Gene editing and “playing God”

Nigel J. Bunce

Last November a Chinese scientist, Dr. He Jiankui, announced the birth of gene edited twin girls named Nana and Lulu. Dr. He claimed to have altered their DNA to protect them from HIV-AIDS. 

Gene editing involves replacing a piece of an organism’s genetic code with something different (like cut-and-paste with a word-processor), using a technique called CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), pronounced “crisper”.  

Nana got two copies of the protective gene; she probably has complete immunity from HIV. Lulu got only one copy (not deliberately; CRISPR didn’t change the other copy); she will likely be susceptible to HIV. 

The announcement scandalized the scientific world. 

Dr. He crossed an ethical “red line” by altering the fetal genetic code immediately after fertilization, in defiance of international agreement not to take that step. Not only are there unknown possible side effects, but such changes are heritable, meaning that they will pass to future generations.   

A UK bioethics policy organization described the work as a “premature, inexplicable, and possibly reckless intervention that may threaten the development of future applications of genome editing”. 

Leaving aside whether Dr. He’s actions were justified, genome editing offers the promise of eradicating inherited conditions such as Huntington’s disease and hemophilia. More controversial is whether conditions like congenital blindness and deafness should be treated as “diseases” to be eradicated. Even greyer is the possible creation of “designer babies” with DNA “tweaked” to promote intelligence or physical attributes.  

In a 2016 survey by the US Pew Center, almost equal numbers of respondents approved and disapproved the eradication of genetic diseases on moral grounds, but religious people voted nearly 3:1 against.  

Is there a theological argument against playing God?

Christians who assert that life begins at conception, and that human beings are divinely created in God’s image, argue that it is wrong to “play God”. Yet, at a trivial ethical level, we “play God” whenever we treat disease through surgery or medication, instead of letting nature take its course. 

Realistically, the term gets most used when invasive procedures are new and unfamiliar. Blood transfusions, in vitro fertilization and organ donation were initially controversial, but most people, including most Christians, now accept them.  

Is there a theological argument against playing God?  

In our earliest Scriptures, the mythical first humans were expelled from Paradise because they ate fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. But the specific reason is found in Genesis 3: 22: “Then the Lord God said, See the man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life.”   

Yet because God created humanity intelligent and curious, it was inevitable (and desirable) for us to know the difference between good and evil. The Welsh monk Pelagius, a contemporary (and adversary) of Augustine of Hippo, argued that the freedom to choose good or evil is evidence of God’s goodness [Letters of Pelagius, trans. Robert van der Weyer, Little Giddings Books, 1995, p. 8]. Without it, we would be simply God’s puppets, without freedom.  

Now that the “red line” has been crossed, it seems inevitable that technologies like CRISPR will be used to edit DNA. Applications like the eradication of inherited disease may become widely accepted, if undesirable side effects can be avoided. Whether any line can ultimately be drawn concerning ethical acceptance is unknown. Will designer babies be used to flaunt wealth and power?  

God has given us the ability to choose to do good or evil. We must pray that this fruit of the knowledge of the tree of good and evil will be used wisely.  

Nigel J. Bunce is Priest-in-charge, St. George’s Lowville.