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The New Genetic MedicineReview - The New Genetic Medicine
Theological and Ethical Reflections
by Thomas A. Shannon & James Walker (Editors)
Rowman & Littlefield, 2003
Review by Erich von Dietze, Ph.D.
Aug 5th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 31)

This book is a collation of previously published papers, drawing together a number of otherwise diverse discussions into a coherent whole. It is an accessible work, with useful introduction for the non-expert and yet sufficient depth for those more familiar with the field. While the book focuses on Roman Catholic theological views related to genetic technology, much of the discussion has wider applicability. It is a helpful contribution to the ongoing debates in this fast developing field of science.

In the main the book is clear and concise, giving an accessible interpretation of Catholic theological views. It tries to test the boundaries of Catholic thought about genetic technologies, but it does not seek to transgress those boundaries. It offers a practical resource to anyone seeking comment from a Catholic perspective. Particularly the introductory and concluding chapters give a useful overview of the technologies and the meta-issues from a Catholic perspective.

One difficulty with edited works of this kind is that they can already be somewhat dated -- due to the time delay between the original writing and publication of the articles and their re-publication in a book. Also, because the articles have been republished as wholes and not edited in any way, some of the discussion is a little repetitive as central concepts are re-introduced on several occasions. There would have been room to re-edit the articles and to push some of the ideas further.

A core assertion of the book is that for believers, religious traditions inform the contexts for making moral judgments (p.31). The question is how does this apply to genetic technologies? In simple terms, medical science has developed four forms of genetic technology, two uses of somatic or therapeutic and two uses of germ-line cells. The therapeutic uses seek, for instance, to correct a genetic defect or prevent a genetic disease. The germ-line uses seek to improve genetic traits or permanently enhance the genetic endowment of humans (and their descendents). The book argues that there is nothing in Catholic theology that prevents the use of most of these, even if some of the issues raised are controversial and would on balance see the technology not being applied. Catholic theologians almost uniformly reject the closely related issue of adult cloning.

Discussions of gene technology often assert that genetic manipulation it is akin to "playing God". The book asks what precisely this might mean. Is the human entrusted simply as a steward, or are we more like co-creators with power to develop and improve the creation. The theological question is focused on how we see ourselves in relation to the creator. A further question relates to the status of DNA-- is it simply biological material open to manipulation, or is it in some way sacred and thus should be placed beyond the boundaries of human manipulation? Therefore further questions require more diverse theological treatment: Is it necessarily wrong to 'play God'? What is the nature and extent of human responsibility? How much freedom and responsibility do / should we have in genetic matters?

One important consideration, the book argues, is that genetic corrections or manipulations will be passed on to one's descendents through the gene line. What precisely will we be passing on? How do we reassure ourselves that it is an improvement on what is there already? Have we considered the long-term (generational) consequences? Where is the line between what is therapeutic and what is enhancement?

The book underlines various ethical issues, pertinent to theologians, in the context of genetic technology: How do we assure ourselves that we are doing good not harm (in the short and longer terms)? How do we preserve the dignity of the human person? How do we promote the well-being of the patient (in somatic treatments) while considering the ongoing impact for good or ill of genetic treatments? How do we balance the risks and benefits when so much is unknown? Numerous wider ethical issues also arise e.g. private institutions do not usually have the same constraints about seeking ethical approval as public institutions do.

A number of key Catholic issues are addressed such as, the perennial and sometimes controversial issue of the status of the human embryo and beliefs about when human life actually begins. The authors' view the commencement of life more as a process, where there is development over sequential stages, rather than an event or a moment. Here they push the boundaries of traditional Catholic thought. They relate genetic technology discussions to some of the sensitive areas (for Catholic theology) such as abortion and IVF, and do not shy away from addressing the issues or suggesting that the technology has benefits that are not widely agreed by Catholic theologians.

The human genome project is argued to be a successful (but potentially disturbing) reduction of the human being. The ideology of reductionism is called into question. We know the location of our genes, but this does not mean that we know their function, nor does it necessarily give the right to manipulate or alter them. The authors argue that the Human Genome project raises a myriad of theological and philosophical issues that require renewed debate. These include: What is human nature? What is our genetic history? What is the nature of the human person and what is the relation to the human being? Who are we in relation to our biology? What are the goals and limits of medicine? What is the meaning of suffering and illness? What are our attitudes towards (genetic) disabilities? What is the relationship between science and theology / ethics?

Cloning and cell cloning are both routine in plant and animal science, but the book argues that we cross the line when whole animal or human organisms are cloned. The authors draw a clear line against the cloning of human beings. They place their argument in the context of a number of theological / philosophical questions including: Does being genetically identical equal behavioral identicality? Are we genetically determined or do / should we have some control over this? Does cloning violate the uniqueness of each individual? If we are cloning to replace a whole person (eg a child who has died) is this not an ultimate reductionism, reducing the status of a human person to something replaceable? Whose interests does cloning serve? How does cloning relate to IVF technology?

While the technology has many potential benefits, it also needs to be viewed in a wider theological and philosophical context. The technology is very expensive and while offering promise, we need to continue asking questions about whether or not we should be using it, who benefits, and the wider social issues it raises (eg for medical or life insurance).

In the end, we now appear to have the power to bioengineer the planet -- or at least most living things. What implications does this face us with? This book approaches the issues from a theological perspective without diverging too far from what one would expect of academic Catholic theologians.


2005 Erich von Dietze


Erich von Dietze, PhD, Chaplain, University Counseling Services, Curtin University, Australia


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