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Trade Paperback
252 pages
Jul 2004
InterVarsity Press

Human Dignity in the Biotech Century

by Charles W. Colson & N. de S Camaron

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt



In August of 2001 something truly remarkable took place. President George W. Bush made his first televised broadcast to the American people. Its subject? Embryo research—specifically, whether the federal government should fund embryonic stem cell research that involved the destruction of the embryo. While the events of 9/11 were soon to overshadow this, as they did every other element in the nation’s politics, we need to remember that the dominant issue of the first year of the Bush presidency was bioethics. What had been obscure, academic debates had spilled over into the center of our national life. The pundits who had declared this to be “the biotech century” had very rapidly been proved right.

In fact, since the announcement in February of 1997 that Dolly the sheep had been cloned, biotechnology has generated political and media controversy as never before. Our new abilities to manipulate the building blocks of human life have sparked alarm and hope in equal proportions. On the one hand, biotech industry advocates have hyped their hopes of what can be accomplished in the cure of dreadful diseases—if they are given a free hand with human embryos, cloned in vast numbers. On the other hand, the specter of scientists and their corporate backers pursuing ghoulish projects that manipulate and destroy human life has led millions of Americans to be deeply skeptical of those claims. They have sought constraints on biotechnology to ensure that experiments are ethical and scientists accountable.

Christians have been playing key roles in these debates, since we are acutely aware of the dignity of human life—made in the image of God—and the limitless capacity of fallen men and women to do evil. We also believe that God has given us “dominion” over creation, to rule it as his stewards; so while we are aware of its dangers, we are not anti-technology. The pro-life movement soon recognized that cloning was as much an assault on human dignity as was abortion itself. And, in ways that some have found surprising, prochoice advocates have worked side by side with the pro-life movement, equally alarmed by the prospect of science that is out of control, seeking to turn human life into a commodity.

The biotechnology agenda is already long, and it is getting longer. Beyond cloning and embryo research lies the sinister question of “germline” genetic engineering—making inheritable changes in human genes. The patenting of genes and other human tissue has already begun to turn human nature into property. The misuse of genetic information will enable insurers and employers to exercise the ultimate form of discrimination. Meanwhile, advances in nanotechnology and cybernetics threaten to “enhance” and one day perhaps rival or replace human nature itself—in what some thinkers are already calling “transhumanism.”

How are Christians to prepare themselves and engage, under God, in what promises to be a vast struggle in the coming decades? At one level, we are already uniquely prepared, because in a culture that has lost its bearings on that it means to be human, we have not lost ours. To be human is to be made in God’s image; and if we find that amazing truth hard to grasp, we are reminded of it by God himself—since in his son he took human form as Jesus of Nazareth, a fellow member of our species, Homo sapiens. So as believers our worldview gives us the key to the uniqueness and dignity of human nature.

Yet at another level, we are woefully unprepared. Decades of “pietistic” withdrawal have left the church little engaged in public questions, disinterested in science and technology, and wide open to the secular values that constantly creep into the thinking of Christian men and women. We face an enormous educational task: to build on Christian commitment to the pro-life cause a broad understanding of the biotech challenge and the kind of cultural and political response that will make a difference for Jesus Christ. If ever there was need and opportunity for Christians to shape culture, it is now.

Here at the Wilberforce Forum we have taken several initiatives to help the church play its vital role. We developed the Council for Biotechnology Policy to bring together key leaders and thinkers. The essays in this volume are all by fellows or friends of the council. We are developing resources, including our “Playing God?” curriculum for adult Sunday school classes, an online bioethics certificate program, a website and our monthly Biotech Update e-mail newsletter. We have been active, in concert with others, in developing briefings for members of Congress and their staff on Capitol Hill. Many of these essays were conceived at a conference we convened in Washington, D.C., in February 2002 with participants from across the nation and also from the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The chapters that follow survey the emerging biotech agenda and draw on the expertise of individuals in the fields of theology, ethics, medicine, bioscience, law and public policy. Some chapters are more technical and intellectually demanding than others, although the writers assume little of their readers beyond a commitment to address the agenda. We explore both distinctively Christian arguments and strategies, and public arguments. As an appendix we include the text and key signatories of “The Sanctity of Life in a Brave New World: A Manifesto on Biotechnology and Human Dignity,” in which we set out a public argument that covers cloning and other major questions we confront.

We hope these chapters will inform you and encourage you to make the case for biotech that enhances, and does not subvert, the dignity of human beings, made in the image of God himself.

Charles W. Colson
Nigel M. de S. Cameron
The Wilberforce Forum
Council for Biotechnology Policy
Washington, D.C.



