Hearing the Rev. Dr. James C. Peterson speak at Roanoke College earlier this month on a rapidly developing scientific breakthrough, changing the very stuff of which humans are made, made me think of nuclear power and its predecessor, the atom bomb.
The bomb dropped on two Japanese cities is credited with quickly ending World War II, an undeniable blessing. But on release of the news, which I can well remember, the potential for worldwide destruction was realized. Soon an even more lethal hydrogen bomb became part of Americans’ fears.
The world has been on edge ever since.
Altering human genes is also a human achievement where the potential for good and evil can hardly be imagined.
Peterson, who plans a sabbatical next year after five on the faculty of the religion and ethics departments, is not only a teacher but he also heads the Benne Center for Religion and Society and teaches ethics at the Virginia Tech-Carilion School of Medicine. He is an ordained Lutheran pastor, a member of the conservatively oriented St. John Church at Cave Spring.
His expertise on gene editing took him to an international summit meeting 15 months ago in Washington where scientists from throughout the world pondered for three l2-hour days the knowledge that it is now scientifically possible, for example, to remove all the cancer cells from a dying London child who now several years later is healthy. A group of other persons in England, “who have nothing to lose,” is also being tested, Peterson learned.
Sounds wonderful if genetic engineering can in another generation put an end to deaths from cancer? Indeed so, but as the professor pointed out, solving one problem raises a multitude of issues.
- If diseased cells are to be removed because of a proved family tendency, should this be done only for one person or for all who might be affected in future? The fatal disabling disease known as Huntington’s chorea is known to be inherited. It has also been realized for many decades that the developmental disorder known as Down Syndrome is cell-based; with more research, it might be eradicated or prevented.
- On the other hand, is cell manipulation to be used only to cure disease, such as cancer or inherited neurological conditions, or can it also provide a child of a preferred sex?
- While it may be a fad these days to learn ancestral makeup, aren’t there some things better not known?
- Theologically speaking, are faulty humans playing God?
The issue is there all right. On the same week that Peterson addressed a group of mostly senior adults, Dr. Doris T. Zallen, a Virginia Tech professor emerita, asserted in a column which ran in The Roanoke Times that a bill supported by some Republicans in the House of Representatives is a thinly-disguised effort to bring back now-discredited eugenics. That was an idea – once widely accepted by intelligent people – that sterilization of women who had borne children who were mentally or physically handicapped should be required in order that such traits would not multiply.
Hitler’s advocacy of getting a “pure race” that way revealed how such a basically sensible idea could become deadly in the wrong hands.
In his lecture about findings at the 2015 meeting, Peterson emphasized that as far back as 1972 genetics researchers were well aware of the potential for changing the body’s essential cells. The Asilomar Guidelines, adopted at a major California gathering, tried to control the use of changed cells. But research continues.
As of now, Peterson said, several practical uses of the knowledge have been agreed upon.
- Is cell modification safe for the ill person? Do risks outweigh benefits?
- Will it bring about a better quality of life, a chance to achieve more?
- Is it the best use of money?
- Is it open to all, not just those who can pay enormous costs involved?
Going out, someone said, “He made it as understandable as possible.” Another replied, “I wish I didn’t know.”