In God's eyes, every human person is irreducible and unrepeatable--the bearer of the divine image.
The year 1999 began with attempts to manipulate embryonic stem cells, capable of developing into every tissue and organ in the human body. The last century ended with increasing pressures to patent human genes, the segments of DNA that carry the code of human life.
Not surprisingly, the driving force behind these initiatives is economic: These new technologies promise virtually limitless profit to the burgeoning biotech industry, which provides most of the research funding. Although the emphasis is on the medical potential--building new organs to replace old and eliminating genetic anomalies--the marketplace will undoubtedly step in. There will be pressure to create "designer babies" with preselected characteristics, including, via the wizardry of cloning, another person's genetic makeup.
Where does the Orthodox Church stand on this issue, which involves manipulation of human life at its most basic level?
In 1998, the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America called for a moratorium on experimentation leading toward the cloning of human beings. As the human genome project nears completion, that call needs to be renewed and specified to cover all manipulation of human genetic material for commercial purposes that don't include acceptable therapies.
And legislation should definitely be enacted to prohibit human genetic patenting.
The church draws its stance from a vision of the human "person" built around scriptures and patristic teaching.
The Orthodox doctrine of the human person begins with the Genesis affirmation that every human being is created "in the image and likeness of God." However the term "image" is defined, it implies that people are not isolated but members of a community. And the primary and primordial community is that of the church.
The ultimate model for this community is God himself: the eternal life-in-communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
"Be perfect," Jesus instructs his followers, "as your heavenly Father is perfect." That perfection, in God's terms, is expressed as self-sacrificing love, offered as a free gift, particularly to his people.
In order for us to reflect God's perfection, we cannot avoid engaging in an ongoing struggle against the tendencies of our darker side, what the ascetic tradition calls the "passions."
Accordingly, many teachers of the faith make a distinction between "image" and "likeness." They define "likeness" as the goal of that struggle. Just as every human being is created in the divine "image," every one is called to assume the divine "likeness." The image refers to our nature. The likeness, on the other hand, constitutes the goal toward which each of us is called to strive.
That goal is described by the Fathers as "theosis," a Greek word meaning "deification." It means that our purpose is to emulate God's attributes such as justice, truth, beauty, and love.
One of Orthodoxy's main convictions is its understanding of the eternal value of humanity. However much it may stress the reality of sin, Orthodox Christianity also acknowledges that the chief aim of human existence is to glorify God.
What does this imply with regard to our original question concerning the manipulation and commercial exploitation of human genetic material?
Above all, it means that no manipulation of humanity is acceptable unless that manipulation is for strictly therapeutic purposes. This necessarily excludes experimentation using viable human embryos (who, in God's eyes, are bearers of the divine image and not merely "blobs of tissue"), just as it excludes the patenting of human genes for commercial ends.
Already physicians are complaining that certain recently developed diagnostic tests involving genes (for Alzheimer's disease, for example) are not available to them because patents on the procedures are held by private corporations. In America, we once expressed shock at the way Japanese companies "owned" their employees. The risk today is infinitely greater: that commercial interests will literally "own" us, insofar as they control our DNA.
This newly acquired knowledge of genetics, with its extraordinary potential for good or ill, must be kept in the public domain. Otherwise we face the risk of succumbing to a new and insidious form of slavery, in which our genetic heritage is literally owned by business and government.
People--created in God's image and called to progress toward the divine likeness--are irreducible and unrepeatable. Any attempt to reduce people to a reservoir of genetic components, or to reproduce us through cloning, is an offense--perhaps the ultimate offense--against human rights, human dignity, and human value.
The Very Reverend John Breck is a professor of biblical interpretation and ethics at the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris. This article is reprinted with permission of the author.