Bioethikos: Bringing Life to Bioethics

Archive for the ‘Genetic ethics’ Category


Editing Humanity: The Ships are Burning

Tuesday, August 1st, 2017 by Dr. Dennis Sullivan

In 1519, Captain Hernán Cortés and his Spanish conquistadors conquered the Aztecs and claimed Mexico for Spain. Legend reports that he ordered all the ships burned, so that his men would have to conquer or die trying. In reality, he merely scuttled the ships, making them unusable, but “burning the ships” has become a vivid metaphor to express total commitment to a cause.

Just two years ago last May, Chinese researchers reported the first use of a novel new gene editing technology, called CRISPR, on human embryos. The scientific and ethical world reacted with horror and dismay. “Germline engineering” of human beings, with genetic changes that could be passed on to future generations, has always been morally off-limits.

An international conference in December, 2016 proposed a worldwide moratorium on the use of CRISPR in human embryos. Yet within months, gene editing experiments began in the U.K. without much comment or apology. And just last week, similar experiments began at Oregon Health and Science University.

Here are a few of the many reasons why this is an ethically worrisome trend:

1. Experimenting on human embryos violates the sanctity of human life, period.
2. There is a ban in the U.S. on implanting CRISPR-edited embryos, but the temptation to implant and gestate them will be irresistible. This will first be done in other countries, debated and “cautiously” permitted here, and then the floodgates will open.
3. The goal is the cure of genetic diseases, but the results are completely unpredictable with our present level of knowledge. Germline therapies alter the entire genome of an afflicted individual, including reproductive cells. These changes will affect not only that person, but all subsequent generations.
4. All this won’t stop with the cure of diseases, as the new technology will quickly give rise to attempts at true enhancement: the altering (for better or worse) of human nature itself, possibly violating the image of God within each of us.
5. Informed consent, of course, is a major concern, since there is no way to get consent from future generations for the risks they will incur.


Yet despite the many risks, it seems that our scientists are willing, if not recklessly eager, to explore this new frontier. Like Cortés, their commitment is total, not to be distracted by bothersome ethical considerations.

And the ships are burning.

New Transhumanism – Same Old Story

Thursday, March 23rd, 2017 by Dr. Dennis Sullivan

In a modern movement right of of H.G. Wells, transhumanism is on the rise. This atheistic brand of scientism calls for the perfecting of the human species, and for bringing us through to the “next stage” of our evolution. In fact, the idea has an ancient pedigree.

The quest for genetic purity is as old as Plato, who argued that handicapped babies should be “exposed” in the open to get rid of them. In the early 20th Century, it took the form of the flawed pseudo-science of eugenics, which led to widespread discrimination, even forced sterilizations, to permit only the “best”among us to reproduce. The American and European eugenics movement lost its steam when the Nazis incorporated it into their Final Solution, leading to the Holocaust.

But human perfectionism is alive and well in the 21st Century, now called transhumanism. Aided by biotechnology and speculative applications from robotics and artificial intelligence, it is gaining momentum in our increasingly secular society.  One of its patron saints is futurist and computer pioneer Ray Kurzweil. Dr. Kurzweil has said:

By the time we get to the 2040s, we’ll be able to multiply human intelligence a billionfold. That will be a profound change that’s singular in nature. Computers are going to keep getting smaller and smaller. Ultimately, they will go inside our bodies and brains and make us healthier, make us smarter (source).


But that’s not all. Kurzweil wants to actually upload our consciousness, like software, into computers, helping us to achieve a sort of immortality. He thinks this can happen some time in the next 20 years.

I have a suggestion for Dr. Kurzweil. He should consult the Owner’s Manual for human beings, designed by our Creator. We do not need to engineer our species to be better. There is a coming spiritual transformation for the believer that will be better than any transhumanist vision:

Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality (I Corinthians 15:51-53).


Transhumanism is a flawed and empty promise, and we should expose it for the lie it is. True change, true human perfection can only come through Christ.

Christian Post Article


Religious Liberty: Making Our Case

Tuesday, March 15th, 2016 by Dr. Dennis Sullivan


The current climate of secular society has declared, aided and abetted by the U.S. Supreme Court, that traditional views of marriage are unacceptable. For those who protest, the cry of “religious liberty” has become a synonym for bigotry.

Individuals and groups that wish to uphold the view that marriage is between one man and one woman have turned to the First Amendment for help: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Yuval Levin, in the February issue of First Things. points out that efforts to defend religious liberty could go two ways: based on the establishment clause, or based on the free exercise clause, and that efforts in the courts have depended on the latter.

