The Common Good
May-June 1999

Making Babies?

by Sondra Lwheeler | May-June 1999

Genetic engineering and the character of parenthood.

One of the obvious but decisive facts about parenting is that prior to embarking upon the relationship, we don’t know who is coming. We receive and live out our responsibilities toward our children, whoever they turn out to be, simply because they are ours and we are theirs, and most of the time that is enough to bring us to welcome and cherish and protect them. We do it whether they are beautiful or homely, brilliant or ordinary, cheerful or fretful. Even when they grow into adolescents with strange haircuts who, it seems, can hardly stand us, by and large and with varying degrees of struggle, we continue to welcome and cherish and care for them. Parenting is the most routine and the most socially essential form of welcoming the stranger.

It is this unreserved and uncalculated commitment to accept and love the children we are given that makes the relationship between parent and child so central a metaphor for our relation to God, who welcomes and receives and cares for us, whoever we are. In this most fundamental and natural of all social relationships, we see the nearest analogue for the divine charity which loves each of us in her or his particularity, but universally and without conditions.

It now seems likely, due to certain recent advances in scientific technique, that soon we will develop the capacity to make changes in the genetic makeup of human beings, including changes that they will pass to their descendants. The challenge this presents is, how much should we try to determine about our offspring?

The possibilities go all the way from that offered by cloning—which would allow us to select a complete genome (the total complement of chromosomes of a species) as long as we had an existing "template" to reproduce—to much more modest alterations in a single gene designed to prevent the development and transmission of a particular genetic disease.

Among the myriad questions forming around these technologies is a fairly broad and basic one: What will it mean if we move from a social practice of welcoming the children who are born to us to a practice of selecting them and their characteristics, either by cloning or by modifying the genome in vitro before implantation? In particular, it is important to address what for Christians and Jews (at least) defines and limits the senses in which human beings may be said to belong to each other, and what this suggests about the terms on which we ought to intervene in the genetic makeup of another human being.

WHAT ALL THIS HIGHLIGHTS is the very different moral posture between that of simply accepting the child we are given vs. a decision to engineer the genetic endowment of a child to replicate a desired genome or to select for personally desired or culturally valued characteristics. What will it mean to us, and to our children, if we embrace practices that make a child so decisively the project of its parents’ will?

Certainly to seek such control involves abandoning a certain kind of reservation grounded in the fellow-humanity of our children, a respect based in religious awe for the child as a creature whose source and destiny are in God and who does not ultimately belong to us. It means shifting from a position in which we discover and foster the nature and flourishing of the children we receive, to one in which we determine the nature of the children whom we will accept. It is a kind of embodiment of all those corruptions of parenting in which the child is viewed primarily as the means of the parents’ fulfillment and forcefully created in the image of their

There are, of course, many much more serious and compelling reasons to seek the power to intervene in the genetic makeup of human beings. About 2 percent of all live births are of children with genetic disorders, some of them imposing severe suffering and early death. To have the power to prevent such misery or to heal its effects is indeed a worthy goal, and an appropriate exercise of human powers to intervene. But it is not too soon to begin asking whether we can even hope to exercise so vast a power with the caution and deep self-scrutiny that wisdom would demand.

—Sondra Wheeler

SONDRA WHEELER is professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., and the author most recently of

Stewards of Life: Bioethics and Pastoral Care (Abingdon Press, 1996). Glen Stassen, the Lewis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, serves as consultant and adviser for this Ethics page.
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