Why Bioethics Matters in Biotechnology

by David Dyer, Ph.D.

The last five years have witnessed amazing acceleration of innovation in biotechnology. CRISPR will lead to precision gene editing that could vastly improve food crop yields and provide cures to cancer. Lightning-fast gene sequencing will enable early detection of cancer from a simple blood test. High-speed bulk data transfer allows the entire genomes of millions of people to be compared online in the search for cures to both common and rare diseases. Neuromorphic chips will accelerate the dawn of artificial intelligence, and smart prostheses will allow para- and quadriplegic patients to move, the deaf to hear, and the blind to see.

Discovery of synergies in applications that blur the boundaries of traditional science, technology, engineering, and mathematics will continue to fuel this exponential growth of innovation. In spite of this exuberant trend, it is important to remember that innovation and discovery often outpace the regulatory structures that ensure their best and most ethical use in society.

The bioethics field traditionally is interpreted as pertaining mainly to the medical interests of humans. It has dealt with five key issues: beneficence, non-maleficence, patient autonomy, social justice, and patient confidentiality. However, with the advent of nanotechnology and other technologies that allow inter-kingdom transfer of genetic material, a need exists to establish a broader interpretation. Theologian Brian Edgar1 notes that a more robust definition should comprise six key considerations: respect for the intrinsic value of all life, valuing human uniqueness, preserving organismal integrity, recognizing ecologic holism, minimizing future liability, and producing social benefit. These considerations, while not expected to provide all of the answers to ethical dilemmas faced by technological advancement, create a framework for productive discussion of the most important aspects of biotechnology.

As Christians, we must also acknowledge that we are made in the image of God2, and have the unique ability, of all created things, to have a relationship with our Creator. In thoughtfully considering the implications of having been thus created, we have the responsibility of honoring Him by not only valuing human life, but by valuing and caring for His creation as well. If we actively and consistently apply this principle to guide us in making decisions about the application of biotechnology, the benefits to ourselves and to our world will be tremendous.

  1. Edgar, B. 2009. Biotheology: Theology, Ethics and the New Biotechnologies. Christian Perspectives on Science and Technology. ISCAST Online Journal 2009.
  2. Genesis 1:26-27; 5:1-3; 9:5-6; 1 Corinthians 11:7; James 3:9