Free exercise arguments work like this: religious believers should be free to act out their convictions, even when public opinion is against them. In other words, the state should carve out exemptions for such individuals. But the argument does not work very well when the individuals in question are part of larger groups, which the judiciary is loathe to exempt. And yet it is membership in such groups that should give strength to the dissenters, because the groups have a positive message to convey.

“Free exercise” arguments assert a right to not be constrained by secular public opinion. But perhaps it’s time that we made an “establishment” argument, to be free from the civil religion called progressive liberalism. And the argument should be positive rather than negative, a right to advocate for a certain view of human flourishing, rather than just to be free from constraint. Yuval Levin puts it this way:

This means we need to see that we are defending more than religious liberty: We are defending the very idea that our government exists to protect the space in which various institutions of civil society do the work that enables Americans to thrive, and we are defending the proposition that this work involves moral formation and not just liberation from constraint. That is an entire conception of the meaning of a free society that goes well beyond toleration and freedom of religion. It is ultimately about the proper shape and structure of American life.


There is a reason that we hold the views we do: we believe, with good cause, that heterosexual marriage as a civil institution should be preserved, and that this is the best course for our republic. Even if we are called bigots, we have a message designed to make this world a better place.

First Things article

Could understanding nature help us treat trisomy?

Monday, May 4th, 2015 by Dr. Heather Kuruvilla

21_trisomy_-_Down_syndrome Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

by Dr. Heather Kuruvilla

What if we could actually treat the root cause of conditions like Down’s Syndrome, rather than simply ameliorating symptoms?  Although the life expectancy of Down’s Syndrome patients has increased dramatically in the past few decades, and is now approximately 60 years of age, patients continue to experience serious medical conditions such as congenital heart defects, hearing loss, and a susceptibility to Alzheimer’s Disease (National Down Syndrome Society).  Since all of these conditions correlate with the presence of an “extra” 21st chromosome, gene dosage is hypothesized be the root cause of these issues.  So, can we simply turn that extra chromosome off?

In human females with a normal chromosomal composition, somatic (body) cells contain two X-chromosomes.  Normally, in each cell, one X-chromosome is completely silenced.  Recently, scientists have discovered how long, non-coding RNAs (lncRNA) interact with proteins to cause inactivation of the entire X-chromosome.  It is hoped that understanding this mechanism will eventually lead to better treatments of autosomal trisomies, such as the most common, Down’s Syndrome, as well as trisomy 14 and trisomy 18, which are sometimes viable.  According to Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News:

This information soon may have clinical applications. The Xist lncRNA silences the X chromosome simply because it is located on the X chromosome. However, previous studies have demonstrated that this RNA and its silencing machinery can be used to inactivate other chromosomes, e.g., the third copy of chromosome 21 that is present in individuals with Down’s syndrome.


Click here for more information on this discovery.


Is Gene Therapy Playing God?

Monday, February 9th, 2015 by Dr. Heather Kuruvilla

Nucleosome1Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


by Dr. Heather Kuruvilla

It was near the end of the class period, and I was trying to explain the difference between regulating gene expression–how genes get turned on and off– and replacing genes.  “It is possible to modify gene regulation biochemically, using a drug to influence gene expression.  Some chemotherapy drugs work this way.  However, if the gene itself is defective, the most efficient way of fixing it would be to insert a functional copy of the gene into the genome, using some type of vector to get the DNA into the nucleus.  Clinical trials are underway…”

Hands go up.  A few of the expected questions are asked.  How do viral vectors work?  What are the risks of such vectors?  And then a question I hadn’t expected:

“If you fix a broken gene, isn’t that playing God?”


It was a good question.  But answering it would’ve deprived my student of an opportunity to think.  Instead, I asked him, “What if someone was born without a limb? Would it be ‘playing God’ if we made that person a prosthesis?”

“No,” answered the student.

“What if it were a biochemical defect? We had a drug that could help return the patient to to normal function, and we gave that to him.  Would that be playing God?”

“No, I’d be fine with that,” he said.

“What if you had the ability to simply replace a defective gene?  It was broken, and you fixed it.  You restored function to your patient.  Assuming that your patient won’t be harmed by the procedure, would gene therapy be any different than the first two scenarios?”

Another student raised his hand.  “When Jesus healed, He restored sight, and made the lame walk.”  Certainly, Jesus restored souls.  But restoring whole persons was an integral part of His ministry.

Restoration belongs to the Creator.  But He has allowed us to steward this gift.  Does it matter whether the tools we use are anatomical, biochemical, or genetic?


If Jesus were walking around today, and healed a cancer patient, wouldn’t you expect the mutations in their cancer cells to be gone?

