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New Developments in Genetic Science

I. Foreword

The ethical implications of new developments in genetic science continue to make themselves known as new aspects of the technology are introduced in medicine, agriculture, and forensic science.

The 1988 General Conference approved a statement affirming the positive prospects and warning of the potential dangers of genetic technologies and authorized the establishment of a Genetic Science task force to:

  1. review and assess scientific developments in genetics and their implications for all life;
  2. take initiatives with industrial, governmental, and educational institutions involved in genetic engineering to discuss further projections and possible impact;
  3. convey to industry and government the sense of urgency to protect the environment as well as animal and human life;
  4. support a moratorium on animal patenting until the task force has explored the ethical issues involved;
  5. cooperate with other churches, faith groups, and ecumenical bodies sharing similar concerns;
  6. explore the effects of the concentration of genetic engineering research tasks and applications in a few crops; and
  7. recommend to the 1992 General Conference such further responses and actions as may be deemed appropriate.

The task force included scientists, educators, health professionals, ethicists, theologians, a social worker, a lawyer, and a farmer. They held hearings in Houston and College Station, Texas; Boston, Massachusetts; Washington, DC; San Leandro, California; Ames, Iowa; Durham, North Carolina; and Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Testimony was received from geneticists, physicians, theologians, ethicists, social workers, attorneys, officers of biotechnology companies, journalists, insurance executives, governmental regulatory agency representatives, educators, and persons with genetic disorders and the family members of such persons. The hearing process formed the original basis of the recommendations contained in this resolution. A more complete discussion of issues is in the complete report of the task force to the 1992 General Conference. Subsequent General Conferences appointed other bioethics task forces that advised on amendments to this document.

II. Our Theological Grounding

The United Methodist doctrinal/theological statement affirms that "new issues continually arise that summon us to fresh theological inquiry. Daily we are presented with an array of concerns that challenge our proclamation of God's reign over all of human existence" (1988 Book of Discipline, ¶ 69).

One of the concerns that merits critique in light of theological understandings is genetic science. The urgent task of interpreting the faith in light of the biotechnology revolution and evaluating the rapidly emerging genetic science and technology has only begun. The issues demand continuing dialogue at all levels of the church as persons from diverse perspectives seek to discern and live out God's vision for creation.

The following affirmations provide the theological/doctrinal foundation of the task force's work and recommendations. These historic affirmations represent criteria by which developments and potential developments in biotechnology are evaluated by the community of faith, the church. The task force urges the whole church to join in the urgent task of theological inquiry in what has been called the genetic age.

A. All creation belongs to God the creator

Creation has its origin, existence, value, and destiny in God. Creation belongs to God, whose power and grace brings the cosmos out of nothingness, order out of chaos, and life out of death. Creation is a realm of divine activity as God continually seeks to bring healing, wholeness, and peace. All creation is accountable to God; therefore, all existence is contingent, finite, and limited. The Creator has declared Creation "good," and its goodness inheres in its fulfillment of God's purpose. The goodness of our genetic diversity is grounded in our creation by God.

B. Human beings are stewards of creation

While human beings share with other species the limitations of finite creatures who owe their existence to God, their special creation "in the image of God" gives them the freedom and authority to exercise stewardship responsibly. This includes the knowledge of human life and behavior as it is being expanded by genetic science. The biblical imperative is that human beings are to nurture, cultivate, and serve God's creation so that it might be sustained. Humans are to participate in, manage, nurture, justly distribute, employ, develop, and enhance creation's resources in accordance with their finite discernment of God's purposes. Their divinely conferred dominion over nature does not sanction exploitation and waste; neither does responsible stewardship imply refusal to act creatively with intelligence, skill, and foresight.

