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James T. BretzkeMay 06, 2000
Unprecedented Choices: Religious Ethics at the Frontiers of Genetic Scienceby Audrey R. ChapmanFortress Press. 261 p $22 (paper)

Agere sequitur esse (action follows being) is the traditional statement of the metaphysical and moral principle that grounds a person’s moral duties and the possibilities in one’s very being. Any moral "ought" is founded on the "is," the given reality, of the individual. But in the brave new world ushered in by the incredible recent developments in genetic science, can we actually describe with necessary moral certitude just what constitutes a human’s being? If so, where is this being located? In a totally unembodied "spiritual" soul that lies beyond scientific analysis, no matter how sophisticated? Or is a more careful look at the corporeal entity essential for any concrete moral analysis of what should, and should not, be done in utilizing current genetic breakthroughsnot to mention choosing the pursuit of future research? Do our genes and DNA possess a metaphysical significance? Should theologians and whole faith communities intervene in these areas that may lie beyond their scientific expertise?

To this last question Audrey Chapman, an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ and director of the Program of Dialogue, Science, and Religion at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, based in Washington, D.C., offers a compelling and resounding yes as she deals with the preceding questions and many others like them.

In articulating her response, Chapman outlines two primary tasks: first, to look at how religious thinkers and communities have already responded to the challenges and opportunities of the "genetics revolution" and second, and more important, to provide a framework and five evaluative criteria for a public theology in which the religious communities can make their distinctive contribution to society’s efforts to confront the issues arising from genetic science. To be effective, she argues, public theology must 1) proceed from a clear religious rationale; 2) be timely and explain why a specific issue is addressed; 3) be well reasoned, informed and understandable to persons both inside and outside of the particular religious community; 4) exhibit knowledge of relevant research and data related to the subject it is addressing; and 5) be clear both about what is being advocated as well as what is being critiqued.

Genetics bring new aspects to old issues, such as therapeutic abortion. (Chapman questions if genetic testing might imply that a pregnancy is only tentative, dependent on a favorable genetic outlook for the fetus.) Other issues emerging from the genetic developments are completely new, such as "whether to create transgenetic forms of life and release them into ecosystems, the appropriateness of cloning human beings, whether we have the wisdom to alter the human genome." The book’s six chapters begin by outlining a framework for theological reflection, and then move to a broader consideration of genetics from a religious perspective before turning to the specific issues of cloning and gene patents. The penultimate chapter outlines a theological reflection on genetics and human nature, and the book concludes with a realistic appraisal of both the contributions and limitations of religious ethics to issues raised by genetic science.

Unlike secular philosophers and scientists, Chapman argues that theologians and religiously grounded ethicists can draw on a considerable tradition of reflection about the nature of the person, human relationships and social responsibilities. These perspectives are crucial in order to counter the radical individualism that is so prevalent in modern society and that has become increasingly commodity-driven. In contrast to secular philosophy, most religious traditions see human beings as basically social and interdependent. They are also deeply committed to the common good and offer an interpretation of human life and destiny in broader contexts of meaning and purpose.

Despite the book’s immense merit, it does show some weaknesses. It seems that really two books uneasily compete for the reader’s attention: one, an exhaustive bibliographical account of recent faith-based reflection on genetic science; and another that strives to step back and look at the bigger picture in order to provide a framework for developing a public theology adequate to grapple with the concrete challenges posed by ongoing scientific developments. The result is that neither book emerges complete. At times the bibliographic section tends to fall into quotable quotes and theological sound-bites, while the reflective framework is underdeveloped and gets a bit lost in the myriad voices chronicled.

Oddly, Chapman seems most uneasy with how to bring the tradition of religious perspectives, as tradition, into the discussion. She excels at analyzing and summarizing the positions of individual ethicists but seems less sure of how to handle official church documents. often these appear as just one more statement on a given issuewithout sufficient attention to, or critique of, the theological underpinnings of the various positions taken or the relative authoritative weight these texts are meant to have in their respective faith communities. (Perhaps this is a typical Catholic concern, but it is one that extends to other denominations as well.) Despite these relatively minor shortcomings, the book is well worth reading, not only by theologians, ethicists and scientists, but by members of all the faith-based communities. That’s a broad readership indeed. It is Chapman’s hope that faith-based communities will play a critical role at shaping how genetic developments will be broadly applied in our society today and in the future.

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