Can We Prevent the “Abolition of Man”?
C. S. Lewis’s Challenge to the Twenty-first Century


There has long been a simmering debate about the respective merits of the two most influential books about the future that were written during the twentieth century. They are both alike in one respect: they are dystopias, visions of a world that has gone profoundly wrong, warnings from the future to the present.

George Orwell’s 1984 sets out a vision of political oppression and control that foresees the triumph of technology in the service of totalitarianism: Big Brother is watching you. By contrast, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World offers a more subtle nightmare, in which technology and choice have combined to bring about a world where, as one commentator has written, pain and suffering have been almost entirely alleviated at the cost of everything that makes life worth living.

In the closing years of the twentieth century it became obvious whose vision was right. As totalitarianisms crumbled around the world, the biotech revolution set out on its exponentially growing path. We have reason to be grateful that Orwell seems to have been wrong. We have reason to be fearful that Huxley may have been right.

This is not business as usual for the human race. The global community confronts a defining opportunity to declare the primacy of human dignity in the development of biotechnology. Its extraordinary benefits are mingled with threats of equal proportion.

The closing years of the twentieth century demonstrated that Orwell’s totalitarian vision did not represent the human future. It lies in our hands at the start of the twenty-first to ensure that Huxley is also proved wrong.


Let us visit a laboratory in a gray building in London. A conveyer belt is moving from one side of the room to the other. On that conveyer belt are little glass jars, and in those glass jars are fertilized ova, and they are clattering back and forth on the conveyer as they go across the room. Those fertilized ova will break into ninety-six separate buds, each of those buds will mature into an embryo, and each one of those embryos will mature into a human being.

Interestingly enough, the people who are conducting this experiment have figured out how to genetically preprogram what each person created in that test tube will be. Some will be laborers, some will be members of Congress, some will be business leaders. Each is predestined—not by God, as those of us who are of the Reformed tradition believe, but by scientists and bureaucrats who make a genetic determination in the test tube based on the society’s needs. Human beings have become nothing more than a replaceable commodity.

The scene, of course, comes from Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World, published in 1931. And it may be the most prophetic writing of the twentieth century—even more prophetic than George Orwell’s 1984 —for we have seen in the new millennium the real potential for precisely the kind of society about which Huxley wrote.

The story of Brave New World is fascinating because of the parallels it offers to what is happening today in the biotechnology revolution. Brave New World is about implementing a utopian vision of the perfect society, brought about by biotechnology.

In the book all people are genetically preprogrammed to fit in and do particular jobs. They all take “soma,” a narcotic that brings about a mild state of euphoria. When someone feels any momentary depression or distress, he or she just pops another soma.

Brave New World prompted the late Neil Postman, a television critic and professor at New York University, to write his marvelous book Amusing Ourselves to Death. In his introduction, Postman points out that Huxley foresaw something that Orwell missed: Orwell wrote about the tyranny that resulted from totalitarian powers holding citizens in their grip. 1 Huxley foresaw a tyranny in which the people were lulled into passivity. The state in Huxley’s novel kept people amused and entertained and provided all the sex and all the drugs they wanted. Control was exercised through pleasure, not pain.

The book illustrates the biotech dream of fit bodies and happy minds. While the laboratories turn out better babies, the pharmacies turn out the solution to all emotional or spiritual problems. Clearly, it illustrates dangers we face today.


Biotechnology has, in a myriad of ways, been a huge blessing. I am grateful every day for the advances in medicine and medical technology that improve the quality and the length of our lives. My own friends and family have recovered from diseases or conditions that fifty years ago would have killed them. Human creativity and industry are wonderful gifts from God which have enabled us to make extraordinary discoveries that enhance and extend life for us all. I stand in awe of developments such as artificial joints, fetal surgery, artificial hearts and the medical successes from adult stem cell therapies. The growth of biotechnology has been, for the most part, a very positive development.

Christians should never be anti-science or anti-progress. Part of the creation mandate is to make life on Earth better, and biomedical advances do just that. In addition, the more science discovers about DNA, the more it reveals that we are the products of an “intelligent designer.” The structures and workings of genetics did not come about as the result of a chance collision of atoms in a primordial soup. Science shows that there is a lot more to it than that; and the more we learn, the better our apologetic defense of Christian truth becomes. So I am all for progress. But that does not mean we can disregard circumspection or neglect ethical discretion in such matters.

