Designer babies

October 28, 2014

Some of you may have seen the 1997 movie ‘Gattaca’, which portrays a futuristic society where children can be ‘tailored’ to their parents’ specifications. The height (want a basketballer?), eye colour (just like dad?), or whatever other characteristics will help junior on his way. The geneticist in the film suggests “You want to give your child the best possible start. Believe me, we have enough imperfections built in already. The child doesn't need any additional burdens. Keep in mind this child is still you, simply the best of you. You could conceive naturally a thousand times and never get such a result.”

Of course, this is science fiction, but the idea of genetic superiority is alive and well in IVF clinics. We cannot select ‘in’ the desired genetic traits, but we can select them ‘out’. Family history of cystic fibrosis? No problem, modern science can ensure that none of your IVF offspring will carry the gene. It sounds like a wonderful new cure. It isn’t.

Routine genetic screening?

Genetic screening of embryos is common in IVF treatment and may soon become routine. Screening embryos is done by a method called Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD). PGD is particularly recommended for couples with a known family history of genetic disease or those who have had recurrent miscarriages. It involves removing one or two cells from an embryo just a few days old and examining them under the microscope to determine their genetic make-up. A recent development called Comparative Genomic Hybridisation (CGH) allows for rapid testing of all 24 chromosomes in the embryo so that the results are known before an embryo is transferred to the uterus. An enormous number of genetic and chromosomal abnormalities can now be detected, as well as characteristics such as the gender of the embryo. This development has improved IVF success rates and allowed parents an unprecedented amount of control over reproduction.

Of course we would all agree that wanting to have healthy children is a good and normal desire.

Asking complex ethical questions

But PGD also raises ethical questions. Questions that are harder to ask when we recognize the goodness of the goal that is pursued, but nonetheless important as we look to the future of society.

What usually isn’t mentioned in the blurb recommending this intervention is the way by which the birth rate of babies carrying defective genes is reduced. It is by making sure none of the affected embryos are given a chance to develop. After all embryos are screened, only the embryos with the desired traits are transferred to a uterus. The rest are discarded. When I mentioned this technique to other parents at my children’s school the reaction was immediate—great! who doesn’t want to give their child the best chance in life? No thought was given to the embryonic waste. The lack of recognition for the humanity of human embryos is so endemic in our society that this method is sometimes recommended for parents who want to avoid abortion of an affected fetus screened after normal conception.

But there are other issues. This technology doesn’t come cheap. IVF itself costs around $15,000 a try and PGD adds another $10,000-$15,000 on top of that. Are we moving towards a time when good health is the ultimate luxury item? Because it is not just childhood diseases that are screened out with PGD. We now can, and do, screen for diseases that may not appear until adulthood, such as breast cancer. Now, if a child is born now and the breast cancer does not appear for another 50 years, that is time enough for significant improvement in breast cancer therapy. Maybe even discovery of a cure. And looking at my own friends who have developed cancer in their 50s, I would hesitate to say that the disease-free decades were not worthwhile. But now we are discarding these embryos too.

So who decided what we can screen for? Who decides what is normal and what is a disease? Currently it seems that it’s a free-for-all. There are now documented cases of deaf parents requesting a deaf child so their offspring can enjoy what they see as the rich culture of the non-hearing community. I don’t deny their sincerity. But we would usually consider deafness to be a handicap, wouldn’t we? We do our best when disability occurs, but deliberately choosing deafness? Is this what we want for future generations?

But personally the selection I have the most problem with is PGD for ‘family balancing’. This entails selection of the preferred gender of embryo and discarding all others, even if they are perfectly normal. So the parents can have one of each.

We can’t earn our value

Discarding an embryonic human because it does not have the characteristics desired by its parents is discriminatory and not in accord with how the Bible instructs us to treat one who is made in the image of God. Inherent in the devaluing of imperfect nascent humans is the idea that physical perfection makes one more valuable. But in Biblical terms, our value is not based on our characteristics or capabilities. It lies in the God in whose image we are made. We can never earn our value. But that is what is implied by PGD.

How will selecting ‘out’ the imperfect specimens affect our tolerance of the physically handicapped in our community? We are essentially telling them that we think it would have been better if they had never been born. It is ironic that this eugenic drive to allow only perfectly normal babies to be born sits alongside the fact that more people are disabled after birth than before.

Tyranny of parental choice and control

Which highlights what is at the center of PGD. Parental choice and control. PGD is about what the parents want. We are increasingly used to being in control, and for some people it seems reasonable to extend this control over their offspring, as if we could know what is best for us as a family. But how can we know what is in the best interests of a child who may live until 2114? Who could have predicted the current value of being able to touch-type in a child born in fifty years ago? And we have the testimony of many disabled members of our community who find their lives rich and rewarding. Who are we kidding? Personally I have no desire to play God. But it may behove us to start a discussion with those in our community who do.

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24