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Biotechnologies Policy: a timely guide
by Philip E. Jenks
New York, December 6, 2005 -- Woo Suk Hwang is not yet a household name in the United States, but the 52-year-old human stem cell researcher and cloning pioneer from Korea is celebrated like a lab-coated rock star elsewhere in the world.
Dr. Hwang’s abrupt resignation last month from the research lab he founded attracted international attention when he admitted he was stepping down because of a lapse in ethics.
“I am very sorry that I have to tell the public words that are too shameful and horrible,” he said in what struck many laypersons as a puzzling overstatement. In fact, Hwang’s scientific sin—unknowingly paying female staff members to donate their eggs to his research—is legal and seems like a minor infraction.
But it is precisely because so many people are asking what’s the big deal that points to the need for ethical and moral guidelines in biological research. That’s why many experts—pastors, researchers, medical practitioners and patients—are welcoming “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made,” the National Council of Churches USA policy on human biotechnologies.
The policy, intended to guide practitioners and pastors through the maze of moral decision-making in the rapidly developing field of biotechnology, was approved as a first reading in November by the NCC’s General Assembly and will be studied by the Council’s member communions for a year.
“Scientists misrepresent themselves and their research, cut corners and stretch the truth to get the results they want,” says the Rev. Demetrios Demopoulos of Santa Fe, N. Mex., commenting on Hwang’s dilemma. Demopoulos, right, is a Greek Orthodox priest, former biologist and a member of the committee that wrote the policy.
“That’s part of the human condition,” he added. “There need to be safeguards in place.”
The Biotechnologies policy specifically calls for protocols to assure individuals know what they are consenting to when they donate eggs or fluids, and suggests a system of global regulation to assure that researchers like Dr. Hwang are held accountable to the same standards.
The policy, developed over 24 months by a 15-member committee of bishops, pastors, theological professors, scientists and students from nine denominations, is composed of three sections: “Our Theological Self-Understanding;” “The Church’s Calling” in faith and science; and “Key Challenges for Church Engagement,” including stem cell and embryonic stem cell research.
The policy concludes with six-part section of recommendations for the NCC, member communions, congregations, priests and pastors, seminaries and medical practitioners, health care professionals and researchers.
According to Clare Chapman, left, of New York, a United Methodist staff woman and attorney who chairs the committee, the policy is intended to be forward-looking enough to provide moral and ethical guidance on biotechnology developments that won’t take place for years.
Complicated issues in biotechnology include prenatal diagnosis, presymptomatic genetic testing, stem cell research, cloning, gene therapy, and many more. An especially thorny issue is the intrusion of money and politics as developments in biotechnology begin to generate huge profits.
Dr. Cynthia B. Cohen, who Chapman identified as one of seven “sages” who guided the committee’s work, said the guidelines will become more important over the years as world faces a choice of whether it wants to preserve humanity as God created it or create a species of non-humans.
Cohen is an Episcopal laywoman and professor of ethics at Georgetown University.
“I’m grateful that the NCC embarked on this work when it did,” Chapman says. “It’s ahead of its time in many ways.”
Chapman praised all committee members for their faithful attendance at meetings and their attention to detail. She also cited the essential staff work of the Rev. Dr. Eileen Lindner, deputy general secretary of the NCC for research and planning.
The committee examined many areas of biological research that have already generated controversy, including cloning and stem cell research. But the policy does not attempt to tell people what they should do, said Dr. Christie Holland, right, a United Church of Christ laywoman and medical researcher from Laytonsville, Md., one of the seven sages.
“The biotechnologies policy is ambiguous in areas where tension exists,” Holland said. “That was done very intentionally so the policy will be a useful guide for people rather than a polarizing document.”
Historically, the NCC has not issued policies on topics such as abortion where there is no consensus among the Council’s 35 member churches that include Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, historic African American and peace communions representing a wide range of viewpoints.
