Human Genetics: Threads from a Conversation

[1] In 2000, ELCA’s Studies Department in Church in Society held a consultation on human cloning. In the publication of the papers that followed,[1] project director Roger A. Willer created a literary form to summarize the discussions that followed the oral presentation of each of the papers at the consultation. He called it “Threads from a Conversation.” Its purpose was to capture the rich texture of all the themes, questions, unresolved areas of disagreement, issues worthy of further dialogue and work, and areas of agreement of those discussions which were stimulated by the presentations themselves.[2]

[2] This article aims to follow this form in reporting on the discussions following the oral presentations of the papers at the 2009 Annual Gathering of Lutheran Ethicists on human genetics. These discussions did not form a conversation with a logical progression the way the papers themselves did. Instead, like many natural conversations at academic meetings, they meandered from topic to topic as the interest of the participants gave them utterance. Nevertheless, an identifiable set of concerns surfaced throughout the day. The comments below are based on my personal notes of the meeting, and are grouped topically, when possible. These comments are not necessarily attributable quotes from participants in the meeting, but instead represent a summary of key thoughts and ideas. If there are areas of agreement, these will be indicated.

Genetic Science

[3] At several times in the discussion, the question was asked, “How much technology can we handle?” Molecular geneticist Gayle Woloschak noted that there has been pressure in recent years from Federal agencies to make quick transitions from the laboratory science to patient treatments. She said that more caution is needed; there is some danger in moving too fast without adequate understanding of how these applications really work in patients. She argued the case for the virtue of knowledge for knowledge’s sake in contrast to a view that knowledge is only worthwhile for its applications. While not rejecting the desirability of applying genetic knowledge, she suggested that thorough understanding of that knowledge is not only worthy in itself, but tends to make technological applications better. But, the question of how much technology can we handle was not explored in further depth. It remains an issue to be dealt with. The very meaning of this question and its various dimensions need to be unpacked.

How do we view science and its actual or potential uses? What’s our vantage point?

[4] Their views of science color how people evaluate its activities. An emphasis on a history of scientific progress tends to project both that progress and human benefit into the future, despite some experience to the contrary which is often conveniently ignored. Such contrary experience is often that of disadvantaged or oppressed groups which privileged or powerful classes easily dismiss, such as that of European Jews during the Nazi period, or that of African Americans.

[5] Appeals to eschatology such as Ted Peters advocates, however, do not rely on projecting past experience into the future but upon a vision of the future which draws us into it in anticipation of the completion of creation. Such a view emphasizes our ethical responsibility to make things better, though we should be realistic about human sin and not proceed with what Peters called promethean naïveté.

[6] We expect too much from scientific technology. It rarely fulfills all the hopes of some of its most enthusiastic advocates. This implies that we need an ethics of uncertainty, and a posture of realism.

Unequal Access to Technology

[7] As the counter-examples to universal scientific progress suggest, access to scientific—and in this case, genetic—technology is likely to be unequal. This will largely be a matter of cost, although other factors such as cultural or social biases may also contribute to this unequal access. One of these is a Social Darwinist philosophy that tends to justify the access of wealthier, more privileged, and more powerful individuals in society—a philosophy Christians were urged to challenged with arguments that appealed, in part, to Jesus’ own inclusive approach to his healing ministry. But Daniel Callahan’s argument that technological medicine tends to increase the costs of health care,[3] thus prejudicing the access to it of those with less means, must also be considered.

Religious and Theological Arguments about Genetics in a Pluralistic Society

[8] As Maura Ryan noted in Section 5 of her response, how to make religious arguments about genetics in a pluralistic society is a key issue in Genetics and Faith and in the work of some Christian ethicists, such as Lisa Sowle Cahill. A lively discussion of this issue saw several insights surface.

[9] Agreement: The general consensus seemed to be in favor of the ELCA, other churches, and individual theologians using such warrants in public discussion

[10] Some caveats were mentioned, however. For one, religious participants should do more than issue what Peters calls “stop signs” with respect to genetic technology.

Permeable membranes of spheres of discourse

[11] What makes religious and theological discourse potentially effective in the public square is the fact that social pluralism does not entail impenetrable walls of discourse. Also, there is no uniform secular mindset about genetics or technology. How to use religious norms in public discussions, and justify them to those outside the religious communities, is something those communities and theologians are still learning to do. But if the churches, theologians, and Christian laity want to have an influence in public discussions, they need to learn how to do so. It is part of the Christian’s calling.

Use of genetics fraught with ethical and moral significance

[12] Religious and non-religious people alike recognize the moral issues at stake in emerging genetic knowledge and technology. Debate about them involves moral reflection. Ethical and biological dimensions should be distinguished. People expect and sometimes welcome religious and theological voices in discussions of these issues along with those of philosophers. Lars Østnor pointed out that that Norway has a board of biotechnology that seeks advice from all sectors of Norwegian society. Those who ask when human life begins have an ethical interest in what moral obligations we have toward blastocysts, embryos, and fetuses.

Finding and Using a Public Theological-ethical Voice and Vocabulary

[13] The challenge and calling for the churches, theologians, and ethicists is to find a vocabulary that makes such understanding possible while still making theological-ethical claims possible. Religious groups are perceived less as “sectarian” when they engage in public dialogue. In a public lecture in Norway, the German philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, challenged society to entertain the church’s participation in public affairs, and also challenged the church to do so in a way that could be understood by the larger society.

Contributions of religious voices to public deliberation on genetics

[14] The churches, theologians, and theological ethicists, have contributions to make to public discussions of the good life and social justice, and the role which genetic technology may play in working to attain them. One of the roles of religious voices is to offer critique (again without merely erecting stop signs) of some secular or quasi-religious views about genetics, and so demonstrate that there is no single secular or religious view on genetic matters. Some felt there is need for a reasoned Protestant voice to counter fundamentalist voices. Ted Peters called attention to the public positions of the Vatican is well-articulated, and therefore influential positions ecumenically and on an inter-faith basis. Development of the Lutheran framework in the study may also help the ELCA contribute to public discussion. Another role of religious voices might be to use a creational approach to articulating the unique value of human beings, which can be both ecumenical and comprehensible to secular people. Such an approach could also help articulate the moral status of scientific endeavors themselves.

[1] Proceedings of the consultation were subsequently published as Human Cloning: Papers from a Church Consultation, Roger A. Willer, ed. (Chicago: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 2001). It is accessible online at and a complimentary hard copy is available by calling the ELCA’s Church in Society Resource Request Line at 800-638-3522.

[2] Willer, “Threads from a Converssation,” 83.

[3] See Daniel Callahan, What Kind of Life: The Limits of Medical Progress (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1990) 89-97. Callahan’s skepticism of technological medicine extends to a view that it does not necessarily afford the gains in health available through use of less expensive personal medical measures or of public health measures. This is consistent with the view, above, that we tend to expect to much from it. On this view, even though the wealthy may be able to afford genetic medicine, they may not necessarily be healthier. Nor would society on the whole necessarily be better off healthwise.

Ronald W. Duty

Ronald W. Duty is the former Assistant Director for Studies in Church in Society at the ELCA, and is now a private scholar.