Human Genetic Engineering

1997 Church of the Brethren Statement



The Onekama, Michigan, Church Board Meeting of September 13, 1993, presents the following query for consideration by Annual Conference 1995 in Charlotte, North Carolina:

We ask that the Church of the Brethren position on human genetic engineering as stated by Annual Conference of 1987 be updated.

We also ask that the church’s position on the separate issue of the use of fetal tissue in the treatment of human disease be developed.

Approved and passed to the Michigan District Board by Onekama Church of the Brethren, Onekama, Michigan, September 13, 1993.

Winifred Toledo, Board Chair
Vernon Mitchell, Pastor

Action of the Michigan District Board: The District Board of Michigan District, meeting in regular session on April 30, 1994, in Rodney, Michigan, passed the query on to District Conference, which will meet August 19-21, 1994, in Hastings, Michigan.

Steve Shelton, Board Chair
Marie Willoughby, Secretary

Action of the Michigan District Conference: Passed on to Annual Conference, Church of the Brethren, by the Michigan District Conference, meeting August 19-21, 1994, in Hastings, Michigan.

LeRoy Griffin, Moderator
Janice Thomas, Clerk

1995 Progress Report

The committee met for the first time on November 10-11, 1995 at Elgin, Illinois. Following a period of becoming acquainted and organizing ourselves, we enjoyed several hours of fruitful discussion. We quickly discerned that while our committee was a small one by recent standards, our task was large. The two matters we have been asked to address are each complex and controversial. There was a common concern about tackling both issues at once. We did note, however, that the query requested only an update of the 1987 position paper on Genetic Engineering. After researching the origin and progress of the query, we sensed that a relatively brief update along with a general reaffirmation of the 1987 paper would be most feasible and appropriate. We intend to bring such an update and do invite input on that issue.

This means that we are planning to spend the larger share of our time and energy dealing with the issue of human fetal tissue use. We will be soliciting input in a variety of ways, and ask for the prayerful support of the denomination as we seek what it means for members of the Church of the Brethren to be faithful in this regard.

James Benedict, chair
Kathy Long
Dennis O. Overman

1997 Report

Genetic Engineering

In 1987 when the document “Guidance in Relation to Genetic Engineering” was adopted by Annual Conference, the field of genetic engineering appeared to be poised on the threshold of an era that promised to enhance the quality of life for many people. There was much hope and anticipation as scientists prepared to use genetic engineering to correct human hereditary diseases, and to insert genes into bacteria in order to produce such human substances as insulin and growth hormone. All this in addition to continuing efforts to produce agricultural crops with increased resistance to disease, drought and pests. At the same time there were concerns as to the direction in which genetic engineering research was taking us. Many of the theological, ethical and social concerns raised by human genetic engineering were addressed in the 1987 document.

In 1997, given the breathtaking pace of technological advancement that we have experienced in many areas of life, it is quite normal to expect that the field of genetic engineering would have changed drastically in the past 10 years, and that those who stood to benefit from the results of genetic engineering and gene therapy research would by now be experiencing positive changes in their quality of life. But in reality, advances in human gene therapy have been very slow in coming.

Late in 1995 the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee of the National Institutes of Health met to assess the status of gene therapy research. The panel agrees that gene therapy still holds great promise, but that it will not be realized until much more research has been completed. The committee faults both scientists and journalists who have oversold the concept of gene therapy to the public and raised false hopes. The climate of excitement that has surrounded gene therapy has led people with genetic diseases to expect quick cures for their problems. To date, however, no human gene therapy has proven effective.

The stumbling block encountered by gene therapy researchers has been the difficulty in transporting modified genes into the appropriate target cells of a patient. This fundamental problem must be overcome before gene therapy can become a practical reality. Meanwhile, genetic engineering research has been successful in inducing bacteria to produce human hormones in therapeutic quantities for patients whose own bodies cannot produce them. The administration of missing hormones, however, does not correct the underlying genetic defects in these cases.

Scientists are in agreement that gene therapy is based on solid science, that it is going to work and that it will revolutionize the treatment of patients with genetic diseases. But the science of gene therapy is still in its infancy, and when and how the revolution in the treatment of genetic diseases will occur cannot yet be predicted.

We are left with the same hopes, the same expectations, and the same concerns as a decade ago. As Christians it is still our desire that society keep in mind our moral and ethical obligations to our own and future generations as we proceed in a responsible way to ease suffering and enhance the quality of life through advances in genetic engineering. The 1987 Annual Conference Statement on Genetic Engineering should continue to provide an with guidance in this area.

James Benedict, Chair
Kathy Long
Dennis Overman

For Further Reading on Genetic Engineering
Prescribing Our Future: Ethical Challenges in Genetic Counseling, Dianne M. Bartels, Bonnie S. Leroy and Arthur L. Caplan, eds. New York: Aldine De Gruyter, 1993.

Morality and the New Genetics: A Guide for Students and Health Care Providers, Bernard Gert, et al. Sudbury: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 1996.

“Genetic Control” in On Moral Medicine: Theological Perspectives in Medical Ethics, Stephen Lammers & Allen Verhey, eds. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1987. pp. 346-388.

Altered Fates: Gene Therapy and the Retooling of Human Life. Jeff Lynn and Peter Gorner. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1995.

On the New Frontiers of Genetics and Religion, J. Robert Nelson. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1994.

On Behalf of God: A Christian Ethic for Biology, Bruce R. Reichenbach and V. Elving Anderson. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1995.

The New Genesis: Theology and the Genetic Revolution, Ronald Cole Turner. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993.

Action of the 1997 Annual Conference:

The report on Human Genetic Engineering was adopted.