Each communion and each individual must apply their own religious experience to the unresolved issues of biotechnology, Demopoulos says. “I don’t want the policy to be a crib sheet for pastors—if the problem, is “A”, go to “D,” if the problem is “B,” go to “C”. Every tradition is different. Communion leaders and pastors need to rely on their traditions but have some knowledge what is going on in the scientific world so they don’t simply react without a clue.”
“The policy emphasizes the importance of pastoral education on genetic issues,” says Blythe Crissman, left, a committee member and genetic counselor at Duke University.
“When someone is faced with genetic testing or a genetic diagnosis, that person may rely on many support systems outside of their medical team, including their community of faith.”
The writers of the policy quickly realized that some developments in biotechnology will require persons to make immediate decisions, while other expected developments won’t take place for years, Chapman said.
Pastoral care can be of benefit not only at times of decision making, but also for long term support, Crissman says. “Each family’s experience is unique, and the needs of the family evolve over time. The resources and support that a church can provide over the long term is profound.”
“Every day pastors have people coming to them saying, ‘my doctor wants me to have a test,’” Chapman says. “Should I? Do I want to know whether I have the breast cancer gene? Do I want to know if the child I’m carrying has genetic anomalies?’ Pastors are not very well equipped to answer those questions from a biological or religious point of view.”
Two study documents that accompany the policy statement give pastors and other non-scientists basic information about complicated issues. The chapter on “Manipulating Genes,” for example, has subheadings entitled, “gene therapy/enhancement,” “somatic cell gene therapy,” “germ cell gene therapy” and “harvesting gene products.”
For many laypeople, science fiction provides many of their expectations for the biological future, and fantasies like the cyborg in “The Six Million Dollar Man,” or “Futurama’s” bodiless talking heads have been around for years. What will the policy say if science catches up with fiction?
Many of the more fantastic notions are not likely to take place, even in the distant future, committee members say. And drafters of the policy will not be faced with major revisions overnight.
“The perception is that science is moving at an incredible pace,” says Holland, a scientist who ran a research lab for 25 years. “Discovery is fast; implementation is quite slow.”
She cited retroviral vector gene transfer as an example. The process, which offers the hope of cures for life threatening diseases like brain tumors, was invented in the 1980’s.
“It still has not become frequently and commonly used in medical intervention,” Holland said. “Many of these other things will be the same way.”
Asked about the future, Demopoulos admitted, “I don’t feel very hopeful. What can I say to make me feel more hopeful? The advances in stem cell research may well play a role in alleviating suffering and treating tragic and debilitating diseases.”
But the end should not necessarily justify the scientific means, Demopoulos warned.
“In my personal opinion, the use of embryos, whether surplus or not, to extract stem cells for this research is not the road we should be going down. What kind of person can you imagine whose sole purpose for existence is to be used for spare parts?”
The policy does not answer that question and churches and individuals will have to wrestle with it throughout their lifetimes.
“We worked on the policy for two years,” Chapman says. “We don’t have any absolute conclusions, but the struggle we went through helps us better understand the blessings of science as well as the potential dangers.”
Recognizing that the emerging era of biotechnological discovery may lead to a revolution in medical improvements, the committee drafted the policy with the expectation that the church will be inspired “to articulate new understandings of what it means to be human, God’s own, and stewards of God’s creation.”
Many of the issues the committee discussed “do not lend themselves ... to specific recommendations,” the drafters wrote.
Even so, the policy does call for unambiguous regulations to oversee the work of researchers and practitioners, says Dr. Eileen Linder. “It is also intended to foster debate about how biotechnologies are to be used, especially in the United States where we are so far behind the discussion in Canada and around the world. And it will serve as an essential resource for all who guide developments in the biotechnology field, and are effected by them.”
None of that, the committee is convinced, will lessen the awe with which human creatures view their creator. No matter how it is interpreted or described, God’s intelligent design has resulted in one of the greatest miracles we will ever know. The Psalmist put it best. We are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”
Copies of the policy statement and study documents can be downloaded here:
Photos by Kathleen Cameron
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