Enhancement

I’ve recently been asked to review the latest salvo in the ethical war over the propriety of human enhancement technology (particularly those that involve modification of the genome or manipulation of human cells at the embryonic stage). I realized that I have essentially never discussed these issues with Mormons before and am curious to hear what self-identified Mormons think a) generally, and b) as refracted through Mormon theology and culture.

Some of the proposed enhancements include

  • engineering genomes (at the gamete or embryonic stage) to be resistant to cancer or HIV
  • selection of embryos in IVF to avoid Huntington’s, Down’s, cancer susceptibility, and other painful or life-foreshortening diseases
  • selection of embryos in IVF to select for biological sex or appearance
  • selection of embryos in IVF to select for higher IQ
  • use of embryonic cells for research applications, such as for tissue farms (ways to grow, for instance heart muscle to replace damaged muscle)

What do people think? The main questions tend to be

  • Is it ethical?
  • Should legislation regulate it or outlaw it?

I wonder whether Mormonism offers any peculiar insights on these topics. Off the top of my head, there is the strange comparison between Millennial life (or postmortal life generally) and the proposed outcome of enhancement, the uncertain perfectionism/Pelagianism of Mormonism, the meaning of the soul, theological anthropomorphism, and a host of other topics.

Comments

  1. stillconfused says:

    I guess if you want to pay for it, more power to you. Just dont’t want to see it funded by the government.

  2. Generally I support efforts to prevent debilitating or life-shortening diseases. Appearance or IQ–I think we are a long way from that, and even if we could, it would probably be more effort and cost than it’s worth. Tissue farms–all for it. The gender thing seems a little shallow, but if they are that motivated, I guess. I would certainly prefer that over aborting the ‘wrong’ gender. (A few years ago I read that sperm could be separated by gender, so IVF selection might be overkill for that.)

    I believe that the vast majority of people will continue to be created the cheaper and old-fashioned way.

  3. Sunstone magazine recently published a cover article by the Mormon Transhumanist Association, which asserts that enhancement technology may enable human exaltation, including realization of diverse prophetic visions of transfiguration, immortality, resurrection, renewal of this world, and the discovery and creation of worlds without end. The article reviews some parallels between Transhumanism (a movement associated with the ethical use of enhancement technologies) and Mormonism. You can access a free online copy of the article here:

    http://transfigurism.org/community/files/11/sunstone_west_2007/default.aspx

  4. Eric Russell says:

    It’s about time for a brave new world. I say bring it on.

  5. I’m fascinated to see the positive responses. The strong arguments for this type of enhancement are generally made by technophilic atheists with a dim view of both Divine Intelligence and the afterlife.
    The Religious Right generally fume about these technologies, and Bush declared a moratorium on new stem cell lines to appease this group. (there are exceptions to these generalities.)

    Is this our Mormon perfectionism or simply American technophilia? Or are BCCers a bunch of ultra-liberals? Something else?

  6. I think the fact that the Church has not tried to pinpoint when the spirit enters the body plays a large role in many members’ willingness to support stem-cell research.

    Just out of curiosity – Was your second to last question in #4 rhetorical? :-) (although I think “liberal” as applied to BCC doesn’t carry many of the classic definitions that apply in the world at large.)

  7. Ray, everything’s rhetorical.

  8. Nice.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    At first I thought you were talking about “enhancements” of the variety commonly supplied on Dr. 90210, and I was about to go on record that I’m all for those…

    I haven’t thought much about these issues, but I’m all for stem cell research, and in general I’m not bothered by these possibilities. (I think the answer is that, yup, BCCers are ultra-liberal.)

  10. From a naturalistic perspective, modern medicine has subverted natural selection and the gene pool is weakening. The ration response would be to use technology in place of natural selection.

    I think you could also make a strong post-millennialist argument for such technologies, which may not be all that distant from some strands of Mormon thought.

    Personally, I think the pharmaceutical enhancements are fascinating. Is it morally superior to take lipator and extend your physical life than to take adderal to enhance life performance? (Remember, Mormon theology is definitely moving towards the brain/mind being “flesh,” at least in mortality)

    …also, isn’t there a group of Mormon trans-humanists or something?

  11. There is a group of Mormon Transhumanists. And they’ve found you!

    http://transfigurism.org/community/blogs/lincoln_cannon/archive/2007/09/29/3590.aspx

  12. Nice light and easy question for a Saturday night, Sam.

  13. Tracy, you wouldn’t know it to read the latest harangue. There are a number of important intellectuals who resist these enhancements, most notably the political philosophers Michael Sandel and Jorgen Habermas.

    S&H worry that we would lose as a species to be artificially pulled away from our experience of mortality and cosmic contingency, while Habermas particularly worries about the novel and perhaps deleterious relationships of power that can arise between a progenitor and the artifically crafted offspring.

    I personally had always been fairly pro- until I read a stridently pro- treatment, and now I’ve started to wonder.

  14. smb, I read the original more quickly than usual. When you talk of selecting for certain aspects, are you talking about engineering fetuses (actual future births) based on desired characteristics? In my haste, I read it initially as isolating for medical reasons. If we are talking about altering natural eye or hair color, for example, and, in effect, custom designing children to look a certain way, then I have some serious concerns.

  15. J.,

    Remember, Mormon theology is definitely moving towards the brain/mind being “flesh,” at least in mortality.

    That the brain is “flesh” is basic anatomy, I think we can all agree on that. But I’m curious, what is the basis for your claim that Mormon theology is definitely moving toward mind as being flesh? I’m aware of no such definite move in Mormon theology.

  16. SMB, what do Sandel and Habermas believe that we would lose as a species, and do you feel that these things that they believe we would lose are greater than the things we would gain?

  17. Ray, people are proposing not just cosmetic enhancements but potentially selecting embryos on the basis of genetic screens for physical strength, intellectual stature, memory, musical talent, the whole nine yards.

  18. We castigated the Nazis for trying to do this naturally. What has changed in the last 60 years – just the technology to do it “better” – to divorce the emotional aspects and risks of conception from parenthood? We’re talking about genetic engineering and baby shopping? What are they planning on doing with the “undesirable” embryos? Are they considering publishing catalogs – kind of a Mr. Potato Head approach (which eyes and nose and mouth and hair…)? Talk about a loss of natural affection!

  19. Sam, Richard Sherlock’s done extensive work on bioethics, incl some articles on LDS perspectives. He’s a philosopher, not an MD, so I assume he approaches and frames questions in different ways than you.

  20. Ray-
    Im going to assume that your are kidding. Usually when people inject cliches and farcical analogies without reasoning its in jest.

    As for me, I see no problem with anything mentioned above. Also I believe the ‘church’ will continue to stay out of it like it has with the moment of conception thing. Nonetheless, there still will be a powerful mormon cultural surge against such techs if and when they become feasible. As of now, we cant even get gene therepy to work, and that was suppose to be a slam dunk.

  21. Sorry Sam, I saw the title of the post and just automatically thought of those emails caught in my spam filter with taglines like “feeling inadequate?” and “rock her world all night!”

    I was disappointed to find a responsible and more academic discussion of embryo research and genetic research ethics and nothing at all about the permissibility of Mormon breast enhancement surgery and such.

  22. #9 — Yes, the Mormon Transhumanist Association. The March 2007 issue of Sunstone has an article from this group. If I remember correctly, they address the post-millenialist argument you mentioned.

  23. I’m very surprised that you all are so amenable to the shopping cart embryo. It’s really quite absurd and appalling to me. And here’s why:

    1. It further cheapens sexual behavior. This would make sex solely recreational, and pregnancy something for doctors and clinics. It removes the raw, emotional, and beautiful experience of conceiving through natural means and further dilutes the sexual experience. Just makes the current (cheapening of sex) problem MUCH worse.

    2. #17, don’t dismiss #15… it’s one of the first things that popped into my mind too. It’s not a farcical analogy. Many have tried to promote a superior race through “ethnic cleansing.” We categorically classify them all as evil and wrong because of their brutal inhuman ways of doing so. It doesn’t become right just because we do it at fertilization rather than after birth.

    3. It’s a basic belief of advanced civilization that we should not discriminate based on cosmetic appearance. We teach our children this from the first moment of Sesame Street, and it is strongly reinforced at school and in the workplace. Going down this genetic path would betray all of that rhetoric and belief.

    4. It just feels like cheating. We all get what we get, that is the basic idea in life; that there are some things you can’t change about yourself. We would be replacing “It’s what God gave me” to “it’s what my parents and doctor chose for me.” Don’t parents have a hard enough time with their children hating and resenting them already?

    HOWEVER

    I do believe we should use this technology to guard against terrible genetic diseases.

    LDS leaders have taught that the mentally retarded are actually the most valiant spirit children who get a free pass to the celestial kingdom. How would preventing downs and other retardations subvert that teaching?

    I do agree with and believe in genetic therapy, stem cell therapy/research, and think we should pursue all of these to improve quality of life but not necessarily longevity. We all have to go sometime… and modern medicine’s interference with natural selection has created the biggest social problems we have today (social security, medicare, etc). From the LDS perspective of death, I say let me lead a high quality life, then let me go.

    In conclusion (sorry for the long response) just ask yourself “What is beauty?” The definition of beauty has changed dramatically over the centuries. I would argue that appearance is fad. It comes, it goes, it changes over time. Beauty truly does come only from within

  24. Jacob (#13), I believe the recent devlopments in how the hierarchy view homosexuality, and also how they treat things like depression, is indicative of a mind as flesh paradigm.

    I also almost forgot about the Mormon ugenics movement that was rather mainstream before the War. Stirling had a nice write-up on it.

  25. Good questions, Sam, but I have no good answers, just more questions.

    I know people who claim that their lives have been enriched by raising a child with Down’s syndrome, and I believe them. But it is so fatuously easy to speak in glowing terms about the saintly efforts of people who care for children with severe handicaps that it feels cheap for me to make that argument when I am not doing all the hard work.

    It is difficult to argue that we shouldn’t spend a lot of money in an effort to avert an outcome before birth when we will spend the same amount and more after a child is born in an effort to ameliorate a condition we think is undesireable.

    On the other hand, I read an article about the dangers we many encounter with the way we produce our food. The holstein breed of black and white cows that produce 95% of our milk are descended from a very narrow genetic spectrum. They are selectively bred to produce large quantities of milk, period, without regard to overall health and vigor, and the breed has thus been rendered vulnerable to various disorders, some of them quite serious. The recent interest in what we call heirloom tomatoes shows that an old genetic strain was almost lost because it doesn’t ripen uniformly and is often misshapen, but it’s flavor is superior.

    My point in making the somewhat offensive comparison of human to cows and tomatoes is make the conservative and Darwinian argument that there might be some wisdom in the way things are.

    Finally, given our current emphasis on gendered spirits and marriage, I’m interested in how LDS people would react if homosexuality is discovered to have a genetic component. It is beginning to appear more and more that there is some sort of biological cause or trigger. The most recent pronouncements, including this month’s Ensign article from Elder Holland, describe homosexuality as a condition in need of “fixing”, and indeed promises gay and lesbian people that in the next stage of their existence, their condition will be changed. If we are able to isolate some marker in utero that identifies a fetus as likely to be homosexual, my guess is that many LDS people would be in favor of whatever measures were necessary to flip the switch the other way.

  26. LDS leaders have taught that the mentally retarded are actually the most valiant spirit children who get a free pass to the celestial kingdom. How would preventing downs and other retardations subvert that teaching?

    Regarding this and #22 about Downs children –

    A friend of mine has one child with Downs and one child born with a rare condition, which to explain in a simplified way means, he was born with half a brain.

    Her response to the idea that either of these conditions could have been prevented would be that she would gladly welcome such an opportunity for them.

    As much as I think she believes they are ‘valiant spirits’ and that there are blesses that come from being the mother of these children, she wants so much for them to have a ‘normal’ life.

    Whether or not that is the right instinct, in terms of our theology, is probably a different topic.

    But put me down for being mainly positive on most of the ideas presented above.

    I find myself suprisingly, most worried about the IQ question.

  27. I’m all for us using any means possible to correct deficiencies and also to improve our genes. The huge danger is that the wisdom of 3 billion years of evolution needs to be learned by us explicitly in order for us to actually improve on nature instead of making it worse. For instance, would some men choose to build girls who looked like underwear models and had little in the way of brains or autonomous feelings? (I guess I could have said that easier by asking would some men build stepford wives?) That would upset me a whole lot, and I can’t help but think it would delay the advancement of the species, since equal partnerships in marriage could practically disappear. The real danger is all this stuff is the lag between our knowledge and our wisdom. But the knowledge has to come first, just as it did in the garden. So we’ll have to learn how and then make our mistakes, as always.

