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Controlling Human Genetic Engineering Part I

Rebecca Taylor is guest blogging here this month. Rebecca is a Technologist in Molecular Biology, MB(ASCP) and a practicing Catholic. She has been writing and speaking about Catholicism and biotechnology for five years at her blog Mary Meets Dolly. This is the fourth installment.

More and more movies depicting a dystopian future are playing on big screens everywhere. They are usually cautionary tales of how technology ends up dominating human existence, our choices, our families, our relationships, our lives. These tales are not new. From GATTACA to The Island, from Surrogates to Limitless, what begins as man wielding his superior intellect to mold his world and harness nature ends up as individuals losing their humanity and becoming slaves to technology.

As in Surrogates, often the technology is developed as a way to cure disease or help the disabled, but applied to the common man it changes who we are and how we interact with each other. The message is clear. Technology starts out treating disease or disability. But when used to "fix" was isn't broken it means a loss of humanity.

Surprisingly, this science fiction theme is critical in understanding human genetic engineering and what the Catholic Church says on the issue. Not all human genetic engineering is morally wrong. There are two distinctions to be made when discussing the Church's teaching on the ethics human genetic engineering. I will address one this week and the other in next week's guest blog.

First, under the umbrella of "genetic engineering" there is a difference between gene therapy and genetic enhancement. These concepts are often confused and lumped together, but there are important moral differences.

For many years scientists have envisioned using gene therapy to cure devastating disease. Gene therapy would deliver a copy of a normal gene into the cells of a patient with defective genes to cure or slow the progress of disease. The added gene would produce a protein that is missing or defective in the diseased patient. A good example would be Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy or DMD. DMD is an inherited disorder where a patient cannot make the protein dystrophin which supports muscle tissue. DMD strikes in early childhood and slowly degrades all muscle tissue, including heart muscle. Average life expectancy is only 30 years.

Researchers have recently been able to introduce the normal gene for dystrophin in mice with DMD. They achieved this by inserting the dystrophin gene into the DNA of the mice. The genetically modified mice were then able to produce eight times more dystrophin than DMD-mice without the modification.

More dystrophin means more muscle which, in this case of a devastating muscle-wasting disease, is good. But apply this technology to a normal man who wants more muscle to improve his athletic ability, and you have entered the world of genetic enhancement. Genetic enhancement would take a otherwise normal individual and genetically modify them to be more than human in intelligence, strength or beauty. Genetic enhancement is also called gene doping and the DMD researchers have already been inundated with calls from athletes who want to be genetically enhanced.

So while both therapy and enhancement are technically genetic engineering, they have different intent and very different outcomes. Gene therapy seeks to cure disease. Genetic enhancement seeks to change the very nature of man: to make him "super-human."

The Church is clear that gene therapy is laudable while genetic enhancement is morally wrong. >From the Charter for Health Care Workers:

In moral evaluation a distinction must be made between strictly <therapeutic> manipulation, which aims to cure illnesses caused by genetic or chromosome anomalies (genetic therapy), from manipulation <altering> the human genetic patrimony. A curative intervention, which is also called "genetic surgery," "will be considered desirable in principle. provided its purpose is the real promotion of the personal well-being of the individual, without damaging his integrity or worsening his condition of life.

On the other hand, interventions which are not directly curative, the purpose of which is 'the production of human beings selected according to sex or other predetermined qualities,' which change the genotype of the individual and of the human species, 'are contrary to the personal dignity of the human being, to his integrity and to his identity. Therefore they can be in no way justified on the pretext that they will produce some beneficial results for humanity in the future,' 'no social or scientific usefulness and no ideological purpose could ever justify an intervention on the human genome unless it be therapeutic, that is its finality must be the natural development of the human being.

There is a multitude of misinformation surrounding the Catholic Church teaching on human genetic engineering. A perfect example is this excerpt from David Frum's piece in the New York Times. Frum insists that the Church and John Paul II support genetic enhancement. He performs a slight of hand, whether intentional or not. See if you can spot it:

The anti-abortion instincts of many conservatives naturally incline them to look at such [genetic engineering] techniques with suspicion — and indeed it is certainly easy to imagine how they might be abused. Yet in an important address delivered as long ago as 1983, Pope John Paul II argued that genetic enhancement was permissible — indeed, laudable — even from a Catholic point of view, as long as it met certain basic moral rules. Among those rules: that these therapies be available to all. [My emphasis]

Like many, Frum confuses gene therapy with genetic enhancement. Some argue there is only a hair's difference between the two so lumping them together is acceptable. This is not the case. Any genetic engineering will no doubt have unintended consequences and unforeseen side effects. It should only be under taken in cases where the benefits will outweigh the risks, as in the treatment of life-threatening illness. Genetic engineering should never be used on an otherwise healthy person because the risk is not worth the so-called "reward."