Perhaps medicine will soon be able to do the same thing.  You can read more about gene therapy clinical trials here.

The Language of God

Saturday, January 6th, 2007 by Dr. Dennis Sullivan

I have always thought that Dr. Francis Collins is a pretty cool guy. When I first met him in 1992, I was impressed by his engaging personality, his love of playing the guitar and riding motorcycles, and his unabashed Christian faith.

Dr. Collins is the head of the National Human Genome Research Institute, and directs the Human Genome Project, the $3 billion project to define the DNA sequence of human beings. The first ‘rough draft’ was completed in June, 2000, with the essentially complete sequence revealed in April, 2003.

A geneticist and physician, but also an evangelical Christian, Dr. Collins uses these various perspectives to harmonize science and faith in his best-selling book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press). He refers to the genetic code as “God’s Instruction Book,” and attests to the creativity and beauty inherent in this most basic blueprint of our biological nature.

After sharing his personal journey into faith, Collins makes a compelling case for his committment to theistic evolution. He criticizes Young-Earth Creationism (YEC) for “ignoring” clear scientific evidence for evolution, and takes Intelligent Design to task for not being “scientific enough.”

Now I do not agree with Francis Collins here. I think he is much too hard on YEC, and too dismissive of Intelligent Design. It seems reasonable that our Creator would allow us to see the evidence of His handiwork in the creation around us.

Yet I appreciate Collins’ love of God, and his willingness to see that human beings are more than their genes:

[The] DNA sequence alone . . . will never explain certain special human attributes, such as the knowledge of the Moral Law and the universal search for God (p. 140).

This common knowledge of God’s Moral Law is why we have such broad agreement on ethical basics across many cultures and worldviews. And the yearning after God can never be ascribed to natural selection and the survival of the fittest.

So read The Language of God with thoughtful care. Despite my disagreements with his evolutionary viewpoint, Francis Collins demonstrates that science and faith are not incompatible. I would be glad to have coffee with him and talk about the things of the Lord. Maybe sometime he’ll even give me a ride on his motorcycle.

DNA as Destiny?

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2006 by Dr. Dennis Sullivan

Since the completion of the Human Genome Project, there seems to be a growing sense that everything, including our behavior, can be explained by our genes. According to this idea, there’s a gene (or genes) for addiction, for sexual orientation, even for altruism. Now that we know the human genetic code, we can understand everything about our nature.

Recent work in epigenetics is undermining such determinism. Epigenetics is the study of those influences that act “over and above” genetics. For example, one study showed certain genetic mutations that normally lead to obesity in rats can be turned off by a modification in diet. The same amounts of food were given, but expression of the abnormal gene was blocked by changing the type of food.

In another study performed in mice, more intimate behavior of mothers towards their offspring led to increases in the size of the hippocampal region of the brain, a change that would normally have been ascribed to genetics alone.

The point is that DNA is not destiny. In the words of one writer, “Free will is not only real; to a yet undetermined extent, it can override DNA.” The implications for ethics and behavior are obvious. In contrast to the reductionism of secular science, free will is not an illusion, and our choices matter.

Original article:

A ‘Genetic Outlaw’ Speaks Out

Sunday, September 24th, 2006 by Dr. Dennis Sullivan

A law professor in Minneapolis has recently become an “outlaw” in the eyes of some. Her crime? She chose not to have an abortion when she received a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome. Elizabeth Schiltz had her baby anyway, and writes about her experience in Defiant Birth: Women Who Resist Medical Eugenics (2006, Spinifex Press). She also tells of other women who have faced severe pressure to abort because they were carrying a less-than-perfect baby.

Modern technologies have created a crisis of too much information. From the older methods of amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling, to more recent techniques for preimplantation genetic screening of embryos, women have more reasons not to have their babies than ever before. It is well known that almost 50% of fertility centers now permit screening of embryos for gender, with the “wrong” sex discarded. Many centers are able to eliminate the carriers of certain genetic traits, some of which have little or nothing to do with disease.

Primplantation genetic diagnosis, or its modern cousin, preimplantation genetic haplotyping, can now screen embryos for 6,000 different diseases. This has led Professor Schiltz to remark, “I can’t help but see 6,000 new reasons that parents will be branded as sinners or made to feel socially irresponsible for bringing their children into this world.”

What the eminently quotable James Russell Lowell has said about mishaps is surely true of modern biotechnologies: they are like knives that either serve us or cut us, as we grasp them by the blade or by the handle. The ultimate victim of all this will be human nature, sacrificed on the altar of our desire for perfection.

For more about Elizabeth Schiltz: