Human Rice

An article in Friday’s Washington Post has an article with the headline USDA Backs Production of Rice With Human Genes.

The Agriculture Department has given a preliminary green light for the first commercial production of a food crop engineered to contain human genes, reigniting fears that biomedically potent substances in high-tech plants could escape and turn up in other foods.

The plan, confirmed yesterday by the California biotechnology company leading the effort, calls for large-scale cultivation in Kansas of rice that produces human immune system proteins in its seeds.

The proteins are to be extracted for use as an anti-diarrhea medicine and might be added to health foods such as yogurt and granola bars.

This is not the first time human genes have been inserted into other species. For instance, by inserting the human gene for insulin into a bacteria, we can mass produce human insulin. On the surface, this seems like a very good thing. Before these genetically modified bacteria were created, human insulin was difficult and expensive to produce in sufficient quantities.

Gene Edward Veith argues that this is utilitarian thinking. Utilitarianism is the ethical system in which right and wrong is determined based on whether the outcome of an ethical decision is desirable or not. In utilitarianism, there is no outside determination of right or wrong, what we Christians would call ultimate truth. Veith instead turns to natural law, and concludes that this transfer of human DNA to a rice plant is unnatural, innately wrong, and downright evil. Here’s part of Veith’s argument, from his excellent Cranach blog:

Well, going by “natural law,” it doesn’t matter if it is safe or not! Even if it is perfectly safe and cures diarrhea, human rice is UNNATURAL. The reason why most people rightly recoil from such a thought is that mingling species like this is intrinsically perverse. It is INNATELY wrong.

“Unnatural” in this theological sense does not mean going against nature the way we do every day when we heat our houses in the cold or take medicine to fight off sickness. Those are legitimate examples of our human dominion over nature. No, blending the genetic code of humanity with the genetic code of a plant is a VIOLATION of nature.

Such genetic engineering–and, I would add, reproductive engineering–is where Christians must draw the line. Perhaps on these issues they could make common cause with environmentalists.

And, remember, it’s not a question of whether such products are harmful or whether they will do a world of good. That is to think like a utilitarian, whose judgment about right or wrong rejects absolutes in favor of whether or not something is “useful.” That thinking, which many Christians have bought into, goes squarely against Biblical truth.

I am convinced that utilitarianism is a terrible way to do ethics. This type of ethical thinking can to abortion, infanticide, genocide, sexual immorality, and anything else sinful human beings can justify as being beneficial for themselves or their society.

However, I find the “natural law” argument to be rather vague. We fly airplanes by application of the laws of nature. I’m communicating through the internet by application of the laws of nature. Likewise, we cut and splice DNA through an application of the laws of nature. DNA is not a magic substance; it is a chemical compound that obeys the laws of chemistry and physics. Where is the line between what is natural and what is unnatural?

Placing a human gene in a bacteria or rice plant doesn’t mean that we have made that organism human, or even partly human. Humans have about 25,000 genes. Rice plants have even more. The genetically modified rice plant is still a rice plant, and produces rice seeds, not something else. Whether from a biological or theological perspective, an organism is much more than just the sum of its parts.

I’ve viewed the technology behind transgenic organisms (a.k.a. genetically modified organisms) as somewhat like nuclear technology. Nuclear technology, for instance, is neither good nor evil. Good uses of nuclear technology are abundant: radiation therapy for cancer, use of radioisotopes to understand natural systems, power supply for probes to Pluto. Human beings can use these technologies for good, and we can use them for great evil.

What are the ethical principles we need for technologies such as what some call “human rice?” The ethical issues here are not as clear cut, in my mind, as they are in controversies such as embryonic stem cell research or human cloning, where embryos are discarded or destroyed. Clearly evil things can be done with the transformation of living organisms with human genes (or the transformation of humans with non-human genes). How do we decide where the line is?

Grace and Peace

Update 6 March 2007: Veith has a follow-up blog entry on Natural Law.

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