    But I think Mormon theology actually talks about all this. In order to become gods, in order to increase our powers and wisdom, we have to learn everything about how to make universes, and mortal tabernacles. There’s a whole lot of technology involved, if you want to think of it like that. I believe the resurrection will be brought about by us with God’s help when we learn how to build perfect bodies and how to restore spirits to their bodies. I think it will only work (for technical reasons) if the people were previously embodied (thus the need to have been born) and if we have the people’s names and information in our family history archives. I believe that we literally are giving the option of eternal life to those people we baptize posthumously.

    We may now already be in the generation who will never die, as will happen when life-extending technology begins to improve faster than people age. I’m counting on living to be 75,000 myself. If I don’t make it then y’all please resurrect me. I don’t want to miss anything. =)

    I think we will soon (within a few hundred years) have the ability to make ourselves any bodies of our choosing. And after millennia in which people experiment with all sorts of outlandish bodies, the thing that will be considered the coolest of all will be to go back to one’s original body, from the deep past, and look once again just like our parents conceived us. Then we’ll appreciate all the minute differences and uniqueness, as we should, for the very first time. Then what was once considered undesirable in a body, if it was built too thickly or had frizzy hair or a misshapen nose, those things will suddenly be the most awesome features, compared to the billions who look like comic book superheroes. Finally after all that time, we will appreciate fully what we have. That will be the coolest. =)

  28. Er, I was kidding.

  29. Following the medical aphorism to “do no harm” answers most of your questions, in my opinion. Tampering with “what God gives us” is what we do all the time in medicine, and nobody (or few) question whether it’s right to alleviate suffering, extend life, and improve people’s quality of life. Simply put, “enhancement” is what medicine is for.

    Just because the technology changes, the issues don’t. If we’re changing DNA for the better, we should do so in a manner that “does no harm” to the changed individual and that respects life. Since history shows scientists and doctors are not always perfect in doing the right thing without some regulation, it’s not a bad idea to regulate these sticky new things to be on the safe side.

  30. J (#21),

    The changes in approach to homosexuality and depression obviously admit a relationship between the brain and the mind, I’ll grant that. To jump from this to a mind theory of physical reductionism is a quantum leap. I know this is someone (although not entirely) off topic, so I won’t say more. I was very curious to know what you meant, so thank you for the response.

    Sam,

    To address the questions of the post, I don’t have any problem at all, in principle, with engineering genomes to be resistant to disease. Tissue farms are awesome, but there are definitely some ethical questions surrounding where the embryonic cells come from in the first place. Without starting a threadjack about abortion, I will say I think it is entirely possible that we could find ethical ways to support tissue farms. I think IQ manipulation is science fiction and will stay that way in the forseeable future. If it ever becomes reality, it will likely require a redefinition of IQ at which time our current arguments will need to be reformulated anyway.

    Incidentally, I am conservative, so the idea that BCCers are ultra-liberal is probably accurate, but does not explain my support for this stuff.

  31. Sam #20
    It’s not a farcical analogy. Many have tried to promote a superior race through “ethnic cleansing.” We categorically classify them all as evil and wrong because of their brutal inhuman ways of doing so. It doesn’t become right just because we do it at fertilization rather than after birth.

    My better half is telling me to ignore this but this is just plain ridiculous. The reason the Nazi were wrong WAS do to their brutal MO. Comparing selective embryo implantation to ethnic cleansing is completely dishonest.

    Now the question I wanted to ask: How many here get hung up at embryo selection but not gamete? It seems to me that many I speak with dont like messing with embryos but might be more willing to consider selective embryogenesis or even gametogenesis.

  32. Matt, I wasn’t kidding – and the example is not farcical. I was a history teacher, and the rhetoric used by the Nazis often was not over-the-top warped. Often it was subtle and appealing to those who cared about appearances.

    To elaborate, I have no problem whatsoever with stem-cell research – even embryonic research. My Mormonism (as a political moderate) allows that conclusion, since there is no definitive moment when a spiritless body becomes a spirit-filled soul. Given that stance, I am free to choose which options Sam lays out I can support.

