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NCC Names Multidisciplinary Committee Plus
to Lead Ecumenical Reflection on Human Genetic Technology
February 12, 2004, NEW YORK CITY - A multidisciplinary Human Genetics Policy Development Committee and a blue-ribbon complement of “Senior Sages” will lead the U.S. ecumenical community’s work over the next two years on issues of human genetic technology.
Named by the National Council of Churches, the committee was mandated by the NCC’s General Assembly in November 2003, which charged it to replace the Council’s now outdated 1986 policy, “Genetic Science for Human Benefit,” with a new policy. The committee’s work will guide both the educational outreach and public policy efforts of the Council as it seeks to offer meaningful theological and ethical reflection on this fast-moving field of science.
“Many of us can scarcely imagine the ways in which new biotechnologies will impact human life,” said the Rev. Dr. Eileen W. Lindner, NCC Deputy General Secretary for Research and Planning, New York City, who is staffing the NCC’s work on human genetic technology.
“Nearly everyone agrees that the use of biotechnologies to alleviate human misery, disease and suffering ought to be encouraged,” she said. “Likewise, a majority of Christians would have some reservations about the unbridled application of technologies to human life in ways that alter the nature of human life itself-for example, the issue of designer babies.”
The policy development committee will address moral and ethical implications of the whole range of applications of human genetic technology, along with such related issues as equality of access, regulatory issues and so forth, said Dr. Lindner, a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).
“With science moving so fast, at a time when church staffs are downsizing, few churches are able to keep up and develop policy relative to the emerging technology,” she said. “For these reasons, the NCC’s effort, with the outstanding expertise that we have been able to assemble, clearly is being welcomed.
“Whether you are talking about a Washington office advocating for regulatory standards or a pastor quietly counseling a couple in their home, the Christian church, writ large and small, has need of policy guidance. We hope to be able to offer that in some measure, with an eye toward both justice and pastoral care.”
The work of the Human Genetics Policy Development Committee is staffed by the NCC and will be enabled by $15,000 in funding from NCC member communions, $25,000 from the CSFund and $35,000 from the Appleton Foundation.
European and Canadian churches also have been active on issues of human genetic technology. For example, the Canadian Council of Churches and Evangelical Fellowship of Canada were granted intervener status in the “oncomouse” case when it was before the Supreme Court of Canada. On December 5, 2002, that court published its decision that a genetically modified mouse, developed in the early 1980s by two scientists at Harvard University, was not an intervention within the meaning of Canada’s Patent Act.
The CCC has published a booklet, “Life: Patent Pending” -- available at http://www.ccc-cce.ca/english/docs/oncomouseebook.pdf -- as a discussion-starter for people in church networks who want to consider questions of biopatenting, questions that presumably will come before the Parliament of Canada in the foreseeable future.
The 16 men and women who make up the newly named NCC committee include ethicists, a pediatrics genetics counselor, a genetic scientist, educators, seminarians, theologians, clergy and denominational and ecumenical leaders. Committee members represent a diversity of ages and racial/ethnic backgrounds, and include a person with disabilities.
Serving as a consulting group to the policy development committee are seven “Senior Sages” persons of high stature and long experience with the ethical issues related to application of biotechnologies to humans. Their guidance will be sought throughout the two-year life of the committee.
Ms Clare Chapman, an NCC vice president who serves as Executive Director of Finance and Administration for the United Methodist Church General Commission on Church Unity and Interreligious Concerns, New York City, has been named chair of the policy development committee.
“I have long been interested in human genetics issues, going back to my time in law school where I studied the legal aspects of these issues,” she said. “This is one area where the secular and religious parts of our lives very significantly overlap. This surely is an important issue for the churches to have resources at hand to help them.”
Ms Chapman added, “The last statement, in 1986, was good for its time, but so much has happened since then. We need new resources and a new way of having dialogue.”
The Human Genetics Policy Development Committee will build on work done by an earlier Exploratory Committee on Human Genetic Technologies, which in 2002-2003 reviewed NCC and member communion statements, studies and other materials concerning biotechnology along with their existing education, outreach and advocacy work related to biotechnology and public policy.
The exploratory committee’s report and recommendations were delivered to the NCC’s 2003 General Assembly and resulted in the call for a new policy.
This spring, the NCC will make available a study guide for use by congregations, ecumenical councils, seminaries and other groups, based on the book “Enough” by Bill McKibben, which offers ethical reflection from a Christian perspective. McKibben, a United Methodist, is one of the “Senior Sages” supporting the NCC policy development committee. The book and study guide offer an opportunity to gain a basic understanding of biotechnologies and the opportunities and challenges of their human application.
Names of members of the new Human Genetics Policy Development Committee and Senior Sages group follow.
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