Human genetic engineering and religion

Genetic engineering (GE) consists of the alteration of an organism’s genetic or hereditary material to eliminate or produce new characteristics. While it has been developed to increase plant and animal production, GE also has many applications in the human healthcare industry. The most recent innovation in gene editing, CRISPR-Cas9 is one of the most promising advancements in GE. It has accelerated and simplified the possibility of successfully implementing GE humans due to its ability to target more than one gene at a time [1].

However, there are many controversial implications surrounding this technology, with a wide range of opinions and issues, and no consensus about safety. Furthermore, many individuals also have ethical and religious beliefs that significantly impact the way they view GE. In 2015, an international summit on human gene editing concluded that germline gene editing – the editing of gametes or embryos creating heritable changes, is a social and political matter, not just a scientific one [2]. Furthermore, it is difficult to evaluate the acceptance or rejection of this technology in society without considering how religion plays a role in public opinion. Over 88% of the world’s population are religious in some capacity [3], therefore it is important to consider how different groups view advancements in the genetic engineering of humans.

There is a wide range of views surrounding questions such as: When does an embryo becomes a person? Is editing the human genome an act of “playing God”? Is the human genome is sacred? Moreover, if some level of human GE is acceptable, how can society establish a boarder between what uses of the technology is appropriate and what is not. The implications of genetically engineered humans have been discussed and debated for decades. However, the innovation of CRISPR-Cas9 has made the editing of the human genome a very possible reality. It has forced us to seriously rethink what is ethical. Therefore, there is a growing need to conduct global societal conversations surrounding the technology and evaluate how religion might play a role.

Considering the ancient Jewish tales of golemim, humans created super beings for protection and tasks. Furthermore, the Babylonian Talmud text (tractate Sanhedrin 65b) mentions two rabbis who create a calf from nothing, which they sacrifice to make a Sabbath dinner [4]. There are more myths of creation and enhancement, however, they often spiral out of control. Considering this, perhaps genome editing could be pursued, with assurance that

there are proper policies assuring safeguards.

Islam and Hinduism do not have a similar collection of applicable texts, yet the Muslim perspective is close to the Jewish one. On the other hand, Christian views are sometimes more prohibitive, due to the idea of “playing God” [4]. Certain religious tenants accept procedures for curing disease. For instance, in 2002, the Vatican stated that “germ line genetic engineering with a therapeutic goal in man would in itself be acceptable” as long is it is done safely and does not lead to the loss of embryos [5].

However, there is still ambiguity around the difference between curing disease and enhancing humans with desirable traits. This creates an issue, since it is difficult to reach a consensus when different groups do not agree on where to draw the line. In his article “God and the genome: A geneticist seeks allies among the faithful” Andrew Joseph asks whether editing a genome to protect people from HIV, eliminating Down syndrome or genetic blindness would be considered acceptable treatment. While some see these conditions as disabilities, others consider them traits which can be embraced [5].