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Religion and genetics

Updated Thursday, 3rd August 2006

The Reverend Canon Dr Arthur Peacocke considers some of the challenges presented to religion by genetic selection

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Reverend Canon Dr Arthur Peacocke

Is it ethically wrong to interfere with the genetic make-up of a baby?
"Well it depends for what end. If it's because of some genetic defect, I don't see anything wrong with that but what I do think is a mistake is when people think they're going to try and give a baby all the genes they think they want it to have to make it a Leonardo da Vinci or a Mozart. Most of the highly publicised things that get in the press about a gene for kleptomania or a gene for aggression are really extremely misleading because such behaviour patterns depend on a whole complex of genes. Even our height depends on a complex of genes let alone such complicated things as behaviour and creativity and intelligence and ability to do all sorts of other activities which the parents might want to approve of.

We have to ask the question: what are they trying to produce? Somebody who has none of the defects they themselves have? Do they not want them to be a human being and learn to grow up and face life and develop and respond to life in a creative way?

I can see that they may want to prevent them from having crippling diseases and if that's due to a genetic defect I can see that would be right. But what is the point of trying to determine what kind of baby you're going to have? In any case, even when you've done this you're only then trying to produce a kind of mirror image of yourself which you think you ideally are and that's probably highly misleading anyway. Ask your friends what you really are and see what they think is the sort of baby you ought to have. Or even better ask your enemies to say what sort of baby you ought to have.

I think it's a very doubtful motivation for parents who try to have a recipe for producing the babies they want. They should enjoy the existence of human life as it comes to the world, and enjoy it for what it is; to respect the baby as it grows into a child and a person for what they are, not for their projection of what they think they ought to be. We know even now without genetics of the damage done by parents who have children who they want to put on tramlines to the destination that they determine and not the one the children wants to grow into.

Shouldn't everyone be entitled to make this choice if they so wish?

Who are the people making this choice? They obviously think of themselves as already some kind of superior being whom they want to see continued in their offspring. I think there's a certain arrogance and self-righteousness involved in this, which makes me doubtful about the motivations. I don't think, because of all those doubts, that it's worth putting scientific energy into giving people the chance to do that.

I do think there's reason for trying to affect the genetics in utero of babies to prevent real diseases but I don't think we should go out of our way to try to develop genetic skills so that you can have a custom built infant.

Do different religions have different stances on the subject?

I know when I was involved in a committee on this they do have a bit of a different standpoint. For example, I know it's not quite the same thing as genetically modified foods, but there's a bit of a spectrum of opinion on that. I believe most of them would have the same point about the dignity of the human being, the doubtfulness about the motivation. Of course, Roman Catholics would be very concerned about using any embryonic material at all even if it's only a few cells. That of course goes back to their attitude towards abortion of any kind, and their attitude to using the kind of research that has been going on for some time now with fourteen day cells and so on.

Are we playing God?

Well you would be, yes. I get suspicious about people who are trying to determine the future of another person and trying to make a blueprint for them, trying to infringe really the scope within which their free will operates.

Is it right that gay couples should be able to have children from this method?

No, I don't like that and for this reason: it seems to me that whether it's a male child or a female child - a girl or a boy - I think they need to be brought up in a context of a mixed sexual environment, namely both a father and a mother and a male and a female role model around them. There's a spectrum of sexuality in males and in females but styles of temperament and behaviour do cluster around certain medium norms, certain average types in men and women, and there's obviously an overlap.

No one person has both feminine and masculine characteristics, but I do think for that reason young children need to be brought up with both males and females nurturing them, talking with them, interacting with them, so that when they go out in the world and they meet males and females, as they will, they have already become adapted to such differences as there are between the masculine and feminine human beings - not only physiologically but in temperament and all sorts of features.

So I'm not very happy with this business of gay couples bringing up children, however loving they may be. And I'm not saying they can't be loving but I do think that children should have the opportunity to react from a very early age to both sexes. Sometimes this can't happen: a mother dies in childbirth or a child hasn't got his father, and sadly you have single mothers bringing up children by themselves. One doesn't want to derogate at all from the marvellous job that many single parent mothers do but it isn't the ideal situation and therefore you shouldn't plan to deliberately not let the child be brought up by two parents of opposite sexes.

It seems to me that biology and heredity and everything in our evolution has brought human beings to existence in that social and psychological context and therefore deliberately to jump outside that seems to me to be taking great risks with the distorted personality of that person in future life.

We all know there's many a case history of how difficult children have found it if they've been brought up in entirely male or entirely female environments. Sometimes as I say, nobody's at fault, but there are often problems and you shouldn't deliberately produce a child in this way. So I would say I'm very unhappy with that myself.

Do you think there will come a time when people will choose to have children with the help of a genetic engineer?

Well, the natural processes are much more likely to happen - it's much more fun! It's only going to be the very rich and the very highly focused or control freaks who are going to want to do this it seems to me. But if it became at all widespread then of course you're quite right, it would lead to enormous social problems, perhaps to a bifurcation in society.

That's the sort of awful scenario which one can perhaps have a nightmare about. I mean, it is the nightmare of Brave New World isn't it with the Alphas and the Betas and the Gammas? That's one reason for really being very cautious about it. With the best will in the world, even if you thought you were determining this you never know the way genetic mixes go - how the geniuses appear, the people who are the great creative thinkers and artists and so on of their time. Who's going to know where Shakespeare came from or Mozart? Now, of course, in the case of the Bach family you have a great cultural heritage and through generations they were very musical but then you have other great composers of music who just come from nowhere.

I think we we'd be losing the great variety of human life and move towards a stereotyped sort of encyclopaedia where everybody was labelled according to a category and that is a kind of horror story.

When it comes to therapeutic genetic manipulation in utero, clearly with some identifiable genetic defect to correct, then I am in favour but trying to give a baby a mixture of genes that somebody thinks is the ideal mixture is only going to lead to a kind of reproduction of control freaks."


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