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Union profs say human genome discovery holds promise and potential for danger

JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)–While today’s expectant parents may dream and wonder what their unborn baby will one day look like, scientists are now predicting there may soon come a time when parents will be able to have more influence on the creation of their child than just choosing a name, according to science professors at Union University.

As a result of future developments stemming from the Human Genome Project, sex, hair and eye color, even height and I.Q. will be options for parents to consider.

“Science has just recently learned that mothers actually have a genetic influence on their unborn children by the proteins they share with their child in the womb,” said James Huggins, chair of the biology department at Union. “Now, with this discovery of the human genome map, people may have the choice of creating their very own ‘designer babies’.”

Representatives of the Human Genome Project announced June 26 that scientists have now created a type of genetic road map to an estimated 90% of genes on every chromosome of the human body.

“The discovery that these scientists have made has tremendous potential for good and tremendous potential for harm,” said Wayne Wofford, science professor and director of Union’s Center for Science and Faith. “How we decide to use the information is what will make the difference.”

‘The information’ is the human genome, a complete set of instructions for making an organism which contains the master blueprint, DNA, and is found in every nucleus of a person’s many trillions of cells, Wofford added.

Made up of four different bases in a particular order, the DNA sequence specifies the exact genetic instructions required to create a particular organism with its own unique traits, much like a computer language with its own code of zeroes and ones. For years, scientists have struggled to understand the genetic code, until now.

“Scientists have been working on this project for a number of years but progress has moved much more quickly than anyone expected,” said David P. Gushee, Christian ethics professor at Union and a nationally recognized expert in the field of bioethics.

Gushee noted that Christians should not react with panic to every new scientific discovery — even one as momentous as this. “God gave human beings the ability to reason their way and work their way through things, even to the discovery of this fundamental mystery for how human life works,” explains Gushee. “We should see the ability to make this discovery as evidence of God’s creativity.”

“It’s very exciting to uncover the words of God,” Huggins said. “In this instance, it’s not through the Holy Bible, but through God’s very own chemical language — a recipe that He has designed for every animal and every human.”

Generally, every new scientific discovery is hailed at the time as a source of overwhelming good. Wofford, Huggins and Gushee agreed that there is excellent potential from the discovery to develop genetic therapies and identify individual predispositions and treatments to genetic diseases such as cancer, sickle cell anemia and cystic fibrosis.

“If it is possible to develop treatments for these types of diseases, this discovery of the human genome could be the source of the greatest medical breakthrough ever,” Gushee said. “It is part of the medical profession’s business to heal and prevent suffering.”

However, Gushee noted that with each new scientific breakthrough comes the potential for abuse.

“We learned how to split the atom so we created atomic nuclear weapons. That same technology also enables us to provide power and energy to those who need it. That just reflects human nature — we’re all sinners,” he said.

The concern for abuse is real as more and more companies race to secure the patents to specific genes within the human body, added Huggins.

“I can understand patenting a motor or a machine, but not the human body,” he said. “This is something we didn’t create — we’ve just merely deciphered it. If we get to the point of genetically engineering humans, will we, in essence, own them?”

Huggins raises the possibility that a “genocracy” could perhaps one day be formed and a genetic caste system of sorts emerge within society.

Wealthy parents, wanting the best for their children, could pay to genetically manipulate their children to be the smartest, brightest and best looking, while poorer families would not have the economic opportunity to do the same.

“We’re really creating potential disasters when we begin playing God,” Huggins said.

Wofford said it is the question of what is “playing God” and what is not, that is the real issue.

“Most people, at some level, are willing to assert that we have the right to alter nature. If you wear glasses, you are improving nature,” he said. “We have to ask ourselves, where is the line?”

“Within the legitimate bioethical community, there is a line that is being drawn,” says Gushee, “between the manipulation of the overall human genome to create monstrous mutations of human beings and to use this information for truly therapeutic use. The question is whether it will be honored or not.”

“The great issue in bioethics,” Gushee said, “is whether you do everything you have the ability to do. As a Christian, I have to say no, that there are some things we may know how to do, but we must not do.”

Christian scientists and laymen alike will be asking themselves that same type of question in the days ahead. Gushee emphasized that Christians, as a whole, must respond.

“Some Christians will respond with horror, which is too simple,” says Gushee. “But an overall reaction of happiness and excitement is too naive. Christians must understand that a major threshold has been crossed — one that will raise all kinds of moral issues over the next 25 years, and we need to take them one by one. Humans will need, more than ever, the conviction that there is a God, and human limits must be respected.

“So far, God has allowed human beings a great amount of freedom to make bad decisions as well as good decisions,” Gushee said. “We have a responsibility to monitor these situations very closely and represent God’s interest on this planet — to do God’s work as best as we can determine it. This will involve courageous and vigorous protests — issues that we as Christians must not walk, but dive into, wholeheartedly.”

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  • Sara Horn