    Of the five options Sam listed, I support the first, second and last without reservation. I don’t like the third option at all – particularly the inclusion of appearance. We have enough self-esteem issues to battle already without adding the new ones such an effort would entail. I can see it now: “Doctor, you goofed on this one. Look, the eyes are green instead of blue. Change them or we’ll sue.” That’s all a child needs – to know that Mom and Dad couldn’t love him until his eyes or hair changed color. What about height or body type? That is appearance, as well. No thanks; it really does smack of perfect-race Nazi mentality to me – and it also smacks of the total destruction of unconditional love.

    The fourth is problematic, as well, but I react more viscerally to #3.

  33. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    * engineering genomes (at the gamete or embryonic stage) to be resistant to cancer or HIV
    * selection of embryos in IVF to avoid Huntington’s, Down’s, cancer susceptibility, and other painful or life-foreshortening diseases
    * selection of embryos in IVF to select for biological sex or appearance
    * selection of embryos in IVF to select for higher IQ
    * use of embryonic cells for research applications, such as for tissue farms (ways to grow, for instance heart muscle to replace damaged muscle)

    #1 is tricky for me. I don’t think we have the know-how to do it. Getting the know-how would involve actually doing it and I’m not comfortable with the mistakes that will be made along the way.

    #2-4 No way, now how, absolutely not. Completely unethical and ought to be illegal. There is no difference, not to me, between selecting IVF embryos for gender (or disease) and abortion. It’s just an earlier stage of the same thing.

    #5 Is also tricky. I’m not sure how I feel about it. I do know that I’d absolutely oppose the creation of embryos for the purposes of tissue farming them. If it were possible to take samples from embryos without harming them and to “farm” those cells while the original embryos go on to normal, healthy lives, then I might support it. I’m not sure it’s worthwhile though — what we really need is a way to clone and grow the organs of the ill individual so that there’s no chance of rejection and no need to stay on immuno-suppressant drugs for the rest of your life.

  34. PDoE #29

    #2-4 No way, now how, absolutely not. Completely unethical and ought to be illegal. There is no difference, not to me, between selecting IVF embryos for gender (or disease) and abortion. It’s just an earlier stage of the same thing.

    But would you care if did not involve the destroying of an embryo? Sorry, but Im quite interested. /broken_record

  35. My better half is telling me to ignore this but this is just plain ridiculous. The reason the Nazi were wrong WAS do to their brutal MO. Comparing selective embryo implantation to ethnic cleansing is completely dishonest.

    I disagree entirely. While the method is different, the end result is just as morally and ethically reprehensible.

    #2-4 No way, now how, absolutely not. Completely unethical and ought to be illegal. There is no difference, not to me, between selecting IVF embryos for gender (or disease) and abortion. It’s just an earlier stage of the same thing.

    I agree.

    Just because science, technology and medical advances may mean we can do things does not mean we

    should

    do them.

  36. a random John says:

    I had a post on some related but perhaps even stranger topics at Mormon Mentality a while back. It turns out that there is a Mormon Transhumanist Association that goes deep into these topics.

  37. I am incredulous that people would think that there would not have to be some pretty incredible genetic changes to the whole ecosystem for the millenium to be as described in the scriptures. Lions that eat grass? Snakes that don’t bite?

    Whether these genetic changes include human hair color or eye color is rather mute, since those are so easily changed now via dye and colored contacts. I think the real question is one of expense or work, since I doubt most would be willing or able to afford the cost of such trivial changes.

    If all disease is to be eradicated during the millenium, that implies genetic problems as well. I would have been very happy to have had my severely myopic vision corrected before birth, though would that have been cheaper than getting laser surgery?

  38. This is a off-topic, but I just noticed that the Ensign article Mark Brown referred in post #22 contains an unfortunate (and certainly unintentional) pun.

    In the article, Elder Holland describes a conversation he had with a gay member. Holland gave the young man some words of reassurance,and wrote that after that the the young man “sat up a little straighter.”

  39. On the question of whether it is wrong to choose embryos based on genetic disposition, or not wrong. How am I to know? As far as I know, God has not revealed anything on this, nor have I felt a need to put the effort into asking for myself, since it isn’t an issue I am having to deal with in my own life. So, I am left to my own prejudices and bias, hoping I get it right.

