Most Genetic Engineering of Human Embryos is Not Catholic Teaching

Genetic engineering and Catholic teaching are a poor match when applied to human embryos. It is hardly therapeutic, kills unborn children, and causes extreme spiritual crises.

Pope John Paul II, who boldly challenged the morality of a number of new biotechnologies and their inhuman applications, has provided some guidance on genetic engineering and Catholic teaching. He endorsed the licit status of genetic engineering of embryos IF IT IS THERAPEUTIC:

“A strictly therapeutic intervention whose explicit objective is the healing of various maladies such as those stemming from chromosomal defects will, in principle, be considered desirable, provided it is directed to the true promotion of the personal well-being of the individual without doing harm to his integrity or worsening his conditions of life. Such an intervention would indeed fall within the logic of the Christian moral tradition.” 1

Will the actual practice of genetic engineering of a human embryo, however, meet the moral requirements that give medicine and therapeutic procedures their humanistic goodness? John Paul II indicated that the goodness of the process depends not only on the effects of the actual intervention but also on its purposes. Will the adults who choose and implement the genetic engineering procedure be sincerely concerned with the health of the person being altered?

It hardly seems possible that such genetic engineering will be therapeutic in intent, and therefore genetic engineering and Catholic teaching are at odds when the human embryo is the object of the process.

Consider, first of all, that the scientific experiments intended to gain the knowledge that will enable genetic engineering therapies are performed on human embryos. The researchers are concerned with changing the DNA (perhaps RNA) of these embryos so the new knowledge can be intentionally applied in therapies for other human beings. The effects on the experimental subjects are generally unpredictable. Currently, all guidelines for such research on embryos call for their destruction before birth.

Genetic engineering therapies presuppose such research, clearly indicating that human embryos are not worthy of respect or any concern for their experience in life. Only the embryo that is destined to be implanted in a uterus and born actually matters. In fact, because researchers treat human embryos in research as entirely lacking in dignity, it would be contradictory to suppose that they respect the health of even the embryo that will be born. It is only the health and experience of the future, born child – who does not yet exist as any sort of patient – that is an objective.

Unless (until) genetic engineering therapies are built upon treatment of a single embryo in a woman’s uterus, or removal for therapy, the process will include IVF (in vitro fertilization). Catholic teaching is firmly opposed to IVF. Rather than take their chances with just one mysterious, unique creation of God, clinicians will produce multiple embryos in a laboratory and select one or more embryos that seem to be most desirable. The clinicians’ and parents’ evaluation of the embryos may rely on worldly values of ability, normality, comfort, and attractiveness, as well as subjective tastes for such characteristics as gender. The participants certainly will not consider the hand of God in the creation and purpose of the embryo itself. Unwanted embryos will be destroyed, frozen, or subjected to catastrophic experiments. As with genetic engineering researchers, the clinicians involved in IVF and the parents who turn a blind eye to the destruction of embryos clearly will not care much about the health of the embryo, but of the future, born child.

Genetic engineering and Catholic teaching are somewhat muddied by John Paul II’s reference to THERAPEUTIC purposes. A sleight of hand occurs when researchers, scientists, bioethicists, and parents depict their choice of genetic engineering for a human embryo as a medical or therapeutic objective. There is, in fact, no existing, recognized person to heal. All that exists is a human embryo, and the embryo is perceived as merely a physical template – raw material – for the design of a born child that exists for the time being only in the imagination of the participants.

Genetic engineering of a human embryo is an intentional act of re-creation, or at least re-design. All participants recognize that there exists a physical embryo that has the inherited characteristics in its genes that will influence the most fundamental nature and lifelong development of a future, born person. Genetic engineering is the process of taking a God-created object, changing its nature, and thereby asserting control over the lived nature of the born person who does not yet exist in the perception of the participants.

The participants in genetic engineering intentionally create a new person by intervening existentially between the embryo that carries God’s design and the born person who represents the will of mankind. By intending to assert man-made purpose over the act of creation of a human person, the participants risk the same cosmic rebellion that opens the book of Genesis and the depraved history of mankind.

Is the act of genetic engineering of the embryo a loving act? The parents may feel respect for the dignity of that born child, but it is a child that exists only in their imagination and requires further action to bring into reality. Although Christians throughout the millennia, and Jesus himself, have indicated that future generations of human beings are also children of God worthy of love, those future generations are the actual people, existing at a different time, who will be conceived as natural heirs of human beings’ DNA and of God’s creative power. They are not merely potential beings imagined by a currently living person who is also their designer. In the practice of genetic engineering, however, there is a conceptual (though not real) divorce of the manufactured, born child from the merely physical, impersonal embryo that precedes the creation of a person. The “love” parents feel for their future child is merely a feeling of appreciation and ownership of an idea or the anticipation of its realization. 

We might also wonder if true love of neighbor can occur away from the close presence of the person being loved. Jesus quite emphatically tied love of neighbor to acts of charity, which were portrayed as in-person interactions. Charity seems to be an action in the world that has a worldly impact on the welfare of a recipient that is present to receive it. Jesus’ use of the Aramaic equivalent of “neighbor” also implied proximity.

With his healing miracles, Christ modeled love of neighbor as an expression of God’s divine love and power. The children of God are endowed with a special dignity that enables us to announce the glory of God through our actions. The recipient of love is also a child of God who experiences the loving act as more than a transaction between human beings. Both lover and loved are transformed in their relationship with God, just as humanity has been redeemed and offered eternal joy in Christ’s loving sacrifice, death, and resurrection. The “love” of a future, born child expressed by a parent in choosing to enhance or eliminate certain characteristics through genetic engineering does not have the transformative possibilities that exist for a parent and child who are both present in the moment.

So how can we perform genetic engineering of human embryos in holiness and grace? It would first of all require abandonment of experimental research on human embryos and the selection of preferred embryos through IVF.

Without research on human embryos and the use of IVF, however, we might conclude that the uncertain risks of genetic engineering outweigh any practical benefits. Even if effects on the born person could be predicted, the genetic engineering would need to be guided by thorough consideration of any human person’s purpose in holiness and reunion with God.

Will removal of inherited diseases, abnormalities, or afflictions enhance the person’s opportunities for holiness in life, or will the alternative experience of suffering have the supreme benefit promised to us in Christ’s own suffering and triumph?

Will new genetic characteristics assist a person in giving lifelong glory to God, or will the person struggle on their spiritual path because they are disconnected from an identity of inherent uniqueness and purpose – one that was present from the moment of their mysterious and divine creation?

When turning new technology toward modification of an embryo, will parents love the embryo as a developing child of God and appropriately consider – in the present – the risk-benefit ratio, complications from substituting their consent for the child’s, potential influence of discriminatory attitudes, balancing parental control with trust in God’s providence, the gift of love without conditions, etc.?

We will also have to wrestle with the meaning and morality of mankind’s drive toward an idea of perfection. We will need to develop considerably more wisdom regarding the place of science and technology in mankind’s control of our own destiny. These are topics I hope to cover in future essays.