or is it simply fixing the human body when it malfunctions?

Professor John Wyatt writes in his book Matters of Life and Death: "If a biblical perspective on human beings views them as flawed masterpieces, then our responsibilities [as doctors] are to act as art preservers and restorers. Our duties are to protect masterpieces from harm, and attempt to restore them in line with the original artist's intentions."

The question we need to ask of genetic manipulation is: are we restoring the patient towards their original design, or are we trying to improve on the original masterpiece?

What Dr Naikan et al. propose to do is as yet unknown.

We must never lose sight of what God says about what it means to be human. The Bible is quite explicit in teaching that embryos are human beings who should be loved, not experimented on and destroyed. And as genetic research opens new therapeutic possibilities, we should celebrate and rejoice for the healing God does through medicine, while at the same time being careful not to seek to improve on the Creator's masterpieces.

Benjamin Chang is the president of Christians in Science London, and a medical student at the Whittington Hospital in north London. These thoughts are his personal reflections.

Image: CC Philippe Put

If you're interested in matters of faith and science, find out more about grants being made available to Christians and churches through the Scientists in Congregations programme.