In movies like Surrogates and GATTACA, it appears inevitable that technology that was designed to help humanity eventually destroys our humanity. To some extent, I believe we have bought into that idea that no matter what we do, technology will eventually be our master. But the real world does not have to mirror science fiction, if we make the distinction that the Catholic Church has made. There is a difference between using genetic engineering and technology to help the sick or disabled and using the same technology to take an otherwise healthy person and enhance them beyond normal human abilities. While therapy seeks to improve the human condition, enhancement seeks to fundamentally alter it. Most are unaware of the distinction. It is our job to enlighten. We do have the ability to control human genetic engineering without it controlling us. To do that we must draw a line in the sand between morally laudable therapy and human altering enhancement.

Next week: Somatic and germ-line genetic engineering. (Sounds like fun doesn't it?)

Rebecca writes at Mary Meets Dolly which is, literally, the meeting of the world of genetics and genetic engineering, represented by Dolly, “mother” of modern biotechnology, and the teachings of the Catholic Church on the sanctity of life, represented by Mary, mother of Christ and the Church. Rebecca started www.MaryMeetsDolly.com to help everyday Catholics better understand the science and ethics surrounding modern biotechnology in light of Catholic Church teaching. Check her out.

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Paige K. said...

Rebecca- Thank you so much for your great articles. It's so nice to have these distinctions made in terms I can mentally process! Keep up the good work!


Mary De Voe said...

DARPA, the Department of Defense' project to produce a super-soldier would be considered "enhancement". Men with gills for staying underwater, eagle eyes for seeing. A long time ago, scientists tried to produce a monkey with florescent eyes by splicing his DNA with genes from some sea creature. The monkey developed florescent fingernails. OPPS. The lesser problem is when the anomaly escapes into the mainstream population via persons who carry the gene and children begin to be begotten with gills etc, etc.,. The death of the person who carries the gene may be the only remedy for preventing the escape. The greatest and foremost problem is the actual destruction of civilization and tyranny of the human being who is created a sovereign person in the image and likeness of God. The exercise of free will and the consent necessary to acknowledge God in the soul of the human sovereign person is and is going to be cast aside and ignored, very much like children who survive abortion. Civilization is predicated on man’s covenant with God, respect for the human person and doing the will of God. If God willed for a person to have gills, God would have created the man with gills. As God still maintains his dominion over his creatures including man. Diseased victims apply for remedial help in a cure as Rebecca Taylor has said. Enhancement is an exercise in vanity and a danger to man's soul as well as to his body. (This is also my answer to why women cannot be priests. If God wanted a person to be a priest, that person would have been born a man) Frum’s comment was an inevitable disgrace as he will not acknowledge the soul of the sovereign person. Frum started bashing "anti-abortionists", those persons who acknowledge that all men are created equal and endowed by OUR CREATOR with unalienable rights, super soldiers to whom God will give victory because of His Name.

Rebecca Taylor said...


You are very welcome. I may not have an MD or PhD, but I can write about science in plain English. I see myself as more of a translator than a blogger!


Christopher said...

I am confused. I see the difference between gene therapy and genetic enhancement but what exactly is wrong with genetic enhancement?

Rebecca Taylor said...


Good question. I am no philosopher but philosophically speaking, genetic enhancement is wrong because it would change the nature of man. Genetic enhancement rejects the dignity and integrity of each person. It rejects our nature and seeks to change it according to what is fashionable.

Medically, it is wrong because with any genetic engineering there will be side effects. People have gotten cancer and died from attempts at gene therapy. To genetically modify a human is serious business and it should only be undertaken in cases of serious illness.

Let me put it this way, most people would enhance for intelligence or strength or size. How many people do you know who are incredibly intelligent, but also have a mental illness? Do people who are above 7 feet tall live as long as people who are 6 feet? I am certain with these "enhancements" will come serious and unforeseen side effects. So genetic engineering should only be attempted in cases where it is used to bring back a state of normal functioning.

Mary De Voe said...

Rebecca Taylor gives a fair account about gene therapy and the grave consequences of it's implementation. David Frum's despicable use of what Pope John Paul II actually said makes one wonder if he can read.

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