October 26, 2008

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY: Genetic Engineering and Jesus – Will “They” Be Human?

A few years ago, I sent Stan Schmidt, editor at ANALOG, a short story that took place in the clouds of a gas giant called (at the time) Jordan. It was all about a sort of “underground railroad” that freed profoundly genetically engineered humans from a slavery that saw them as manufactured goods and thereby not human.

One of the characters commented that HE was human, even though he’d clearly been genetically engineered at least a little. The other character asked what made him think he was human. The first replied, “I have over 65% unaltered human DNA!”

Stan didn’t buy the story, but he did comment that he found the idea of a society in which an arbitrary amount of unaltered DNA determined whether or not one was considered human – to be chilling.

Since then, I’ve done a bit of world building and written two stories in the skies of the gas giant now named River, in which I address this concept. But it got me to thinking – what is that defines “human” and specifically, is there a point at which a genetically engineered person is no longer human? Finally, this led me to speculate on my main question: did Jesus die for the sins of humans who have been profoundly genetically engineered?

Let me try an analogy, first. Let’s look at those who have been medically engineered: every person reading this has been medically engineered to some degree, whether we have taken aspirin or had a quadruple coronary bypass. We have been changed from our “original” or “natural” form, however slightly. No one has ever suggested that I am no longer human – though I have had shoulder repair, an umbilical hernia repair and my tonsils removed.

Second case: my mom. She has a pacemaker implant, two artificial hips and two artificial knees. Is she still human? I’ve never heard anyone suggest that she is not – though we do call her our Bionic Mom sometimes. ;-)

Third: a friend of mine works for a company that manufactures insulin pumps – both external and internal. People that use these are called diabetics – but are still human.

Let us now create a hypothetical composite: this person takes medication to control cholesterol, high blood pressure, and a thyroid deficiency; they have had both shoulders, both knees and both hips replaced, wear a pacemaker, have artificially implanted eye lenses, wear hearing aids and an insulin pump – and use Rogaine (with monoxidil) and Viagra. In addition, they also have dialysis treatments once a month and use an inhaler for asthma as well as a motorized wheelchair occasionally. Is this person human? Some might argue QUALITY of life, but none I know of would argue their humanity.

The next step is obvious: the correction of typically debilitating genetic defects, the demise of which few would decry – cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, sickle cell anemia, Down syndrome and breast cancer. Are the corrected individuals human? A question, but my guess is that no one would deny their humanity and would rather celebrate their life.

After that is the slippery slope of greater correction that will, ALMOST inevitably, lead to the question of whether or not we should improve the species. Here is where medical ethicists will “earn their pay” so-to-speak, and it will be a new frontier for endless debate.

But the next step is what concerns me – but not for the reason some of you will assume.

What concerns me is that those who are improved will be ostracized despite the fact that Jesus Himself was the object of profound genetic manipulation by the Father God. He is, in His own words, immortal. He was never, as far as Scripture goes, sick in any way – though he consistently and regularly touched and lived with the ill. Clearly, His immune system was resilient far beyond human because He touched lepers and never came down with leprosy. Jesus, the Son of God was biologically only HALF-human, if you want to be particular about it.

So – when the future arrives and we meet profoundly genetically engineered humans, we need only look to our Lord to see how they should be treated: with loving care, deep reverence and just like anyone else. That’s how Jesus lived for 33 years of His life. Will He love them, did He die for their sins and should we embrace them in the Church? Without hesitation – because He was first in a wave that has yet to crest, but will most likely hit the Church’s beach by the next turn of the century.

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