Hoofdstuk V: The status of the human genome: is it ever licit to modify an individual’s genome?

6. Man as Imago Dei
We may also profitably journey outside the broad confines of Catholic treatments of the matter in hand to appreciate approaches such as that taken by Karl Barth when discussing the Imago Dei in his monumental Church Dogmatics (23) An accessible introduction to how Barth’s work impinges on the issue of genetic engineering is to be found in Geoffrey Brown’s chapter within Bioethics and the future of Medicine. (24)

Brown establishes a geometric model for the exposition of Barth’s views. Within this model there are three concentric circles: the innermost circle corresponds to the ‘order of obedience’; the middle circle represents the order of creation; and the notion of a closed deposit of absolute truth from which unchanging ethica1 principles may be derived.

According to Brown: “The outer circle involves Barth in a discussion of The Imago Dei which is a divine prototype, a divine pattern of being in relationship according to which the human is made and after which human life should be fashioned. The human being is in God’s image because the man-woman relationship is like the harmonious confrontation between the Persons of the Holy Trinity. Barth’s doctrine of the Imago Dei is Christological which implies that real humanity in the image of God is Christologically known: Jesus is true human being, authentic human being, ideal human being.” (25)

Within the middle circle (order of creation) Brown explains: “As there is an I-Thou intra-trinitarian relationship, a community of disposition and act in the divine essence, similarly there is in humanity as male and female an I-Thou relation, a ‘face-to-face’ relation. Thus, the pattern of his life is analogous to that of divine life: this is God’s image and likeness in humanity therefore within the order of creation the Imago Dei consists in a band of freedom, mutual respect, and willing helpfulness.” (26)

Barth’s view may be encapsulated within three objections to the idea of using genetic engineering in a non-therapeutic manner. Barth views such attempts as an unwarranted overruling of the interpersonal requirements of the nature of the human as made in the image of God because it:
1) denies human freedom,
2) disregards the demands of respect for life and
3) violates the I- Thou relationship to which’a person is called as made in the image of God. For Brown: “Human freedom before the determining command of God is the most conclusive of the three emphases of the argument in that it is the least negotiable and vulnerable of the three … and a theologically true doctrine of the Imago Del implies mutual affirmation of God-given freedom of self-determination before the command of God.” (27)

And quoting again from Church Dogmatics: “[Life should be seen as a loan] – responsibie to God and fellow humanity in patterns of freedom, care and love. Consequently, any genetic tampering that violates such freedom in vitro must be rejected. If our humanity is to be after the humamty of Christ which was for others.” (28)

There is at least an echo within these Barthian proscriptions of the call by the present Pope that genetic engineering must “respect and realise in its fullness the dignity of man” (29) and that genetic engineering must not “expose man to the caprices of somebody else, depriving him of his autonomy.” (30)

Of course violating the autonomy of an individual’s God-given freedom deforms both object and subject (moral agent). This is treated with great clarity by Oliver O’Donovan in his book Begotten or Made. (31)

“Unless we approach new human beings, including those whose humanity is ambiguous and uncertain to us, with the expectancy and hope that we shall discern how God has called them out of nothing into personal being, then I do not see how we shall ever learn to love another human being at all.” (32)

Any decision about the liciety of a particular genetic intervention should be taken with reference to O’Donovan’s observation, but of course fleshing out the content of ‘how God has called them out of nothing into personal being’, and more importantly, for what ordained purpose he has done so, will require excavation of systematic theological approaches to anthropology, and may well rely upon Christological insights of the type developed by Barth.

7. The risk of under-valuing the disabled already born or unborn
While recent committees of inquiry, at least in the Anglo-Saxon world, appear to have learned from, and been informed by, many of the analyses already mentioned, it is worth noting one particular tension which bedevils those addressing themselves to this area. Namely, that to argue that a genetic defect should be genetically treated, without making those already born with that defect – phenotypically expressed in them – feel that permission to under-value them is being implied, is a very difficult task.

Having argued that licit genetic treatments may in principle include germ-line therapy as well as somatic therapy, the Working Party reporting to the Catholic Bishops’ Joint Committee on Bio-ethical Issues in the UK goes on to remind us that: “Those who are already parents of disabled children, whether born or unborn, should be supported by society in accepting and caring for their children. Those who decide, for good reasons, to accept the possibility of conceiving children with genetic disorders should be similarly supported, and should not be subjected to social disapproval.” (33)

This type of statement is important for those worried by such comments as Gormally’s that: “There are, then, limitations of our bodily constitution which I believe we should accept as the conditions of accepting the particular life each of us has been given. But there are other limitations which we may have good reason to think should not be there: those that arise from failures of function (or structural formation) which should not exist in any living body. These are all the failures characteristic of ill-health, for health is to be understood as the well-functioning of the bodily organisation as a whole.” (34)