    I believe that since God knows all, all my good and bad choices still fit into the plan. So, if at some point there are children born after genetic manipulation, that too will fit into the plan.

    So, my bias is that if given the option I would personally opt for embryonic selection for serious diseases, but everything else I would be happy leaving up to the limits of chance between the options of me and my spouse.

    I would like to see more advancement in genetic engineering. I see it as being the next logical step of the medical sciences.

  40. Not sure if I am going to sound out of tune here, but I keep thinking about Barry Bonds, Floyd Landis, and pro wrestling in general. Isn’t that a lower tech example of trying to do a similar thing? (Note: In my opinion, the ideal headline for when Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s record would have been a 3″ asterisk).

    The concept of selecting embryos for certain characteristics feels wrong to me, while I mostly support the concept of # 1 and # 5. Preventing disease and illness is commendable, and I have to look at # 5, given our current view (or lack of one) as to when the spirit enters the fetus, as also a means of helping to correct problems that are already there. Part of my charm, I hope, is that I don’t look like Brad Pitt. :)

    2 Ne Chapter 2 keeps popping into my head, about the struggle of opposition in all things. Not that I celebrate birth defects, but part of the plan is overcoming obstacles. This is pretty foggy ground here, Sam.

  41. Adam Greenwood says:

    I’m opposed to creating multiple embryonic persons and destroying the ones that don’t meet certain criteria. But I don’t think my reason for thinking this is peculiarly Mormon. I think Mormonism is fairly neutral on the subject.

    When it comes to some hypothetical gene modification, where you’re able to customize your child without killing, I just don’t know what to think. On the one hand, trials and suffering are clearly a very important part of our mortal existence. On the other hand, trying to overcome and even avoid those trials is also an important part of our mortal existence. Deliberately choosing trials seems wrong in many ways.

    My gut instinct is
    –to accept, with qualms, gene modifications that put kids at a physical baseline level who would otherwise be below it (i.e., everything from eliminating birth defects to correcting for bad eyesight);
    –to be torn about gene modifications that put kids at a mental/neurophysical baseline level (i.e., stuff like correcting for homosexuality, autism, and so on)
    –to reject cosmetic gene modification or above-average enhancement modification.

  42. Kevinf, #40: 2 Ne Chapter 2 keeps popping into my head, about the struggle of opposition in all things. Not that I celebrate birth defects, but part of the plan is overcoming obstacles.

    The reduction of birth defects and genetic disorders will not result in a lack of obstacles in our lives. There are an infinite number of things we can encounter in this world that can be obstacles to us. If anything, it will push the front of obstacles that we deal with higher, so that we can confront more meaningful or more drastic obstacles. What would people be capable of if they spent less time worrying about their blood sugar levels, or whether their hearts would fail?

    Perhaps we would become more lazy. But the same is in many cases the result of improvements in agriculture, or architecture, or transportation. I certainly don’t spend as much time working as my ancestors did farming or hunting. One important thing, in my mind, is that the more we perfect our bodies, the more choice we have with what we choose to do and accomplish, which is ultimately what the War in Heaven was all about.

    Regarding the fears that genetic manipulation of our unborn children will lead to a homogenization of the appearances of our children: this is a fear for me as well. In other discussions on other fora, and in personal conversations, this fear has come up as well, so it is obvious that many people value diversity. This is important: People value diversity. As long as people value diversity there will be diversity.

    As a friend pointed out to me, you can use the online game “Second Life” as a study of what happens to appearances when people have a large amount of control over them. Aside from the few “stock” avatars I have encountered in that game, I don’t think I have seen a single person that looked just like another. I think that is significant considering that because communication in the game lacks expressive things like body language or voice or body contact, and all of their subtleties, I would expect appearance to be even more important to people’s opinions of one another in the game.

  43. Adam Greenwood says:

    People value diversity. As long as people value diversity there will be diversity.

    Not so fast. Oh, maybe superficial things like hair color or eye color or something. But where diversity requires taking risks with the kid, thos won’t happen. But given the choice everyone will make their kid an alpha even if a world with gammas and such is better. Though at this point in our knowledge of genetic manipulation, its still too early to say whether there will be obviously better genes for most things or whether there may not be difficult tradeoffs of various mental, behavioral, and physical traits. If the latter then you probably will end up with diversity, though not because of a preference for diversity per se.