International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Genetics and Christian Ethics

by Celia Deane-Drummond

Introductory Essay by Ronald Cole-Turner

Two distinctive features of Genetics and Christian Faith set this book apart from others on biotechnology and religion. First, the science and history of genetics are both explored in more detail than usual. In particular, the complicated and somewhat difficult story of eugenics, as a scientific proposal and a social movement, is probed in detail. In addition, clinical genetics and its role in medicine today, including prenatal care, is thorough reviewed. Full chapters are devoted to genetic screening and testing, genetic counseling, and to the tantalizing but somewhat dubious prospect of human “gene therapy.” Another chapter addresses the global debate over the patenting of DNA sequences and other biological components. In these chapters, the scientific and social contexts are thoroughly and rigorously explored while attention is drawn to some of the major bioethical and theological commentary.

The second distinctive quality of Genetics and Christian Faith is its argument in favor of a turn in Christian ethics toward the virtues. For the most part, secular and theological discussion of genetics has been based not on the virtues but on bioethical principles or on consequentialist approaches. In secular bioethics, for example, the core principles (such as patient autonomy, avoiding harm, benefiting the patient, and justice) have largely framed the argument about genetics, with little to show. Other bioethicists, drawing sometimes on theological perspectives, argue from quite different principles (such as the prohibition against treating human embryos as anything less than human persons). As a result, should it become possible someday for parents to modify their future children’s genes, for example, the question of whether they should do so is largely limited to a discussion of the parents’ autonomy versus the child’s, or an analysis of what harms might come from, rather than the wisdom of such an act.  Consequentialists, meanwhile, will debate whether the results of the action are desirable.

Deane-Drummond does not reject these approaches so much as call for a more comprehensive theological context in which they each play an important but limited role. The approach she advocates arises from the virtue tradition of ethics that extends from Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas to Alasdair MacIntyre and theological ethicists such as Stanley Hauerwas. The focus here is not primarily on external ethical principles or on the value of the consequences but on the character of the actors and the formation of their moral character. And while the freedom of the actors is important, even more important is their having been formed in wisdom. 

The virtues to which Genetics and Christian Faith calls attention are justice, fortitude, prudence, and the like. Of these, prudence receives the most attention, in part because it is a kind of balancing of the concrete circumstances with the virtues in order to find a proper course of action. Prudence does not exclude the relevance of scientific information, bioethical principles, consequences, or the other virtues, but integrates them wisely and properly. By its nature, a virtue approach does not lend itself to specific moral advice or conclusions. That is fitting especially for the field of genetics, with its ability to surprise us scientifically and to encounter us personally in clinics or collectively in culture, confounding easy answers. Through this approach, Genetics and Christian Faith integrates not just science and religion but moral theory and contemporary culture.