Elections Matter: Crafting Just Science Policy for the Common Good

This article originally appeared on Capital Commentary, a weekly current affairs publication by the Center for Public Justice. To read more, visit http://www.capitalcommentary.org.

Three-parent embryos, gene editing, human-animal chimeras… these issues have not featured prominently (or at all) in this year’s presidential election the way stem cells did in 2004. And while the 2016 presidential race is certainly unusual, it is hard to imagine any candidate talking about the ethics of gene editing on the stump. Why?

These technologies are complex, and most (but certainly not all!) politicians lack scientific training to adequately discuss them. But more than that, the ethics of some of these technologies are as complex as the technologies themselves, making it difficult to draw clear moral distinctions that fall neatly into our politically polarized right-left categories. While in the stem cell debate, the question seemed to be about life and death for both sides, most emerging biotechnologies defy simplistic ethical or political categorization.

Now more than ever, the way these technologies develop and become integrated into modern medicine and day-to-day life has the capacity to alter human nature itself. Gene-editing technology, for example, if and when it is used in human embryos who are allowed to develop, will permanently alter the human genome for every generation descended from that embryo. Technologies such as these raise questions of anthropology—what it means to be human— and questions of ethics—how we should live. These questions are fundamentally spiritual questions, and we cannot simply defer judgement about wise, just use of emerging technologies to technocrats and scientists.

Yet most of these issues will not be on a ballot this fall, and it will be difficult to discern the positions of various public office holders on most emerging biotechnologies. In the case of complicated bioethics issues, instead of examining candidates issue by issue, we should support candidates who are philosophically committed to a robust view of the universal dignity and fallenness of humanity and who affirm the proper role of science and technology in enabling human flourishing. For us to better identify these candidates, we must first shore up our own understanding of these principles, recognizing places of convergence and divergence with the larger culture. In this way, we will be better able to persuasively and winsomely help shepherd the development of emerging biotechnologies toward the common good.

Principles to Guide Our Thinking About Bioethics

Here are a few broad principles that can help us navigate these difficult waters:

At creation, the Lord defined both who we are and what our purpose is. Humankind is made in the image of God and has been given the awesome responsibility of stewarding creation. As God’s kingdom has been inaugurated on earth, we have the opportunity, in Christ, to participate in the ongoing unfolding of God’s creation. This has two important, yet distinct, applications when considering bioethics.

For one, being made in the image of God further affirms our participation in the scientific disciplines. When we discover and invent, we reflect the nature of our infinitely creative King. Science is a gift from God, to be used to help us fulfill the cultural mandate and participate in the work of renewal. Because God is the author of truth and the King of the universe, we never need fear that science will somehow undermine our faith. In addition, being made in the image of God focuses the intent of technological advancement. Science and technology should serve to glorify God by enabling worship, revealing God’s wonder and power, and by renewing creation, working against the fall to improve the lives of God’s image-bearing creatures.

Humans are fallen. We have a deep-seated instinct towards idolatry and individual self-preservation which leads us to use both creation itself and the good gifts God has given us (our intellect, science, technology) for self-serving ends. Further complicating matters, the “heart is deceitful above all things,” (Jer. 17:9) which means we are not always aware that we are acting badly. This is particularly important when we consider the ethics of emerging biotechnologies. Wisdom and humility are required to deeply explore the costs and benefits of a particular technology, not only in terms of the specific improvement in health or comfort or efficiency it offers, but also in terms of its impact on the vulnerable, on social inequities, and on the concentration of power, while also considering the larger questions of justice and the often competing interests that come into play. 

Because of our fallen nature, science cannot be viewed as a morally neutral enterprise that should be left to develop unhindered. Instead, the demands of public justice require that society positively shepherd science and technology, a task which largely falls to the political community. While the question of how to best regulate a rapidly advancing field in a political system designed to be slow and deliberative remains largely unanswered, the need for such regulation persists with increasing urgency.

A high view of human dignity provides guidance for the path that technological advancement should take. In our pluralistic democracy, many who do not share our theological convictions would still agree that technology should promote human dignity and justice, giving us common ground in which to discuss potential parameters for technological development in any particular area. Technological advancement should lead towards greater shalom for everyone rather than greater power or health for just a few.

Cultural Forces That Shape Our Political Discourse About Bioethics

Yet, a brief glance at the big bioethics debates of the last few decades reveals that these normative principles about who we are and what our purpose is do not in fact shape our political discourse about biotechnology. As Yuval Levin deftly argues in his book Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy, to date, our public debates about bioethics follow well-worn divides between left and right over the very purpose of scientific innovation as well as the nature of the future we want technology to help bring about. Christians may easily find themselves unsure then of how the guiding principles we’ve discussed here fit into the political spectrum that currently defines American politics. Even more problematically, Christians often unintentionally co-opt ideas from the political right or left without examining the degree to which those ideas are consistent with the truths that God revealed in Scripture.

The cultural forces that shape our national attitudes about technology are both subtle and strong, dating in many instances back to our founding. Identifying these forces and evaluating them against the normative principles above can perhaps reduce the stalemate that often exists between parts of the right and left when it comes to debating science policy.

Modern science and modern liberal democracy came of age at the same time during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, fueled by similar Enlightenment philosophies emphasizing reason and individualism. But although undeniable good has come from both the political and scientific revolutions that Enlightenment humanism helped bring about, the roots of Enlightenment humanism are inconsistent with biblical revelation in three key ways that are particularly relevant to this discussion.

First, Enlightenment thinkers rejected the traditional, biblical anthropology, disregarding our human communal nature and our call to stewardship and servanthood, arguing instead that people are primarily autonomous individuals who can be the masters of their own destiny. As Levin reports in his book, in early drafts of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “all men are created independent and equal.”

