(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering, UCC, All Rights ReservedDNA - no copyright

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Jesus’ so-called sermon on the mount discourse is said by many to capture the entirety of his beliefs. Of paramount importance to him and to each person ought to be the well-being of others – particularly those who are sick, poor and hurting. The heart of the divine, he said, is with those who are meek, humble, hungry and poor. They understand what it means to rely on hope, trust and faith.
I use Jesus as an example in some of my messages not to endorse Christianity as a religion but instead to look to his teachings as ways for us to learn and grow – much like we also often look to other historic prohets for their insights.
Jesus, in the sermon on the mount, focused heavily on human attitudes. For him, hypocrisy is one of the greatest of evils. And too many people are prone to it, he said. As a result, he spoke against the kind of hypocrisy that professes concern for family life but then easily abandons wives, in his time, to poverty. He also pointed out how violence and murder are condemned by all people. But then he added a twist. Verbal violence, name calling and angry words are equal to murder. Both physical AND verbal violence are inconsistent with human goodness.
He also highlighted hypocrisy with regard to adultery. One might believe it inappropriate to physically engage with a person besides one’s spouse or partner. But Jesus called out those who believed they were pure of committing physical adultery but who nevertheless lusted with their thoughts. Both are forms of infidelity. Implicitly, he says many people are guilty of some form of adultery – physical or mental – and thus should not wag their tongues in condemnation of others.
He had particular scorn for those who give lavishly to the poor or other charities and make a big show of it. What is their true motivation? To help someone else or to bring attention to oneself? The same ethic holds true for the outwardly pious and those who pray long and loud prayers in public. What is their motivation? Is it to deeply connect with a force greater than oneself, or to again seek favorable attention?
Ultimately, he asked his listeners, where is your heart? In what do you place your trust? In money? In things? In yourself? In being adored and admired by others? Or is your heart motivated by higher ideals – to help others, to love others, to quietly and humbly serve?
My message series this month seeks to address the ethics of several modern issues. Technology. Raising children. Genetic research and testing. It is almost impossible to know what Jesus or any other prophet like Buddha or Mohammed would say about such issues. But as I’ve said before, many ethical teachings including those found in the Bible, Torah, Koran or Veda are not fixed in time. Their teachings cannot rely on the literal words that were written thousands of years ago. They must evolve according to new insights and new revelations.
For instance, there are nine verses in the Bible that explicitly condemn homosexuality. For many Biblical fundamentalists, those are the words of God, the Bible says they are so, end of debate! Their minds are closed.
But the ancient mind had no concept or knowledge of modern psychology and recent discoveries about human sexual orientation. Just as Jesus sharply condemned those who discriminated against persons born with a disability, the same might apply to those born gay – not that being gay is in any way a disability. The point Jesus made was that any person, any created thing is good and wonderful. All should be loved.
These same principles can be applied to how we understand the ethics of genetic research, testing and technology – my topic for today. Geneticists have proposed four ethical standards. First, is the research or gene technology beneficial to humans? Second, does it live up the standard of “do no harm”? Third, are standards of justice and fairness applied in its use? Fourth, do people retain autonomous and private control over their own genes and any genetic test results or treatments?
Recently, new research was revealed that caused alarm in some religious fundamentalist circles. It put to test the first ethical standard: does a technology help people? Scientists at the Scripps Institute in San Diego published results last week of their work to create entirely new life forms. These scientists have not just manipulated existing genes and DNA, but they developed a way to add chemical molecules to e.coli cells such that their DNA would then recognize the chemicals and use them to produce synthetic and a heretofore unknown pair of nucleotides that are the building blocks of all DNA. The result is a DNA double helix that nature has not produced and likely never will on its own. This synthetic biology or SynBio, as it is called, creates a new life form.
In this case, scientists are attempting to manufacture new kinds of living cells that can then be used for industrial and medical purposes. Such cells are envisioned to one day be living nano computer chips – microscopic cells that can be turned on or off in order to serve binary computing needs. And, they might serve as new types of medicines – cells that directly deliver a drug at a microscopic level. All of these cells will be totally man-made with DNA structures unknown in the natural world.
Many fundamentalists and some ethicists reacted strongly to the news. The implications of the discovery, they say, are profound. Humans are no longer manipulating life. They are creating it by manufacturing life forms that nature never intended. What if this technology proceeds and we become capable of making not just DNA for single cells but new animal or human DNA that would produce alien life of no natural origin? We are acting as if we are God, or at worst, like Frankenstein mad scientists, critics say.
But is that a worthy ethical response? Does this new technology not hold the promise of much greater disease treatment? Might it not greatly help humanity? Is that not the stated motivation of these scientists? If something can potentially be used for harm, for evil purposes, does that make the technology itself bad?
As Jesus pointed out, humans have always been able to turn something good into something bad – marriage, charity, or prayer as he discussed in his sermon on the mount. As in those cases, our ethical response must be toward demanding ethical behavior by people in how they use and apply new technology. The ability to create new life is not evil if that knowledge is applied ethically and for the good of others. In that regard, the technology is a divine gift – something wonderful and fully supported by any moral standard. Our role as humans is to insure that our hearts and our motivations, as Jesus constantly taught, are directed in the right way.
Regarding the ethical standard that demands people have autonomy over their own genes and genetic test results, the questions are equally complex. Within the last six months, scientists announced that they are nearing the ability to have a genetic blood test accurately determine whether or not a person will develop the Alzheimer’s disease. Such a test, for me, is both amazing and frightening – given my own mom’s diagnosis. Am I a genetically prone to the disease? If so, what would I do with that knowledge?
