Homo Sapiens for Sale

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken March 7, 1999

Many observers are starting to call the 21st century the “Biotech Century.” Recent advances in biology and technology suggest that in the next one hundred years human beings will have unprecedented opportunities to create, manipulate, and destroy themselves.

Consider a few examples. Within the next few years scientists will complete their map of the human genetic code. The Human Genome Project, as it is called, will reproduce the complete sequence of the three billion chemical pairs which make up human DNA.

This genetic information has a number of potential uses and abuses. It raises the possibility of what biotech critic Jeremy Rifkin calls “the ultimate shopping experience”: designer babies, or children whose DNA is altered to produce specific physical or intellectual traits. Also, doctors are beginning to practice “gene therapy,” adding good genes to the cells of sick patients in order to make them better. Then there is “genetic enhancement,” in which genes are altered to prevent disease or increase the human life span.

Significant research is also being done on human stem cells, cells that have not yet differentiated into blood, bone, brain, or other kinds of cells. Stem cells have the capacity to become any part of the human body, raising the possibility that one day scientists will be able to grow their own organs in a petri dish.

There are other developments as well. More discussions (and possibly more experiments, too) are taking place on the cloning of human beings. Perhaps, too, by the end of the next century, biochemists will complete a map of the more than ten billion neurons in the human brain, thus closing the gap between real and artificial intelligence.

All this research confirms two fundamental aspects of human nature: creativity and depravity. The fact that we are able to radically change our bodies shows that we are creators made in the image of a creative God. The fact that we do it without stopping to think about the moral implications of what we are doing shows that we are base sinners.

Scientists are no more depraved than anyone else, of course, but some of them seem to have a firm belief in their own divinity. They believe that we must do anything we can do. Yet the truth is that there are lots of things we can do but mustn't. For the foreseeable future, Christians will have to wrestle constantly with the ethical and theological implications of new biotechnology.

To help us get started, I want to suggest one fundamental principle that helps us evaluate what we should and should not be doing. The principle is this: Don't use people. Treat human beings as ends rather than as means to an end.

The reason we should not use people has to do with who we are, which is exactly where our culture has lost its way. We are rapidly losing track of true human identity. In the words of one observer, “We don't know what to make of ourselves precisely because we are, more than ever, able to remake ourselves” [Mark Derry, Escape Velocity].

If we want to know what human beings are really for, therefore, we will have to go back to the Bible. There we discover that we are made in the image and glory of God (1 Cor. 11:7; cf. Gen. 1:27). A human being is a male or a female made in God's image and created for God's glory.

There are plenty of things, therefore, that a human being is not. A human being is not a repository of spare body parts. A human being is not a bag of chemicals or a network of neurons. A human being is certainly not what one professor calls “a machine made out of meat” [Marvin Minsky, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Christianity Today, 12/7/98, p. 34]. Nor is a human being a commodity whose genes can be harvested as the ultimate human resource. A human being is a person made to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

When we remember how God made human beings in the first place (according to the pattern of his image) and why he made them (for his own glory), we start to get answers to some of our questions about biotechnology. If human beings are creatures made in God's image, there are plenty of things we can rule out.

We can rule out the preposterous idea of patenting the human genome. Many scientific researchers are rushing to claim parts of the human genetic code. This is completely without precedent. The U.S. Patent Office has never before awarded a patent for what is known as a “discovery of nature.” In other words, scientists have never been allowed to claim credit for God's handiwork. To do so with the human genome is to treat a person almost like a human invention.

We can also rule out any form of genetic research that ends up discarding human embryos. That is obviously to treat a person—for what is a human embryo if not a human being?—as a means rather than as an end. For the same reason, we can rule out any form of scientific work which requires the use of aborted fetal tissue, as most stem cell research does.

There are plenty of ethical problems with human cloning, as I have explained before. But here is one more reason cloning should be abandoned: Every conceivable clone would be made, not in the interests of the clone, but in the interests of whoever wants the clone made. In other words, cloning treats human beings as means to an end rather than as ends in themselves.

Much more could be said about the “Biotech Century,” but this is a good place to start. A human being is a creature made in God's image. So don't use people.

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