Two developing reproductive technologies — one that could facilitate motherless babies and another that could open the door to so-called designer babies — have drawn warnings from Christian ethicists.
In one experiment, researchers at the UK’s University of Bath altered unfertilized mouse eggs so they took on properties like “ordinary” cells, such as skin cells, the BBC reported. Then they created mouse embryos by fertilizing the altered eggs with sperm cells, leading scientists to speculate that two human men, or even one man, may one day be able to conceive a child with similar technology using sperm and another donated body cell.
A separate experiment in Sweden has achieved genetic modification of “healthy human embryos,” which were then destroyed, NPR reported. Lead researcher Fredrik Lanner said he is seeking to help treat infertility, prevent miscarriages and treat diseases. But critics say the research could lead to genetically made-to-order babies and the introduction of new diseases into the human genepool.
Both experiments have troubling ethical implications, Union University bioethicist C. Ben Mitchell said.
“The biblical ideal for procreation is one man, one woman, in a one-flesh relationship, in which children are received as a gift,” Mitchell told Baptist Press in written comments. “Every violation of that ideal results in human trauma and heartache, whether through adultery, divorce or death.
“The use of reproductive technologies that end up destroying unborn human beings is a clear harm. If we defy the procreative relationship by creating parentless babies, there is likewise clear harm. Even if we could justify the outcome, think of the human carnage on the way to the goal. Countless human beings — generated at the hands of researchers — would die in the process of trying to perfect the techniques. The end does not justify the means when the means are immoral,” said Mitchell, Union’s provost and Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy.
Conception without eggs?
The British experiment, reported Sept. 13 in the journal Nature Communications, is only a first step toward motherless human babies, with researcher Tony Perry calling such a prospect “speculative and fanciful” at present, according to the BBC.
Still, Charles Patrick, a Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary vice president who holds a Ph.D. in chemical and biomedical engineering, warned of skewing God’s plan for procreation described in Genesis 1-2.
“Just because we can develop a reproductive technology does not mandate that we must develop the technology,” Patrick told BP. “It seems unwise to develop reproductive technologies that preclude the use of sperm or eggs.”
“First, and to be scientifically honest, much of what occurs when a sperm and egg unite continues to be a mystery. There are potential errors with dangerous consequences that may occur when cells are ‘tricked’ into functioning in a manner not natural for them,” he said in written comments. “Second, reproductive technologies that remove either the egg or the sperm open the cultural door further to a genderless society.”
Additionally, creating babies without either egg or sperm cells “would provide childless couples yet another ‘extraordinary means’ distraction from adoption. Adoption is clearly espoused and modeled throughout Scripture,” Patrick said.
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said the University of Bath research illustrates society’s quest to redefine “everything about sex and reproduction and marriage and gender.”
The sexual revolution, Mohler said Sept. 22 on his podcast The Briefing, has necessitated “a technological revolution” whose proponents seek reproduction “without marriage, and in this case … without women.”
Genetically made to order?
The Swedish research uses a genetic engineering innovation to “edit” healthy embryos’ DNA for what NPR deemed the first time ever. British scientists have said they will begin similar experiments later this year.
Thus far, at least 12 embryos — which were donated by couples who generated them as part of the in vitro fertilization process — have been modified, and researchers have vowed to destroy all modified embryos no later than their 14th day of life.
Patrick called any “use and destruction of human embryos” unethical because it “does not preserve the worth, dignity and value of human life defined in Genesis 1-2.” Yet “even if there were not a sanctity of life issue, there are other issues to consider in opening the epigenetic black box.”
“For instance, although there is the promise of correcting devastating diseases, there is equally the specter of creating designer babies or other non-therapeutic modifications and of introducing unintended consequences in the human germline,” Patrick said.
“Man was mandated in Genesis to be a steward of creation, and emphasis throughout Scripture is placed on restoring what God originally purposed in His creation. Hence, there is a general biblical warrant for scientific advances and technologies that restore,” he said.
“However, there is not clear biblical permission to manipulate genes toward perfection. Gene editing cannot reverse what sin and resulting human depravity wrought to God’s perfected creation. There is a flesh-spirit aspect that gene editing does not and cannot incorporate,” Patrick said.
Mohler wondered aloud Sept. 23 in The Briefing, “How long will it be before the bumper sticker on the back of the SUV says, ‘My child is genetically enhanced?’ … That day might after all not be so far in our future.”