The image of God, in which humanity is created, confers both power and responsibility to use power as God does: neither by coercion nor tyranny, but by love. Failure to accept limits by rejecting or ignoring accountability to God and interdependency with the whole of creation is the essence of sin. Therefore, the question is not, Can we perform all prodigious work of research and technology But, should we The notion that the ability to do something is permission to do it ignores the fundamental biblical understanding of human beings as stewards accountable to the Creator and as contingent, interdependent creatures. Although the pursuit of knowledge is a divine gift, it must be used appropriately with the principle of accountability to God and to the human community and the sustainability of all creation.

C. Technology in service to humanity and God

God has given human beings the capacity for research and technological invention, but the worship of science is idolatry. Genetic techniques have enormous potential for sustaining creation and, for some, improving the quality of human life when they are applied to environmental, agricultural, and medical problems. When wisely used, they often provide positive-though limited and imperfect-solutions to such perplexing social problems as insufficient food supply, spread of disease, ecological deterioration, overpopulation, and human disease. When used recklessly, for greedy profit, or for calculated improvement of the human race (eugenics), genetic technology becomes corrupted by sin. Moreover, we recognize that even the careful use of genetic technologies for good ends may lead to unintended consequences. We confess that even our intended consequences may not be in the best interest of all.

D. From creation to redemption and salvation

Redemption and salvation become realities by divine grace as we respond in faith to God's action in Jesus Christ to defeat the powers of sin that enslave the human spirit and thwart the realization of God's purposes for creation. Jesus Christ is the incarnation of God's eternal Word and wisdom. His redemptive life, ministry, death, resurrection, and sending of the Spirit reveal God's vision for humanity. Having distorted God's good intention for us in creation, we now are called to be conformed to God's true image in Jesus Christ.

Through the affirmation of the goodness of creation and the saving work of Christ, God has claimed all persons as beloved sons and daughters with inherent worth and dignity. Therefore, we understand that our worth as children of God is irrespective of genetic qualities, personal attributes, or achievements. Barriers and prejudices based on biological characteristics fracture the human family and distort God's goal for humanity. The community of Christ bears witness to the truth that all persons have unity by virtue of having been redeemed by Christ. Such unity respects and embraces genetic diversity, which accounts for many differences among people. Love and justice, which the Scriptures uplift and which Jesus Christ supremely expresses, require that the worth and dignity of the defenseless be preserved and protected. As the community of Christ, the church seeks to embody love and justice and to give of itself on behalf of the powerless and voiceless.

E. God's reign is for all creation

The coming of God's reign is the guiding hope for all creation. Hebrew Scripture and the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ affirm that God's reign is characterized by liberation from all forms of oppression, justice in all relationships, peace and good will among all peoples, and the healing of all creation. It is both the vision of God's new heaven and new earth and the recognition of our limits that must inform and shape our role as stewards of earth and life in the age of genetics. It is in the context of God's sovereignty over all existence, our hope for the coming of God's reign, our awareness of our own finitude, and our responsibility as stewards that we consider these issues and the following recommendations.

III. Issues in the Development of Genetic Research and Technology

A. Why the Church is addressing these issues

God's sovereignty over all creation, our status as stewards of creation's resources, and the church's nature as a nurturing and prophetic community living toward God's reign over all existence propel us to consider the theological/ethical implications of genetic science. As genetic science probes the very structure of biological life and develops means to alter the nature of life itself, the potential for relief of suffering and the healing of creation is enormous. But the potential for added physical and emotional suffering and social and economic injustice also exists. Developments in genetic science compel our reevaluation of accepted theological/ethical issues, including determinism versus free will, the nature of sin, just distribution of resources, the status of human beings in relation to other forms of life, and the meaning of personhood.

B. Genetic science affects every area of our lives

The food we eat, the health care we receive, how crimes are prosecuted, our biological traits, and the environment in which we live are all affected by research and developments in genetic science. As stewards of and participants in life and its resources, we seek to understand, to evaluate, and to utilize responsibly the emerging genetic technologies in accordance with our finite understanding of God's purposes for creation. The divine purpose includes justice, health, and peace for all persons, and the integrity and ecological balance of creation. The uses of genetic science have the potential for promoting as well as thwarting these aspects of the divine purpose.