For not all the developments biotechnology has brought about are positive. Among those that are less than positive are embryonic stem cell research, fetal tissue research, cloning, genetic engineering, genetic discrimination and eugenics. Issues such as these are on the leading edge of biotechnology and on the leading edge of controversy.

It is important in the controversy to distinguish between biotechnology and bioethics. Biotechnology refers to scientific processes that enable us to develop new prescription drugs, to develop artificial heart valves, to break down cell structure, to be able to see the structure of DNA, and a host of other scientific and genetic feats that were unimaginable even a decade ago. It also includes technologies surrounding cloning, genetic engineering and embryonic stem cell research.

Bioethics deals with right conduct in biotechnology and this is really where Christians have a particular responsibility. What Huxley saw (and what C. S. Lewis also saw, from a very different perspective) is that we can never separate science from morality. While Christians should welcome biotechnology because it will bring about great advances in human progress, we need to insist that bioethics have equal stature with biotechnology. We need to be able to look at what is right and wrong in the conduct of science.

Western culture has been dominated over the past two hundred years or so by what I call the “technological imperative.” This says that if something can be done, it ought to be done. If scientists can invent something, they should invent it. So, for example, if we can clone human beings, we should. Those who hold to this call it progress.

Over the past few years, Dr. Panos Zavos, Dr. Severino Antinori and the Raelians have claimed that they have cloned human embryos and implanted them in women’s wombs despite protests from many quarters. Dr. Zavos told a congressional committee that live-birth cloning will take place, and he is probably right. 2 If it can be done, someone is sure to do it.

The great need, however, is a consideration of whether we should do it. Ethics, you see, deals with the “ought” factor: that is, it asserts what we ought to do and ought not to do. Science, by contrast, deals with the “is” factor: it describes what is. Thus science tells us what can be done, not what ought to be done. This is the province of moral and ethical judgment—of bioethics—and Christians must be prepared to bring this particular dimension to the debate. We should listen to science when it tells us what can be done, but technology must always be tempered by the ethics of what ought to be done.

That raises a difficult, contemporary problem. How can we have meaningful ethics in a relativistic era? Relativism is the prevailing spirit of our age. People today tend to believe that there is no absolute truth. It is taken as obvious that truth is whatever you say it is and that absolute truth is unknowable. Therefore, one person’s formulation of truth is as good as anyone else’s. When we try to establish what we ought to do, we soon discover that relativistic ethics are an oxymoron. The best approach secular thinking can aspire to today is a utilitarian one. Outcomes alone dictate what we ought and ought not do.

The leading bioethicist in America today—or at least the most famous bioethicist in America—is Princeton professor Peter Singer. Singer, a utilitarian, is eminently logical in his thinking. He rigorously follows his basic presuppositions about life and concludes, for example, that infanticide is perfectly permissible within a person’s first two years of life. 3 Since he believes that life is the result of natural processes and his reasoning is logical, his conclusion makes sense. It makes all the difference, in his view, whether a baby is normal or whether a baby is deformed or suffers from Down syndrome, autism or some other abnormality, however slight. 4 (I have a grandson who is autistic, so I’m especially alert to this.) If we believe a child is not going to live a worthwhile life, then, he reasons, why not just get rid of it? We can dispose of any children if we believe they are imperfect or are going to be a burden on society or even merely a burden on their caretakers.

Singer is a utilitarian who wants to minimize suffering in the world by providing the greatest good for the greatest number. And so he also argues that each of us should live on only $30,000 a year. That way there would be enough money for everybody. 5 He believes that there is no point in keeping disabled old people alive because the elderly are no longer productive or useful to society. 6 “The greatest good for the greatest number” encourages us to get rid of old people and other “useless eaters,” as John Stuart Mill famously called them.

In an example of tragic-comic irony, actor Christopher Reeve made the same utilitarian argument before a congressional committee.7 As a result of a riding accident, Reeve is a quadriplegic and is unable even to breathe without mechanical assistance. He believes that biotech holds the key to his walking again, and he has been a vocal proponent of human cloning and destructive embryonic stem cell research. At the hearing, Reeve repeated that adage that the purpose of government is to provide the greatest good for the greatest number. And everyone nodded agreement.

The irony, of course, is that Reeve should rejoice that the purpose of government is not the greatest good for the greatest number, for if it were, Reeve would not be testifying before Congress. His own utilitarian calculus would have turned its deadly cost benefit analysis on him, and no one would have spent the time, money and effort required to keep him alive. He would have been left to die after his accident. We care for Reeve and those like him—and oppose cloning and embryonic stem cell research—because the government’s responsibility is not the “greatest good for the greatest number” but rather the protection of the weak from the strong who would exploit them.

