National Council of Churches of Singapore
The Life Sciences: A Christian Perspective
A Statement Prepared by the National Council of Churches of Singapore
Science and the Christian Faith
The twentieth century has often been dubbed the ‘Bio-Tech Century’ because of the phenomenal advancements in the life sciences and the technologies associated with them. From the mapping of the human genome to the successful cloning of a mammal and the harvesting of human stem cells, these advances raises important issues and concerns because their impact on the future of human beings is still largely unknown. The Church cannot ignore these developments in culture because her mission to proclaim the Gospel can never be divorced from her sensitive and responsible engagement with that culture.
The best of Christian tradition supports the development of science because the scientific enterprise is viewed as an exercise of stewardship – a responsibility entrusted upon human beings by their Creator. Scientific knowledge and advancement may be seen as instantiations of the providential grace of God, and scientific activity, when conducted responsibly and with integrity, can bring glory to God, who by his grace has made such activity possible. But like all human endeavours, the scientific quest is also tainted by human sinfulness, which result in its perversion. History affords us with many examples of how science, instead of bringing about the alleviation of suffering, has in fact been responsible for it. Science can be conducted in an inhumane manner even if its goals are noble. This theological perspective on science prevents us from absolutising it and establishes the basis for envisioning the ethical parameters that must govern scientific activity.
This document presents a Christian perspective on the following three branches of the life sciences:
“The Human Genome Project
“Cloning and Human Stem Cell Research
Genetically-modified food refers to food obtained or prepared from crops and animals whose genes have been intentionally modified by scientists in a laboratory. While the prudential application of biotechnology to animal and crops should not be stopped, GM food does present several issues of concern. The first has to do with the environment. God has given to human beings the responsibility of taking care of the environment, and this responsibility must be extended to the need to exercise caution in the genetic engineering animals and crops. While farmers have for a long time practised selections and hybridisations, the difference between ‘old’ and ‘new’ biotechnologies is essentially that in the new biotechnology, the ‘transgenic element’ is introduced. It is therefore imperative that GM plants and chemical products be extensively and rigorously tested before it is introduced for large-scale farming. The distinction between ‘the absence of evidence’ and the ‘evidence of absence’ is important. Just because there is no known or perceived evidence that certain GM food and products can cause illness or upset the ecosystem does not mean that the evidence is absent because some evidence may take a longer time to detect. GM food producers must see it as their responsibility to protect bio-diversity and care for the environment.
The second concern is justice. The acquisition, production and marketing of GM food may be motivated by the search for profitability, while neglecting wider social interests and the common good. Guidelines should be issued and implemented by properly instituted authorities to ensure greater accountability and the just management and marketing of GM technology and GM food.
Human Genome Project
The Human Genome Project (HGP) which began in 1988 has the goal of mapping ands sequencing the human DNA. Once this is completed the position of human genes will be unveiled, and the order of the four pairs – the A, T, G, and C nucleotides – that form the DNA molecule will be known. It is envisaged that the several thousand genes suspected of being responsible for inherited diseases will be identified and the way for the treatment through gene therapy prepared. This new knowledge will have implications in every dimension of life – philosophical, legal, social and ethical.
While genetic research should be encouraged, genetic determinism and other forms of scientific and philosophical reductionism must be rejected. This is because the view that human beings are nothing more than genetic-neurological-hormonal processing machines is inimical to the Biblical concept of man. According to the Christian understanding, human beings are created in the image of God, capable of freedom and relationship. The Christian Tradition also presents the relationship between freedom and responsibility by insisting on the moral character of human action. Made in God’s image, man is therefore not only a free, rational, cultural being, he is responsible being who stands before God and before his neighbour. Concerning genetic technology, the statements that were made in the section ‘Science and the Christian Faith’ apply. Genetic technology can be seen as God’s gift to man, and should be used for the alleviation of human suffering. But because genetic science in the hands of sinners can be exploitative and destructive, the questions of abuse and distributive justice must constantly be addressed.
Cloning and Stem Cell Research
Biological science made a significant breakthrough in July 1996 when embryologists at the Roslin Institute succeeded into cloning a lamb from cells taken from a matured sheep. This milestone in biotechnology has resulted in great hopes as well as anxieties. In November 1998, another significant breakthrough occurred when the first human embryonic stem cells were isolated and cultured. Scientists became hopeful that the human embryonic stem cell research would lead to the cure of diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. These two distinct but related developments have resulted in much controversies and debate in medical ethics.
The Christian response to human cloning and embryonic stem cell research must go beyond pragmatic and even therapeutic considerations. Although the cloning a human being does not tantamount to reproducing the same person, questions regarding safety, and the commodification of human beings, with its attending psychological and social implications must be raised and given serious consideration. The replacement of sexual procreation with an asexual reproduction process is dehumanising because it severs the link between sexuality, love and procreation and is abstracted from the familial context. With regard to embryonic stem cell research, the issue centres on the status of the embryo. The Christian Tradition maintains that human life begins at conception, and that the embryo from its earliest stage of life is a human being and deserves the same respect and protection as other human beings. The ethical concerns surrounding embryonic stem cell research far outweighs the therapeutic potentials that such research holds. The use of embryos for experimentation that results in their destruction must never be countenanced by society.