Genetic issues are much more pressing than is generally recognized. Every community contains individuals and families who daily face genetic concerns in the workplace or as result of their own genetic makeup. The rapid growth of genetic science has increased our awareness of these concerns, has created new concerns, and has accelerated the theological, ethical, and pastoral challenges that genetics poses to persons of faith.

C. Scientific change now leads societal change

The rise in importance of science and technology has been one of the most significant developments in the last 400 years. Beginning with the industrial revolution, we have witnessed a succession of revolutions: the technological, the atomic, and the biological. Each of these revolutions has presented society with a host of religious challenges and threats that have taken enormous and ongoing efforts to resolve constructively. The very nature of work, perceptions of the world, international relations, and family life has changed in part because of these revolutions.

A major dimension of the biological revolution is genetic science. Less than fifty years ago, the actual genetic substance of living cells, DNA, was firmly identified. Now, altering DNA in plants and animals, even humans, in order to correct disorders or to introduce characteristics that are more desirable is being done. Genetic developments in medicine and agriculture promise to alter the very nature of society, the natural environment, and even human nature. Christians must evaluate these developments in light of our basic understanding of God as creator and of humans as stewards of creation, including technology.

D. Genetic science challenges society

Biotechnology based on genetic research is already upon us. Thousands of people and millions of dollars are devoted to genetic science. Gene therapy has already been introduced as an experimental medical treatment. Extensive research has been conducted in plant and animal genetics, with significant implications for the food supply, farm policy, agricultural economics, and ecological balance.

In spite of the rapid growth in genetic research, many people tend to see genetics merely as an extension of the changes in medical, agricultural, and other technologies. In fact, genetic science crosses new frontiers as it explores the essence of life. The implications of genetic research and development are so far-reaching that society must consider the effect of these developments on persons, animal and plant life, the environment, agriculture, the food supply, patent policies, criminal justice, and medicine. Delays in commercializing some of the technologies may afford society and the church additional time to address the implications, but the time available for serious reflection on the consequences of these technologies prior to their implementation is brief.

IV. Questions about Biotechnology

New developments in technology always challenge society's imagination and understanding. Technology is often viewed either with awe or with fear. The popular view of the geneticist alternates between a saint who cures all disease and a mad scientist who creates monsters or perverts life. These extreme images must be avoided as society raises questions about the technologies themselves and questions how they should be properly developed and controlled. Although genetic technologies are similar to other technologies, genetic science and technology force us to examine, as never before, the meaning of life, our understanding of ourselves as humans, and our proper role in God's creation. Just as Jesus was tempted by the devil to turn stones into bread, we, too, can be tempted to believe that these new technologies can solve problems that they were not intended to solve.

Several basic questions can provide a framework within which to evaluate the effect of genetics (or any other new technology) on any segment of society. The questions revolve around issues of appropriateness, availability, efficacy, and accessibility.

V. The Patenting of Life Forms

The patenting of life forms is a crucial issue in the debate over access to genetic technologies. Some claim that patenting of life will give complete control to the owner and so limit access. Others insist that the scientists and funding agencies or institutions must have some return on their investment. A compromise that many societies have worked out in order to provide economic returns for those who have developed a technology while providing access, eventually, to the entire society is the patent or exclusive control of a technological invention for a period of years. But should exclusive ownership rights apply to the gene pool In 1984, the General Conference of The United Methodist Church declared genes to be a part of the common heritage of all peoples. The position taken by the church in 1984 is consistent with our understanding of the sanctity of God's creation and God's ownership of life. Therefore, exclusive ownership rights of gene, organisms, and cells as a means of making genetic technologies accessible raises serious theological concerns and profound ethical concerns. While patents on organisms, cells, and genes themselves are opposed, process patents-wherein the method for engineering a new organism is patented-provide a means of economic return on investment while avoiding exclusive ownership of the organism and can be supported.

