Science and Spirituality: Is Harmony Possible?

Week 9: The environment and bioethics:
does science or religion have the answers?

April 16, 1999

Loren and Deborah Haarsma


This is a brief introduction to these two issues. See the recommended books and websites for more on how Christians are responding in these areas.

The Environment

The problems:
1. Failing to live "sustainably": using up a resource, leaving nothing for future generations.
Ex. using up fossil fuels, soil erosion in formerly fertile areas, peat bog mining, depletion of water table by over-irrigation, destruction of wetlands and open space in suburban sprawl, deforestation, over- fishing, species extinction, accumulation of nuclear waste without a permanent storage area.
2. Pollution: damaging a resource by introducing toxins into the environment.
Ex. smog in cities, pollution of oceans, rivers, lakes, ozone depletion by chlorofluorocarbons, pesticides such as "estrogen mimickers," acid rain.
Ex. Global warming, with potential weather pattern changes, due in part to burning of fossil fuels.

Industrial growth in developing nations and overpopulation of the earth will compound these problems.

Information is confusing, sometimes conflicting: It is hard to determine the actual urgency in each of the above issues. It would be foolish to say we are not damaging our environment at all; it would also be foolish to say that the world will end tomorrow unless we do something drastic. Each issue lies somewhere on a spectrum of urgency, and not all issues are equally urgent.

Hunger: Current hunger in the world is not caused primarily by a shortage of food or overpopulation, but rather by economic disparities, distribution problems, and war. But in the long term, overpopulation and the destruction of farmable land will limit how many people can be fed by the planet. It would be impossible to feed the world's population a typical meat-intense Western diet with current farmland.

Economic issues: Changing our individual lifestyles (recycling, eating less meat, using less gasoline, etc.) will help, but it's not enough. Businesses and governments also need to change. The best solutions will not only be good for the environment, but will make economic sense for all involved.
--The "hidden costs" of future pollution clean-up could be better reflected in today's prices.
--Consumers and investors can favor "green" businesses and utilities.

Environmental solutions also have to make sense economically for developing countries and poor families. Before forcing them to change practices harmful to the environment, we must provide alternative farming techniques and technologies.

Worldviews matter in finding environmental solutions:
There are many and diverse groups that are pushing for better care of the environment, but to forge a public policy we need some unity of worldview to help us balance values against each other:

-- value of human life. vs. animal life
-- feeding the poor vs. destroying ecosystems
-- short term human comfort vs. long term impact on the world
-- economic growth vs. environmental stress
-- human population control methods
Many feel that the environment is related to spirituality, and propose ethical frameworks such as Ecofeminism (earth as Gaia, and our problems are due to patriarchal, technocratic society), New Age, Animal Rights (where "specieism" is as wrong as racism), and Deep Ecology (all plant, animal, and human life has equal intrinsic value, habitats have rights). See What are they saying about environmental ethics? by Pamela Smith (Paulist Press, 1997) for descriptions of a wide range of environmental worldviews.

The Christian perspective on the environment:
God has made us stewards (caretakers, managers) of the earth. That means we have different rights & responsibilities than other life on earth:

We do not own the earth; we are responsible to keep the earth in good condition for the Owner.
We are responsible to protect species diversity and complex ecosystems as God's artistic handiwork.
We are responsible to care for the poor and sick around the globe.
We may use the earth's resources to meet our own needs, in ways consistent with the above.

Unfortunately, the church historically has been ambivalent on these issues, due to:

Unwillingness to change traditional practices which seem inseparable from basic theological beliefs.
Disagreement with the worldviews of environmental groups.
Confusion about priorities. (Is the environment more important than missions and evangelism?)
Conservative Christians usually have conservative politics, which tend to be less pro-environment.

But, there are a large and growing number of Christians dedicated to the environment. They are working out the theological issues, educating the church, and studying the science. We recommend:
Books by Calvin B. DeWitt, such as Caring for Creation (Baker, 1998)
Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies: Christian organization with semester programs for students, and other programs

Bioethics

Scientific issues at the beginning of life:
Conception is not a single, instant event. Several hours pass between germ cell fusion and DNA fusion.
Implantation occurs several days after conception.
Twinning (formation of genetically identical twins) can occur over several days, from shortly after conception until after implantation.
In vitro fertilization allows conception and development through the blastomere and blastocyst stages to happens for several days in vitro. Embryo can then be implanted surgically.
Cloning produces a new individual with identical DNA.