Christians believe in what God tells us by divine revelation, and we believe that God’s truth can be empirically validated. But you can’t empirically validate Singer’s worldview. In fact, he himself can’t live with it. Not long ago he announced that bestiality is morally permissible even though he doesn’t engage in it.8 (At least, I hope he doesn’t.) In spite of his arguments about the elderly, he spends his own money to keep his mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease, in extended care.9 The implications of his worldview are so monstrous that he can’t live with their logical conclusions, and neither can Reeve. Their views don’t hold up because they are not true. And yet Singer’s books and speeches are still taken very seriously in academic circles, where he’s viewed as a top bioethicist, and Reeve keeps getting invited back to Congress to hype destructive embryonic research based on reasoning that would deny him his own life.

The moral issue at stake in the biotech debate is no less than what it means to be human. Does being human mean that we are made in the image of God, have dominion over creation and are valuable simply because we exist? Or is being human something that other humans decide for us based on some utilitarian standard? Is our status as human beings given to us at some point in our development, and can it be taken away at another based on some criteria of ability or potential ability?

From a biblical point of view, human value and dignity do not depend on what we can do or have the potential to do. A human embryo does not have value and dignity simply because he or she will someday be able to perform to a certain standard and, thus, reflect the image of God. Likewise, the aged or infirmed don’t lose their value and dignity even if they have permanently lost the ability to perform to a standard. Being human gives us value and dignity and entitles us to protection and life because to be human is to be created in the image of God. This applies throughout our journey through life.

Research cloning creates an embryonic human being—someone who bears the image of God— in order for it to be “disaggregated” for medical purposes. That is a polite way of saying that it is pulled to pieces for its stem cells. The embryo is killed for the benefit of a sick person who is different from the embryo only because he or she is older. It is barbaric and has been correctly characterized as “high-tech cannibalism.”

What has been called “reproductive” cloning (in truth, all cloning is reproductive) presents a slightly different twist on the same theme of human value and dignity. Cloning in order to bring about live births turns a child into a product. God intended that all children should be begotten in the loving embrace of a husband and a wife and be received—as he or she is—as a gift. In stark contrast, a cloned child is manufactured in a sterile laboratory. The clone is made for a fee and is, like all the things we manufacture, subject to quality control. It turns children into mere commodities, stripping them of value and dignity. As President George W. Bush said in a speech on April 10, 2002,

    Our children are gifts to be loved and protected, not products to be designed and manufactured. Allowing cloning would be taking a significant step toward a society in which human beings are grown for spare body parts, and children are engineered to custom specifications; and that is not acceptable.10

Biotech research must be governed by more than a utilitarian standard of morality. It is not acceptable to our culture as a whole, and it is certainly not acceptable to serious Christians, to make decisions based on the technological imperative. Bioethical reasoning based on the meaning and value of human beings must precede and guide biotechnology.

The debates over today’s biotech revolution and the public policy that must be put into place bring us back to foundational truth. This is no easy matter since there is big money invested in this revolution and potential fortunes to be made. In light of the enormous amount of money behind biotech, we have to insist that we are not against scientific progress. We simply want that progress tied to moral truth. Without that connection, we will end up creating the ultimate Brave New World, where we can decide ahead of time what a person is going to be and where human dignity, human freedom and human rights are things of the past.


Aldous Huxley, it should be pointed out, was the grandson of T. H. Huxley, who was known as “Darwin’s bulldog.” Like Charles Darwin, THuxley was an evolutionist. He was also involved in the eugenics fads of that day, attempting to speed evolution along according to a human design. Margaret Sanger came under the same influences and began Planned Parenthood to reduce the population of what she considered inferior classes.11 Planned Parenthood was based on eugenic philosophy and practice. The misguided thinking, laws and policies of the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century are the precursors to much of biotechnology today, which is, at its core, a modern eugenics movement—an attempt to build the better human, the ultimate utopian project.

C. S. Lewis, a professor of medieval literature, was a true prophet in the sense that he saw then what others could not. In his great book The Abolition of Man, Lewis critiqued what he saw as the triumph of science over humanity, warning that this would bring about “the abolition of man,” turning him into a project and product:

    If any one age really attains by eugenics and scientific education the power to make its descendents what it pleases, all men who live after it are the patients of that power. Man’s conquest of nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men (in the present that is) over billions upon billions of men born later. Human nature would be the last part of nature to surrender to man, but then the battle would be won.12

Lewis spoke about what he called the Tao. By that he meant the idea of a transcendent body of truth, an understanding of right and wrong shared by all people in all cultures throughout history. He saw the abandonment of the Tao as the opening through which the “Conditioners,” as he called them, would come and decide how we should live. The biotech revolution demands that we ask this pivotal question: Will our future be decided by the Conditioners or by each of us as individuals? The answer to this is the one on which the future of humanity succeeds or fails. Will we experience the abolition of humanity through the potions and technology of biotech’s Conditioners?