VI. Affirmations/Recommendations/Conclusions

A. General

  1. We affirm that knowledge of genetics is a resource over which we are to exercise stewardship responsibly in accordance with God's reign over creation. We believe the use of genetic knowledge in ways that destabilize and fragment creation violates God's vision of justice, peace, and wholeness.

  2. We caution that the prevalent principle in research that what can be done should be done is insufficient rationale for genetic science. This principle should be subject to legal and ethical oversight in research design and should not be the prevalent principle guiding the development of new technologies. Applications of research to technologies need moral and ethical guidance.

  3. We urge adequate public funding of genetic research so that projects not likely to be funded by private grants will receive adequate support and so that there will be greater accountability to the public by those involved in setting the direction of genetic research.

  4. We urge that genes, cells, and all living organisms be held as common resources and not be exclusively controlled, or patented. We support improvements in the procedures for granting patents on processes and techniques as a way to reward new developments in this area, although we recognize that even process patents should be limited when they are in effect discoveries of how God makes the processes of living organisms.

B. Medical recommendations

1. Testing and Treatment

a. We support the right of all persons to health care and health-care resources regardless of their genetic or medical conditions.

b. We support equal access to medical resources, including genetic testing and genetic counseling by appropriately educated and trained health-care professionals. We affirm that responsible stewardship of God's gift of human life implies access of all persons to genetic counseling throughout their reproductive life.

c. We support human somatic gene therapies (recombinant DNA therapies that produce genetic changes in an individual that cannot be passed to offspring) that prevent or minimize disease and its effects. But we believe these therapies should be limited to the alleviation of suffering caused by disease. We urge that guidelines and government regulations be developed for the use of all somatic gene therapies. We oppose human germ-line therapies (those that result in changes that can be passed to offspring) because of the possibility of unintended consequences and of abuse. With current technology it is not possible to know if artificially introduced genes will have unexpected or delayed long-term effects not identifiable until the genes have been dispersed in the population.

We oppose both somatic and germ-line therapies when they are used for eugenic purposes or enhancements, that is, to provide only cosmetic change or to provide athletic or social advantage.

Furthermore, we urge that government regulations and professional organization guidelines be developed and effectively implemented for all gene therapies. Given the reports of deaths from somatic gene therapies and the development of genetically engineered leukemia in some patients undergoing somatic gene therapy, we urge a careful reexamination of the appropriateness of this therapy.

d. We call on all nations to ban human cloning (the intentional production of genetically identical or essentially identical human beings and human embryos), whether such cloning is funded privately or through government research.

e. We call for a ban on medical and research procedures that intentionally generate "waste embryos" that will knowingly be destroyed when the medical procedure or the research is completed. The exception to this is when ova (eggs) are being collected for use in in vitro fertilization. A woman is at risk for complications each time drugs are given to stimulate ovulation and ova are removed. Obtaining and fertilizing multiple ova may be justified to avoid the necessity of multiple attempts to obtain ova. The first attempt at IVF results in a living child less than 30% of the time thus making multiple attempts necessary.

2.Privacy and confidentiality of genetic information

a. We support the privacy of genetic information. Genetic data of individuals and their families shall be kept secret and held in strict confidence unless confidentiality is waived by the individual or his or her family, or unless the collection and use of genetic identification data are supported by an appropriate court order.

b. We support wide public access to genetic data that do not identify particular individuals, but we oppose using genetic data gathered for purposes other than that to which consent was given.

c. We oppose the discriminatory or manipulative use of genetic information, such as the limitation, termination, or denial of insurance or employment.

C. Agriculture

  1. We support public involvement in initiating, evaluating, regulating, and funding of agricultural genetic research.

  2. a. We believe the public has an important policy and financial role in ensuring the continuation of research that furthers the goal of a safe, nutritious, and affordable food supply.