Embryo splitting: The embryo is split at the blastomere stage (2, 4 or 8 undifferentiated cells) and each half develops normally.
Embryo cloning: Nuclear DNA is taken from an embryo, typically from the inner cell mass of a blastocyst. This is implanted into an egg cell after the egg cell's nuclear DNA has been extracted, and the developmental program is re-started.
Adult cloning: Nuclear DNA is taken from an adult's cell. This was only recently done successfully with mammals (the sheep Dolly).
Genetic screening of embryos is done by removing one or two (undifferentiated) cells from the pre-embryo in the blastomere stage, and examining their DNA.
Embryonic stem cells are cells which cannot form a whole new embryo, but do have the potential to turn into almost any tissue. Learning to isolate, grow and control these cells could have great medical benefits.

Theological issues at the beginning of life:
Care for the weak and helpless: This principle is clear and often repeated in scriptures. But it does beg the question of personhood. Should we consider a zygote or five-day embryo a person?

--The scientific answer to that question is ambiguous. (Conception isn't instantaneous. An estimated 30-70% of embryos don't implant successfully. Twinning occurs well after conception.) Science tells us how development happens, but doesn't directly answer the question of "personhood."
--There are no clear "proof texts" in scripture regarding when "personhood" begins. (Compare Psalm 139:13 with Psalm 139:15 and Hebrews 7:9-10.)
For these reasons, not all Christians agree on the issue of personhood at the beginning of life. However, it seems wise to err on the side of caution.
It may soon become possible to manipulate, before conception, the DNA controlling the embryonic developmental program. This technique could be used to produce embryos which would cease normal development after a certain (early) stage. The borderline between zygotes and stem cells will be blurred. In order to address such techniques, we need principles which don't exclusively rely on the arguments of "potential personhood."
Intrinsic value: Society does not have consensus that zygotes or early embryos should be given the full protection of persons, but it is closer to consensus that they do at least have some (high) intrinsic value.
What is the most caring thing we can do? This is a question we should ask ourselves in every situation. Here are some ideas about how this question might apply at the beginning of life:
--Zygotes and pre-embryos on a normal developmental trajectory should be allowed to continue if at all possible. They should not be produced for research purposes, nor should the be produced with deliberately "sabotaged" developmental programs.
--Research on stem cells (which cannot become full embryos) seems permissible and useful, so long as it is not directed towards turning stem cells into embryos.
There will still be "borderline" cases where it is difficult to resolve what is best. General principles, however good and useful, will leave some specific situations without a clear yes/no answer.

Ethical issues at the beginning of life:
In vitro fertilization: Usually, extra embryos are produced that are later discarded rather than implanted. For some people, this is sufficient reason not to use the procedure. For others, it isn't sufficient reason.
Human cloning: If a human is cloned, the clone must be treated as a fully human individual person. Would it even be possible for parents of a cloned child to treat them appropriately, as a unique individual? Would a clone, simply by finding out that he/she was a clone, have their sense of individuality damaged? Those questions lead many people to call for a complete ban on human cloning.
Genetic screening of embryos:
--If you can detect and correct fatal genetic defects at the blastomere stage, this raises few ethical questions.
--If you can only detect defects, how severe of a defect warrants killing the blastomere?
--If you can correct defects in one set of nuclei but not the whole blastomere, you could use "embryo cloning" techniques to re-start development in a donated egg. How severe of a defect would warrant this?
Stem cell research:
--Research on existing stem cell lines seems ethical and useful.
--New human embryos shouldn't be produced just to do stem cell research.
--We should avoid blurring the distinction between human stem cells and human zygotic cells.
Since there is great potential for "borderline cases" here, techniques for producing, culturing and manipulating stem cells should first be perfected in animals. Once a technique is perfected in primates, so that we know how the technique would work on human cells, we could evaluate its ethical status.

--Science gives us information on the chemical/biological processes at the beginning of life, but doesn't answer the question of when "personhood" begins.
--Theological principles teach that all humans are valuable ("made in God's image") and that the weak and helpless should be protected. This gives us reason to be cautious and place a high intrinsic value on early life.
--The value of scientific learning and new medical treatments to heal the sick give us reasons to do research, but not at the expense of violating principles to protect life.

Other bioethics issues we didn't have time to discuss: The pros and cons of plant and animal cloning. Control of medical and genetic information on human individuals. Making expensive medical research and technologies available to the poor. Persons in persistent vegetative states. Euthanasia.

There is a growing number of books, articles, and websites by Christians and non-Christians with useful information and insights on these and other bioethics topics.
Recommended book: The Outer Limits of Life, by John Medina, (Oliver-Nelson, Nashville , 1991)
Recommended website: The Christian Medical & Dental Society


Copyright 1999 Loren and Deborah Haarsma


Return to outline of the series: "Science and Spirituality: Is Harmony Possible?"
lhaarsma@calvin.edu, Last updated April 18, 1999. Some links updated 2001 June 13