The PBS network recently sponsored and televised just such an ethical discussion. One daughter of an Alzheimer’s patient was asked if she would have the new genetic test. Yes, she replied. It would be liberating. As much as she did not want to hear bad news, she owed an ethical obligation to herself and to her family to know the truth. She could mentally and physically prepare herself for the disease onset. She could get her affairs in order. She could discuss with her family all of her wants and needs. She could assure them of her love. She might even choose to end her life at some point prior to the full disease onset in order to spare her family.
Another woman whose parent has the disease said she would refuse to take the test. If she were shown to have the Alzheimer’s gene, she would live in constant fear. It would depress her, affect her mental well-being for the years she has remaining and deeply darken her outlook on life. Not knowing, she said, was the ethical approach for her and her family so that all are spared premature worry. Even more, she asked, how ethical is it to kill oneself and leave one’s family with that burden?
While Jesus often taught that the search for truth is a worthy goal, he also emphasized the integrity of each person to make life choices. He also underlined the precious nature of life and that all people are loved – no matter a disability. Is a victim of Alzheimer’s any less worthy than another? Should that person be considered a burden and someone who should commit suicide? Is their life still not precious?
We see two competing interests – to serve and protect the feelings of family who will have to deal with a future Alzheimer’s patient, and the rights of any person to determine their own lives. In this case, the ethic of autonomy and freedom to choose what to do in response to a genetic test are paramount. Some may want to know the truth. Others will not. Freedom demands the right of each to choose. Both are operating from firm ethical ground. Once again, the standard applies regarding what is the motivation? What is in the heart?
Having autonomy over our genes was further underscored by a Supreme Court decision last year. The court unanimously held that a Utah company that discovered and patented two genes causing breast and ovarian cancers cannot continue to patent and profit from these human genes. Humanity owns and retains control over its own genes since they are an implicit part of who we are. While tests to detect such genes can be patented, the life structure itself, this piece of created nature, cannot be exclusively owned by another. It’s not as if this company wanted to own the rights to just a few individual genes. It wanted to own the right to the very idea of these genes and thus control all such cancer genes wherever they exist.
The court cited a statement from Jonas Salk who developed the polio vaccine in the 1950’s. When asked if he would patent his vaccine, he replied no. The vaccine was an amount of dead virus that initiates an immune defense. These dead viruses are a part of nature he said. He merely determined how to put them to good use. “Can you patent the sun?” he asked.
All of nature, all of humanity are wonderfully created things. What we discover about nature and our bodies is still a part of nature – and still under universal ownership. Nobody can own and profit from such natural wonders.
The third ethical standard proposed by geneticists is one of justice and privacy. Genetic tests must not be used to discriminate. Results must be private and they must be strictly limited in how they can be used. Police in a small Virginia town recently asked a number of African-American men to voluntarily submit to DNA testing. The town was being terrorized by a serial rapist who was described as African-American. While many did volunteer, many others refused. Accusations of racism were made along with concerns about just what the police would do with all of the DNA data they collected. Save it to check on future crimes? Share it with outside interests who might use it to discriminate? Exactly what tests would be performed on the DNA – ones for identification or ones to determine other factors such as who carries the sickle-cell anemia gene? What about those who refused to be tested? Would that cause them to be targeted by police as possible suspects? Finally, are we moving as society toward a national DNA database where our genetic codes will be saved and used in ways to limit our freedoms – to deny us health insurance, to invade our privacy, to illegally monitor our private activities?
In matters of genetic privacy and non-discrimination, courts, laws and ethical standards have not reached definitive conclusions. If an insurance company could learn that I am genetically disposed to Alzheimer’s, will they want to insure me – or at least charge me much higher premiums? Could genes identifying race be used to discriminate? Do I have the right to privacy over my own genetic structure such that nobody can access it without due process?
Justice demands that genetic testing and data be used fairly and without prejudice. Such genetic data, if it is used for statistical analysis or other research, must be wiped of other identifying information. Our personhood, our rights of freedom must be preserved. Our genes cannot be used for unfair or discriminatory purposes. In that regard, they must remain private or sharply limited in their use and application.
The final ethical standard put forward by genetic scientists is an easy but profound one to apply. Do no harm. It echoes the sign outside of Google headquarters that implores its employees, “do no evil.” Just as all world religions teach the Golden Rule to treat others as one wants to be treated, the logical corollary to it is to do nothing that hurts another. No violence. No angry or hurtful speech. No discrimination. No hatred. No bitterness. No theft. No deception. Genetic researchers must not pursue research or perform a test that has the potential, by itself, to harm. If a test or form of research is intended to be used for good but can potentially be used for evil, then ethics, laws and standards will be determined by reasonable persons to limit such behavior. This echoes Jesus’ teaching. Don’t put your trust in things that will eventually rust or rot away. Put your trust in what matters and what endures – truth, goodness, compassion, service, reason and love.
We find with regard to genetics that scientists have thoughtfully determined ethical standards to apply. The future role of all humanity is to apply them and to follow them. Above all, we can find in any genetic research the glory of nature – the complicated, intricate wonder of a woven DNA strand that contains the biological code that then defines life.
Whatever it is that we each choose to believe wrote our genetic coding – evolution, nature, God – we cannot help but step back and behold our DNA with awe: mysterious, beautiful in design, elegant in structure, fantastic in function. But what supercedes human genetic coding is the ethical coding imprinted on human souls – the impulse to share, the desire to love, the satisfaction of serving and caring. It is as if our souls were created to preserve and protect all that our physcial genes have made – to insure lives of health, happiness and growth for every person. Let that motivation be our guiding light, and the primary ethic, in all we do.
I wish you all peace and joy.