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20 July 2018

Embryo editing: a societal problem?

Embryo editing: a societal problem?

Berlind Fellermeier is a volunteer at the Evangelical Alliance.

This week the Nuffield Council on Bioethics published a report entitled 'Genome editing and human reproduction', where it set out to answer the question: why might heritable human genome editing be understood as a valuable and worthwhile response to a societal problem? The conclusion it reached was that editing the DNA in a human embryo is "ethically acceptable".   

We can agree that, in an ideal world, there would not be illness or suffering of any sort – physical, mental or emotional – and a desire to eradicate these things now is natural. But that perfect society will only exist when God's kingdom comes in full. In the book of Revelation we see our future: "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away" (21:3-4).

In the meantime, doesn't God have a purpose for each person here and now – both the born and the unborn? The psalmist David wrote: "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well" (Psalm 139:13-14). Here, David acknowledges God's role in the creation of each human. As Christians, we know that God has a specific plan for each person, and that He does not make mistakes. 

If we know that we are fearfully and wonderfully made by God, then it can jar with us if people with illnesses and disabilities are viewed as a 'societal problem'. Do we judge human worth by how smart someone is, how capable they are, or how much work they accomplish? As we have seen from various news stories, very few families that have chosen to keep their child with special needs have regretted their decision. It can be hard to reconcile how God is our creator and ultimate healer while many still live with painful and challenging conditions, but stories like this show how God repeatedly reveals Himself and His goodness through these 'societal problems'.

We as Christians aren't immune to the diagnosis of life-limiting conditions given to unborn children, or to the difficult question of whether to either screen out hereditary conditions or choose not to have children at all. In that context we have to grapple with Jesus' words, "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another" (John 13:34–35). Viewing those with life-limiting or life-ending conditions as a 'societal problem' runs counter to Jesus' command to love one another - but our experience of the world tells us that knowing how to live out that command isn't always clear or easy.

As we wrestle with these questions, may we remember that Jesus also said, "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me" (Matthew 25:40). What if we take Jesus' example of loving those around us, seeing every individual through God's eyes, created for a purpose and Jesus laid down His life for all? How does that change for us the 'societal problem' of editing life?


Image: Nynne Schroder