Global Christian consultation tackles biotechnology

Designer babies, nanotechnology, and genetically modified crops were a few of the topics covered at a Dec. 2-5 consultation in Johannesburg, South Africa. The Global Consultation for Genetics, New Biotechnologies, and the Ministry of the Church gathered 45 church representatives, scientists, young people, indigenous people, disabled people, and theologians to talk about biotechnology, defined as the industrial use of microorganisms or biological substances.

The international participants had much to share: a Fijian theologian spoke about the use of Tongans’ DNA for diabetes research. An Indian scientist explained how portable ultrasound clinics lead to more abortions of female fetuses in India. A disabled Canadian professor articulated western society’s bias towards “ableism.”

“The primary thing about this conference was networking, and meeting people working in these areas,” said Rev. Canon Dr. Linda Nicholls, coordinator for dialogue for General Synod and a member of the Biotechnology Reference Group at the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC). “We can now ask [our new contacts], how is this decision going to affect you? And then get feedback on that, so we can advocate more effectively.”

Christians have long been at work on these issues, for example when the CCC and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada helped block the Canadian patenting of the OncoMouse, a genetically modified mouse designed to develop cancer. But this Johannesburg consultation began to weave a global network in earnest.

The consultation sprang from a 2006 meeting organized by the CCC and the National Council of Churches USA. Then the World Council of Churches (WCC) took up the reins for the Johannesburg meeting, and there are plans for another network event in 2009, which will mark 30 years since the WCC’s “World Conference on Faith, Science and the Future.”

Canon Nicholls (recently elected suffragan bishop in the diocese of Toronto) acknowledges that big-picture thinking about genetics and biotechnology is not part of an average Canadian Anglican’s life. But related issues of disability are a touch point with most. For example, parents may consider whether to abort fetuses that have the likelihood of Down’s Syndrome, or a church may be faced with how to welcome a differently abled parishioner.

“With all this genetic possibility and choices we have, have we done the hard ethical work to be prepared to make those choices?” asks Canon Nicholls. “Do we do that together as a church, or do we just leave that to people to do individually?”

Conversation-starting resources are out there. The CCC has developed biotechnology guidelines, which Canon Nicholls has adapted for Anglicans. The CCC has also produced a book of Christian reflections, Becoming Human: On Theological Anthropology in an Age of Engineering Life, which can be ordered through their office.

Canadian Anglicans are also engaged in these topics through the Human Life Task Force, a group which has been meeting since November, 2005 to “reflect theologically on the ethical issues surrounding biotechnologies, euthanasia, and assisted suicide, reproductive technologies, and human cloning, and to monitor ongoing developments in these areas.”

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