Genetic modification is a highly contentious issue, not least because many people think that humans are trying to play God. Humans are a superior species in that they have evolved to echelons of capability which are far beyond the ability stratums of the rest of the animal kingdom. Humans are created by God in Genesis to be stewards over the entire world, so most people think that this encompasses treating animals, plants and micro-organisms with respect as they are part of the creation.
Furthermore, the Roman Catholic pursuit of natural law also condemns genetic modification, as it obviously contravenes what God intended, as the purpose of organisms is reproduction either sexually or asexually (which is the nearest thing to cloning in the animal kingdom), and at no stage is human interference intended in their Aristotelian final cause. Furthermore, psalm 139 explicitly describes how God is the necessary creator in the womb: “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. ”
However, Situationism – that is the Christian consequential system based on agapaic love – would permit genetic modification, depending on the circumstances, as genetic modification may be seen as an act of humility and love (e. g. phasing out a hereditary disease which results in infertility). One may also think that genetic modification agrees with the Christian sanctity of life (SOL) argument, as creating rats with cancerous cells in order to help find a cure for cancer is an example of human kind trying to maintain their race, to steward God’s creation effectively.
One could also say that, as humans are here to steward over God’s creation, we are entitled to try to improve the creation by altering defects, maybe even do what we want with genetic engineering, as we are made in God’s image, therefore can determine what the world should be like. One problem with this is that humans are doing this for egoistic reasons, and animals, plants and micro-organisms are gaining very little from human interference.
However, in a world where we are perpetually hearing about the disadvantaged, poor and hungry, we should follow Jesus’ example of charity, and if we can create high-yield crops that grow in less economically developed countries, then this is surely a good and generous act. Growing populations mean there are more mouths to feed. Currently, there are hundreds of thousands of people starving. Malnutrition and hunger cause untold human suffering. Genetically modified crops promise to produce more food in less space, resist crop failure, and can contain added nutrients.
Food that is more nutritious and less crop failure will alleviate malnutrition and hunger, thus end much human suffering. Therefore, genetically modified organisms are beneficial and should be promoted. Likewise, growing populations have created a situation of food insecurity, which contributes to larger public health and social problems (i. e. migrations and global homelessness, domestic violence, armed conflicts and war). Genetically modified crops can minimize food insecurity, which will in turn minimize or lessen the related social problems. Therefore, genetically modified organisms should be developed and promoted.
One problem with such foods is although they may have been introduced to cure world hunger, they are often infertile, so that the farmers in the poor countries have to buy more crops each year, again a result of an uncaring Western seed-producer. This ties in with SOL, as food is being created to save lives, which is the ultimate respect for human life being sacred. Nevertheless, if the natural world is not ours to modify and to modify organisms is to exert unprecedented power, then such acts reveal an objectionable level of arrogance, which is non-virtuous.
Engaging in a non-virtuous action is ill advised and wrong and genetic modification is therefore ill advised and wrong too. Natural Law is essentially sceptical about the benefits of genetic modification. Nevertheless, genetic modification is a progression of what we have been doing for years. For example, in Genesis, there is the story of Jacob who selectively breeds. Indeed pedigree animals and even domesticated animals, and cross breeds are genetically modified versions of what is ultimately natural.
To take genetically modified animals, plants and micro-organisms to the next level is surely just a natural progression of human techniques for selective breeding, and therefore acceptable. Inheritable genetic modification (similar to germ-line therapy) would lead to treating children and all people like objects. Germ line technologies would contribute strongly to parental expectations of “pre-selecting” their children’s traits, and to the cultural construction of human beings as biologically perfectible artefacts.
This would change the nature of the parent-child relationship, and would likely have other profound and destabilizing socio-cultural impacts. However, it could be used to stop the transfer for of inheritable diseases. This may agree with the SOL, as the value of a healthy life is perceived to be high, so that if we can offer a healthy life to people who would otherwise be disadvantaged, then we should. Gene transfer can occur between transgenic plants and bacteria, and between bacteria and mammalian cells. DNA released from living and dead cells can persist in the environment and be transferred to other organisms.
An organism may be dead, but its “naked” DNA released from decaying cells may remain biologically active for potentially thousands of years, especially in certain soils and marine sediments. One must therefore consider not only the “fate” of transgenic organisms but also the genes and viruses – or parts thereof – that have been inserted into them. Several field studies have shown that pollen from genetically engineered crops can contaminate the germ lines of conventional and organically grown varieties and wild relatives.
In addition to such genetic contamination or pollution, GE pollen (e. g. from corn) may be toxic to insects and other organisms. Because genetically altered organisms cannot be contained, releasing them into the environment has the potential to be catastrophic. Therefore, we should not release genetically modified organisms into the environment, as this may to the development of super-species, which humans cannot combat. This disrespects the SOL, as it may lead to hundreds of people starving, if, say, super-locusts wiping out crops in poorer countries.
To conclude though, it may just be that society as a whole has time to contemplate which uses of the technology might be acceptable and which would not. Views will inevitably change over time: the first test tube baby, Louise Brown, was born in 1978, beforehand it was seen as appalling and in vitro fertilisation is now commonplace too. Attitudes will also vary between countries: many fear that cloning would be exploited by megalomaniacs but in my view, it is far more likely that the ethical boundaries will be tested by the in vitro fertilisation clinics in the USA.
Overall, though, I think that in certain circumstances, genetic modification can and does respect the SOL. Indeed, therapeutic cloning to create stem cells would mean that lives could be saved, and grave terminal illnesses could be greatly reduced, because of life being seen as sacred. However, it is in the application of genetic modification that it may not respect the SOL, especially if it occurs without agape, but instead for financial gain, as SOL immediately becomes a facade for a doctor/scientist to perform such an act whilst claiming to be morally good and morally right.