Religious Views on Genetic Engineering

By: Imani Karpowich

Watch the debate here.

The dispute between Science and Religion has gone on for centuries. The study of science, being fairly new compared to the ancient practice of religion, has been criticized by many religious followers, and vice versa. Additionally, new scientific discoveries or theories have always been skepticised by the public. Now it’s the 21st century, and genetic engineering has come into the picture. Many are currently debating if the engineering of genes is morally correct. From a religious view, people are wondering if this type of science goes against their religion. The answer for most of them is: yes. That is why numbers of religious groups are protesting to stop or at least avoid engineered genetics because they wish to obey and live by the rules of their religion. However, that seems too difficult for them right now, due to the fact that altered genes have been distributed into the public without much publicity over the past years. Now religious leaders are attempting to stand up against these distributions.

Genetic Engineering involves the modification of characteristics of an organism by manipulating its genetic material or DNA. Examples of these modifications can be seen in GMOs — mentioned later –, cloning, or a face transplant. Practices such as cloning has been a controversial topic ever since it’s development, but it has still been experimented with over the years with or without the public’s approval. One of the most famous animals to be cloned was a sheep, Dolly. Dolly was cloned from an adult cell in 1996, but before her there were many other animals that were being cloned in studies that were not as publicised. Gene modification is also used  in the medical world. It has recently been known to be used to regrow a face for someone who, for example, could’ve been in an accident and has lost a part of their face. Maybe you have heard of these incidents, maybe not? These stories have been reported and spoken of, however practices of genetic engineering aren’t always released into the public. This is why followers of certain religions want to eliminate use of genetic engineering from their lives in order to truthfully live by their faith. If these processes cannot be eliminated, proper reports and publication is in the high interest of the protesters.

GMO, as mentioned earlier, stands for “genetically modified organism” or “genetically modified food”. GMO’s have been unknowingly consumed by the public. Only in recent years have researchers uncovered the truth that many of us don’t truly know what is in our food. This is not just processed foods such as chips but, what I’ll call “basic foods,” can be GMOs as well: apples, oranges, carrots etc. Your basic fruits and vegetables can contain genes from something else other than that ingredient. Ron Epstein, a research professor, at the Institute for World Religions says that China has created faster growing tomatoes and peppers by putting in certain human genes. Stating sarcastically, “You can now be a vegetarian and a cannibal at the same time!” He also states that Canadian geneticists are putting human genes into fish to make them grow faster. In the U.S. there have been many bills focused on the labeling of genetically modified foods but none have been passed so far. Around May of 2013 the Senate rejected a bill that would let states choose if they wanted to require labels or not.

Those who wish for the labeling of GMOs have made arguments about the fear of allergic reactions, possibility of the original organism dieing out, and simply to know what they’re eating. Explaining a religious followers viewpoint can also be described as the view of a vegan. A vegan diet does not include meat or dairy products. However if a vegan is buying groceries, they could possibly be picking up fruits and vegetables without knowing if there are any meat or dairy genes in them. Without the label, a vegan could go against their preferred diet without realizing. How does this tie in with a religious diet? Well certain religions prevent their followers from eating certain items. For example Islamic people and Jews don’t eat pork, and Mormon’s do not drink caffeine or alcohol. As for Christians, and almost every other religion, what they consume must be created by their God. Technically, a GMO or any other form that is genetically altered is man-made. If a follower of a certain religion does not wish to eat GMO’s they cannot truly know without a label. Just like the vegan buying an orange that may or may not contain pig genes. Followers cannot truthfully or fully practice their religion without knowing something is genetically engineered. Religious protesters feel as though they are unknowingly betraying their faith.

One of the forms of these protests against genetic engineering can be seen from, The Christian Post, an online newspaper. This, along with many other religious reporting groups have written articles against the use of genetic engineering. A reporter from The Christian Post, Leonardo Blair wrote an article this year about genetically engineered children. Stating that, “genetics experts are now debating whether or not further development of designer offspring should be banned.” Professor Sheldon Krimsky from Tufts University and Chair of the Council for Responsible Genetics, and Lord Robert Winston, Professor of Science and Society and Emeritus Professor of Fertility Studies at Imperial College were mentioned, arguing for a ban of studying and developing technology to create genetically engineered children. And arguing against a ban was Nita Farahany, Professor of Law and Philosophy and Professor of Genome Sciences & Policy at Duke University. Accompanying her was Princeton University Professor and author Lee Silver. Krimsky felt as though no studies or data could ensure safety of human modification. He additionally argued that traits can’t simply be enhanced by a modification of a low number of genes. Krimsky states in the article, “traits like intelligence, personality, muscle tone, musicianship … are complex and not only involve dozens if not hundreds of genes but are the result of nutrition, social and environmental factors, genetic switches that are outside of the DNA and the gene-gene interactions that occur in human cells.” He sees the human genome as “an ecosystem where all the parts interrelate and are in mutual balance,” in addition Professor Krimsky believes it is simply too complex for humans to alter. There was also a fear of social inequality mentioned, “it will have social power that can be used by those who have wealth and resources to make others believe that to be prenatally genetically modified makes you better.”

On the other hand, Farahany believes that genetic engineering is sometimes necessary. She stated that it “is no different in kind from the many ways that we already engineer our children, from the partners we choose to prenatal screening to the supplements we take that impact our children and their fates.” Her argument was that if there is a ban, we would be unable to enhance our medical technology to help keep embryos healthy. An example used was that of folate, a vitamin that is sometimes given to pregnant women to reduce the incidence of autism. She asks why there wasn’t a proposed ban on folate if a ban is being proposed now with genetic engineering. at the end of the debate the audience voted for no ban. This article was written objectively, however looking at Christian beliefs and knowing of the many protests against the use of modified genetics, the ending vote most likely disappointed many of the article’s readers. Comments included: : “just because you can – doesn’t mean you should,” and, “… we’re not so good at playing god as we think we’ll be? and the serpent said to Eve, “did God really say………..???” Another concluded, “I think that it is okay for the sole purpose of helping babies that have been discovered to have physical deficiencies in the womb. Other than that, i can really see how someone can start playing God on this one.”

Children are considered to be engineered genetically today through in vitro fertilization and other similar methods, and these methods are used solely to help women become pregnant if they are having trouble. However there have been studies claiming that we will soon, if not now, have the ability to choose our children’s traits. This would be considered genetically engineered children. This is another part of genetic science that is debatable and most religious groups are against it. They want their right in the future, if we ever begin to use this technology, to have a choice in the matter.

The use of genetic modification and engineering is still debated today. The technology has developed greatly but some scientists, along with other members of the public are still concerned whether it is morally correct. Many experiments are currently conducted despite these debates, however the process of choosing our children’s genes, does not seem to be in our near future.

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