So while autonomy and individualism are at the core of our American cultural anthropology, Scripture only offers support for a limited, bounded autonomy. From Genesis on, the Lord makes it clear that we are each other’s keepers. A focus on people as members of communities dominates the biblical narrative. God called the nation of Israel as chosen people, a community greater than the sum of the collective individuals that comprised it.

Similarly, the church is a new community, also greater than the sum of its parts. A communal view of human nature forces us to look beyond the needs or rights of the individual towards the common good. While deductive, mechanistic reasoning works well for understanding the component parts of nature, such an approach is limited when defining human nature itself. As individuals, we too are greater than the sum of our component parts. A materialist view of human nature fails to do justice to the image of God within each of us. When applied to modern bioethics, we must not simply support technologies that benefit us as individuals, but we must instead think about how technology affects our common humanity, and attend to questions not only of life or death but also of human flourishing and justice.

Christians must more actively affirm science and its technological fruits as a good gift of God...

Second, in elevating humans (and their ability to reason), Enlightenment thinkers also rejected the call to stewardship, asserting that humans can chart their own destinies. In this view, science (and scientific methods applied to other disciplines) is the means by which we can master nature, gaining increasing control over our future. For those who hold this perspective, it would seem odd to ask science to submit to any authority, including political authority. This perspective has profoundly shaped our modern view of the regulation of science. Those who seek to shape the direction of emerging technologies have been accused of “politicizing science.” Many Americans, and most scientists, think scientific progress should proceed unfettered, a position that is at odds with our call to both stewardship and justice.

Third, Enlightenment thinkers shaped the modern fallacy that science is the ultimate authority. Yet as Christians, we know that science is a useful, but not ultimate source of truth. Science can helpfully uncover facts about the world that can be used to alleviate suffering or develop new technologies. But the scientific process itself is constantly self-corrective, revealing that what we thought was true yesterday no longer appears to be true today—or at least true in all circumstances.

More importantly for the consideration of bioethics is that fact that science cannot itself provide wisdom or authority. Scripture tells us that “in Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” that “in Christ all things hold together,” and that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to [Christ].” Or, as Kuyper famously declared, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” Science is not a man-made tool that enables us to gain power over our own condition, to throw off authority because of “unmediated” access to knowledge. Rather, science is a God-given gift that enables us to better fulfill our roles as stewards, extending God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

While a positive view of science is necessary, an unbridled faith in the power of science obscures our ability to ensure that science is used to promote justice and human flourishing. Science cannot, for instance, make humans immortal. Yet for many today, immortality, sometimes couched as the alleviation of all human suffering, is the goal. More subtly, as Yuval Levin noted, this unbridled faith leads to a permanent state of emergency in which our metaphorical house is always on fire, where difficult decisions must be made about which lives are deemed more valuable. When coupled with a failure to see the redemptive value of suffering, this perennial state of emergency leaves the vulnerable threatened, pitting their needs against the needs of those perceived to be more useful or valuable.

The “urgent crisis” argument was on full display during the stem cell debates of 2004-6 in which politicians cited suffering patients—often by name—as the reason for expanding funding for embryonic stem cell research. While this made for good political theater, it is no way to craft public policy. Curing disease is a noble goal, but it cannot be the trump card in every science policy debate. Putting aside the hyperbole of the argument (which rests on the claim that a particular technology can offer treatments or cures that no other technology can or will), the heart-rending claims of the suffering individual must be weighed in the context of other goods and potential harms.

As Christians, we must wrestle with the ways these Enlightenment myths have seeped into our own thinking about who we are and what technology is for so that we can together advocate for science policies that ensure justice for everyone.

Translating Principles into Public Policy

What does this look like in practice? Talking about our shared human future seems much more difficult than fighting to protect human life. It is nuanced; there will be disagreement about competing goods even among Christians, and it requires theological and philosophical reflection. In many ways, these conversations must occur upstream of politics, before an issue comes to the floor of Congress or to your local polling station. A colleague of mine at the Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity argues,[i] for instance, that science fiction allows us to imagine a world in which technology has shaped our society in a particular way in order to better assess whether that is the kind of world we want to live in. Using the arts to cultivate our cultural imagination about what it means to be made in the image of God and treat everyone with dignity will help to lay a foundation for a more practical political conversation about when and how technology should be guided by public policy.

Christians must also engage in the regular discipline of resisting the impulse to dehumanize political opponents, graciously holding each other accountable to the high view of the image of God, even in those with whom we vehemently disagree. Forcing ourselves to see the image of God in every person we meet, read, or see on a screen is not only right but helps us to actively participate in creating the kind of society we are advocating for. If our community is marked by treating each other with dignity and respect today, we can better envision the values we want to uphold as technology shapes our future.

Additionally, in order to have a respected voice at the political table when science policy issues are debated, Christians must more actively affirm science and its technological fruits as a good gift of God to be stewarded for the common good. We must fight the impulse to react against science out of fear or frustration that some have used science to undermine our faith.

The hope for a more productive political dialogue about bioethics ultimately lies with each of us. Find trusted sources such as The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity and their curated bioethics news website that will help you learn about the latest technologies and their applications. Engage in conversations—locally, in your workplace, and in your congregations—that help us collectively imagine and articulate the future we want technology to bring, not only for us, but for generations to come. Support candidates for public office who offer a holistic view of the nature of public justice and what it means to be human and who participate in acts of justice and mercy that demonstrate the values and principles articulated above. Changing the national conversation about bioethics will take time, but it can begin with each of us.

-Michelle Crotwell Kirtley is the Bioethics & Public Policy Associate at the Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity and a former health and science policy advisor on Capitol Hill. She is also a Trustee of the Center for Public Justice and a 2003 alumnae of the Center’s Civitas program in faith and public affairs.