New Paper Helps Inform Pastors on Biotech Issues

A new policy paper on human biotechnologies is being issued by church leaders to help pastors answer their flocks' questions about advances in biotechnology, helping them become informed about a host of issues that may arise in the near future.

The policy paper issued by the National Council of Churches USA called “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made” was approved in November and will be studied by the group’s member churches for a year, according to a recent report by the NCC.

“Every day pastors have people coming to them saying, 'My doctor wants me to have a test,'" said Clare Chapman of New York, a United Methodist attorney and staff woman who chairs the committee that wrote the paper.

“‘Should I? Do I want to know whether I have the breast cancer gene? Do I want to know if the child I'm carrying has genetic anomalies?'

“Pastors are not very well equipped to answer those questions from a biological or religious point of view," she said.

The new paper was developed over a period of two years by a 15-member committee of bishops, pastors, theological professors, scientists and students from nine denominations. The topics relate to theological self-understanding, what the Church’s calling is in faith and science, and key challenges such as stem cell and embryonic stem cell research.

Although controversial topics such as stem cell research and cloning were covered, Dr. Christie Holland, a medical researcher and member of the United Methodist Church of Christ from Maryland says that the paper does not attempt to tell people what they should do in some instances.

"The biotechnologies policy is ambiguous in areas where tension exists," Holland said. "That was done very intentionally so the policy will be a useful guide for people rather than a polarizing document."

The NCC has not issued policies on topics such as abortion where there is no consensus among its 35 member churches, which include Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, historic African American and peace communions who vary widely in opinion.

Ethical controversies do exist. Embryonic stem cell research, which destroys the embryo, is considered akin to abortion for some.

"In my personal opinion, the use of embryos, whether surplus or not, to extract stem cells for this research is not the road we should be going down,” says the Rev. Demetrios Demopoulos of Santa Fe, N.M. The Greek Orthodox priest and former biologist is a member of the committee who wrote the policy.

“What kind of person can you imagine whose sole purpose for existence is to be used for spare parts?" he asked.

Chapman says that the two year struggle can better help churches understand the benefits and pitfalls of science.

"We don't have any absolute conclusions, but the struggle we went through helps us better understand the blessings of science as well as the potential dangers."

Although questions remain unresolved the group is calling for unambiguous regulations to oversee the work of researchers and practitioners.

“It is also intended to foster debate about how biotechnologies are to be used, especially in the United States where we are so far behind the discussion in Canada and around the world,” says Dr. Eileen Linder. “And it will serve as an essential resource for all who guide developments in the biotechnology field, and are affected by them."