Lewis went on to say that the Conditioners “have sacrificed their own share in traditional humanity in order to devote themselves to the task of deciding what ‘Humanity’ shall henceforth become.”13 “Good” and “bad” applied to them are mere words without content, for it is from them that the content of these words is from now on to be derived. The Conditioners have placed themselves above humanity as the oligarchic rulers of humanity. Lewis concluded that “man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man.”14 Lewis prophesied that if you got rid of the Tao—the transcendent truth, which I would call Judeo-Christian law and what others call “natural revelation”—there would be no restraints. Eventually the Conditioners, through the progress of science, would decide what humanity should be. And that is precisely the issue before us today. It is precisely why biotechnology policy must be met by sound bioethics, which is made possible only through Christian reflection.

Christians must bring that influence to bear in public policy in order to keep moral truth attached to scientific progress. The whole idea of producing humans for body parts or for stem cells may sound appealing to some, but it will lead inevitably to the abolition of humankind and the ultimate end of Western civilization as we know it.

The stakes really are that large. Over the next ten years I believe we will see all this played out in public debates, and Christians, who represent the moral conscience of this nation, need to be a bulwark against what would otherwise be an incredibly appealing sentimental argument. Many will cry, “Save my uncle from his Parkinson’s disease. All we need is a little more embryonic stem cell research to do it.” We must weep for such a man and his family and show deep compassion for the sick and suffering, but if we allow sentiment to overthrow truth or natural law—the Tao—then the decisions about biotechnology will soon be overwhelmed by public passions. And those public passions are, for the most part, ill-informed and deaf to the weightier philosophical and ethical issues biotechnology is forcing us to consider.

In our public policy, we have got to say yes to science, yes to every ethical means to curing someone’s Parkinson’s. Nonetheless, we must insist on policy which insures that the advances of science will always be tied to moral truth.


The road ahead is littered with additional traps for the human race. Cloning and embryonic stem cell research offer us a bridge into a series of life-or-death issues that pro-life Christians have hardly started to consider.

Gene patenting. It is already possible to patent human genes, to “own” a part of our human nature.

Genetic discrimination. People are people, and one should not face discrimination because of one’s genes anymore than one’s skin color. Yet if businesses can get genetic information about customers or prospective employees, discrimination will surely follow. Health and life insurance rates and availability, for example, could be tied to genetic predisposition to a disease or condition. Opportunities to abuse such information are vast unless we ensure that it remains private and that employment and insurance decisions are not made on genetic grounds. This is ultimately a form of eugenics.

Germline intervention. Just as the eugenics of the early twentieth century was an attempt to “improve” the human race by selective breeding, germline intervention refers to genetic engineering that does the same thing. An individual’s genes are altered so as to produce inheritable changes. This might include anything from resistance to inherited diseases, to hair color, to being taller, smarter and faster. Germline intervention may be the most critical issue that will ever confront the human race, because once we can make changes that will be passed on to subsequent generations, we will have changed the human species itself. Some thinkers are now talking about “post-human” nature as we “take control” of our identity by taking control of our genetics.

Nanotechnology and cybernetics. Already a tremendous amount of money is being spent researching new technologies that will mix human beings and machines.


Just as most Christians were asleep thirty years ago when Roe v. Wade was decided and abortion on demand became legal, we are again in danger of sleeping through another moral catastrophe. With the latest advances in biotechnology, not only are we taking upon ourselves the god-like prerogative of ending human life as we choose (as we have done with abortion and euthanasia), but we are attempting to appropriate the god-like prerogative of making human life as we choose. The most profound question we are being asked today is which is the more grievous sin against God—to take life created in his image or to make life created in man’s image?

We need to get a grip on biotechnology and the bioethical considerations that go along with it. It is time for people to get educated, to think about these profound moral questions that affect the future of the human race. Your reading this book is a good beginning. These essays are designed to give a good, basic education on how to approach the ethical questions being raised by the biotech advances.

If we make right choices here, if we refuse to throw off moral restraints, if we deny the postmodern dictum that there is no truth and if we insist that science keep its ventures and enterprises tied to moral truth, then we may avoid Lewis’s distressing vision. We may yet prevent the “abolition of man.”