In recent years the UK has emerged as a key player in both genetic experimentation and in corresponding legal battles over the extent to which the government ought to regulate such research. The latest news coming from across the pond involves passage of a bill legalizing the creation of human-animal hybrids with certain restrictions (regarding type and length of survival).
Three members of the governing cabinet were “reportedly considering resignation if forced to back the Bill.” Controversy arose over the call from Roman Catholic bishops in the UK to allow MPs and cabinet members a “free vote” on the bill, allowing them to enjoy freedom of conscience as informed by their faith.
Since the creation of the first hybrid embryo was announced yesterday, religious leaders are calling for the creation of a national bioethics commission.
This has brought some strong reactions from critics of the Catholic and generally “pro-life” position.
My own views were lately characterized as representative of the “Roman Catholic and generally free market think tank, the Acton Institute,” and were then conflated with the reasoning of evangelical scientist Cal DeWitt (with whom I do share denominational affiliation).
According to the Reason piece, the distinction I make between the treatment of plants and animals is “based upon the idea that while God commanded Noah to save animal lineages, the Almighty said nothing about preserving plants on the Ark.” (Update: Joe Carter does a thorough and articulate job of dissecting Bailey’s article here).
In fact, in the piece in which I outline a theological framework for evaluating GM foods, I don’t mention Noah at all. And in proposing a similar framework for evaluating the treatment of animals, my only reference to Noah has to do with the inauguration and the terms of the covenant, not with the fact that the animals were preserved on the Ark.
Christian reasoning about the general treatment of animals and concerns with the role of human stewardship are not based on some obscure biblical text, as Bailey’s dismissive allusion would lead us to believe. There is an overarching biblical theme that has to do with human responsibility over the natural world, plants and animals included.
Rev. Leonard Vander Zee, for instance, uses a reference coming at the very end of the book of Jonah as a point of departure, linking it definitively to the foundational “dominion” mandate in the first chapter of Genesis. He summarizes developments in human stewardship and science this way:
State universities used to be known for their programs of “animal husbandry.” What a wonderful term. To husband the animals is to care for them, to provide for their welfare, as well as to use them for human benefit. In the past few decades, most such programs have become departments of animal science, which makes it possible to look on animals as laboratory specimens we can manipulate.
We needn’t agree with the particular conclusions that Vander Zee draws in order to agree that responsible stewardship is a biblical mandate. Clearly the idea of “animal husbandry” is closer to the biblical picture than “animal science.”
The core problem that Bailey and others have with this theological and moral insight is not that it draws too fine a distinction, but that it proposes to set any limits to research at all. That’s why religious opposition to certain kinds of research (or farming practices, for that matter) have to be construed as wholesale opposition to learning, science, and advancement.
But instead, we might also note with Aquinas that the abuse of something does not destroy it’s legitimate use. Christians do believe that scientific knowledge is a legitimate pursuit and indeed a divine calling. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t limits to legitimate practice. And identifying and defining those limits is precisely what these disagreements are all about.
With great ability comes great responsibility. With apologies to Browning, we might say that man’s scientific reach has exceeded his moral grasp.