  3. b. We believe that the public should have input into whether a research effort, or its products, will serve an unmet need in food and fiber production and processing. We urge United Methodists to be active participants in achieving this accountability in all areas of the world.

  4. c. We believe that the benefits of research applications should accrue to the broadest possible public, including farmers and consumers.

  5. We support the sustainability of family farms, natural resources, and rural communities and urge that genetic research in agriculture and food products promote these goals.

  6. We urge that genetically modified crops and genetically engineered or cloned animal products be labeled so that consumers have a choice in which kind of agricultural products they buy.

D. Environment

  1. As stewards of the planet Earth, we should strive to perpetuate all of God's living creations as long as possible. We should be concerned not only with the well-being of humans, but also with the wholeness of the rest of creation. We should try to maintain ecological balance as God intended. Technologies such as genetic engineering can affect ecological balance. Genetic technologies must be used carefully to help sustain the planet.

  2. We caution that genetically engineered organisms be released into the environment only after careful testing in a controlled setting that simulates each environment in which the organisms are to be used.

  3. We urge the development of criteria and methodologies to anticipate and assess possible adverse environmental responses to the release of genetically engineered organisms.

  4. We urge that prior to the release of each organism, plans and procedures be developed to destroy genetically engineered organisms that may cause adverse environmental responses.

E. What the church can do

  1. Expand education and dialogue around ethical issues in the development of genetic science and technology.

a. We request that The United Methodist Church and its appropriate boards and agencies educate laity and clergy on the issues of genetic science, theology, and ethics by conducting workshops and seminars, producing resource materials, and training pastors and laypersons to deal constructively with these issues. Sessions on the ethical implications of genetics technology should be included as part of seminary training, continuing education requirements for clergy, Christian educators' training events, adult and youth Sunday school curriculum, schools of mission and schools of church and society, training for military, prison, hospital chaplains, and campus ministry programs

b. We request that clergy be trained to provide pastoral counseling for persons with genetic disorders and their families as well as those facing difficult choices as a result of genetic testing. These choices might include decisions such as those related to reproduction, employment, and living wills. Churches are encouraged to provide support groups for individuals and families affected by genetic disorders.

c. We call on the church to support persons who must make difficult decisions regarding genetic information related to reproduction. We urge that the church support efforts to improve the quality of genetic testing on embryos and fetuses so that accurate information is provided to couples and their doctors about genetic conditions. We reaffirm the 1988 General Conference (1988 Book of Discipline, ¶ 71G) position opposing the termination of pregnancy solely for the purpose of gender selection.

d. We urge theological seminaries to offer courses and continuing education events that equip clergy to address theological and ethical issues raised by scientific research and technology.

e. We urge the church to establish and maintain dialogue with those persons working to develop or promote genetics-based technologies.

The complexity and multifaceted implications of genetic science require continuing interaction among scientists, technologists, theologians, ethicists, industrial and corporate leaders, government officials, and the general public.

The ethical concerns of the church need to be interjected into the laboratory, the factory, and the halls of government in an ongoing manner. Local churches, districts, annual conferences, and appropriate general agencies should participate in dialogues with university, industry, and government bodies.

2.Produce resources to educate on genetics issues. General agencies of the church should develop additional interpretive resources on genetics issues.

3.Continue and increase The United Methodist Church's work in the area of genetics.

a. All general agencies are urged to cooperate with ecumenical groups as they seek to coordinate actions regarding the use of knowledge gained from genetic science. Concern for justice for persons and the integrity of all life should form the basis of our ecumenical witness.

b. Local churches are urged to study the issues raised in this statement and to act on the recommendations. We also urge United Methodists to study the recent (2007) reports on genetics developed by the World Council of Churches-"Transforming Life: Genetics, Agriculture, and Human Life"-and the National Council of Churches-"Fearfully and Wonderfully Made."


See Social Principles, ¶ 162O.

From The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church - 2012. Copyright © 2012 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.