Miraculous births, then and now

Scripture:  Matthew 1: 18-25

We are just two days away from celebrating the birth of the Christ-child.  Today we take a break from following Luke’s account of the origin, birth, and early life of Jesus.

Matthew is the only other Gospel that mentions how Jesus came into this world, but his account is very brief.   Matthew tells us that Mary became pregnant through the Holy Spirit while she was engaged to Joseph but not yet married. Joseph wanted to call off the marriage, but an angel convinced him not to in a dream.  Joseph did not have marital relations with Mary till after the birth of her son, whom she named Jesus.  Matthew does not say anything about a journey to Bethlehem, or Mary giving birth in a stable.  He does not tell us about shepherds who were the first people to recognize Jesus as the Messiah.

Nana and Lulu, the first gene-edited babies

While we wait for the birth of Jesus tomorrow evening, I want to think about  two other babies whose births were somewhat miraculous. Almost a month ago, a Chinese scientist, Dr. He Jiankui, startled and shocked the scientific world.  He announced the birth of twin gene-edited girls, named Nana and Lulu.

Gene-editing is a very new technology.  Scientists only developed it in 2012.  It uses a technique known as CRISPR/Cas9 (usually pronounced ‘crisper’).  CRISPR lets scientists ‘edit’ sequences of DNA, the genetic code of life.  ‘Edit’ means ‘cut-and-paste’, like you do with a word-processor.  CRISPR makes it easy (at least for molecular biologists!) to swap out a piece of the genetic code of an organism and replace it with something different.

Many laboratories round the world use CRISPR technology experimentally. But so far there has been a ban on using it to change the genetic code of unborn people.  Too little is known about possible side effects.  Most scientists also think that Dr. He’s experiment was unethical because the edited genes will be passed on to Nana’s and Lulu’s children.

What other scientists think about what Dr. He did

Dr. He claims that he altered the DNA of a fetus from a couple with an HIV-positive father. The idea was to protect the babies from contracting HIV-AIDS later in life.   Nana got two copies of the edited gene. She would be expected to have complete protection against HIV later in life. Lulu, by contrast, got only one copy of the edited gene. She may still be susceptible to HIV.

The announcement scandalized the scientific world.  Here is one comment. “[The work is a] premature, inexplicable, and possibly reckless intervention that may threaten the development of future applications of genome editing.” But in the hyper-competitive world of modern science, Dr. He may have decided that it was better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.

In the future, genome editing may allow scientists to eradicate genetic conditions like Huntington’s disease or Downs Syndrome.  A person who was facing certain death in their 40’s from Huntington’s disease would likely find it a blessing to be able to have children who would never face that fate.  But that does not justify what Dr. He did.

Besides the eradication of genetically inherited diseases, gene editing might also be used less ethically. It could be used to create of “designer babies” by ‘tweaking’ their DNA to promote characteristics desired by parents – intelligence, for example.

What do non-scientists think about gene-editing?

A 2016 survey by the US Pew Center found that just about half thought it that was morally acceptable to eradicate genetic diseases.  But religious people voted nearly 3:1 against.  They argued that we should not ‘play God.’ That opinion was particularly strong among traditional Christians.  They asserted that God created human beings in [his] own image, and that life begins at conception.

‘Playing God’

The argument about ‘playing God’ comes up with almost every new technology. Yet opinions often change as the new technologies become more familiar.  These days most people, including most Christians, do not oppose techniques such as blood transfusions, organ donations, and in vitro fertilization.

The argument about playing God goes right back to the earliest writings in the Judeo-Christian canon.  God threw the mythical first humans out of Paradise because they ate the fruit of the tree of good and evil. As written in Genesis 3: 22, God said, “See, the man has become like one of us [gods] knowing good and evil …” The same argument appears in the story of the Tower of Babel.  With just one language, humanity might accrue god-like powers. So (Genesis 11: 6-8) the Lord said, “They are one people and one language … Now nothing they propose to do will be impossible … Let us go down and confuse their language … and scatter them …”

How to think about the ‘Fall of Adam’ in Genesis Chapter 3

God created humanity intelligent and curious. It was inevitable that human beings would eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Otherwise we would be puppets.  God would hold the strings of what we could and couldn’t do. Knowledge of the difference between good and evil is the basis of our free will.  It allows us to choose between moral and immoral decisions. It is part of who we are. The idea that sin is the ‘stain of Adam’ which passes down the generations is a Western Christian construct.  It damages and degrades people by making them feel irredeemably sinful and unworthy.  Judaism and Orthodox (Eastern) Christianity understand the Fall differently.

Looking ahead

Now that the ‘red line’ has been crossed, it is inevitable that scientists will use CRISPR or related technologies to edit DNA. Some variants such as eradication of disease may become widely accepted.  But it will first be necessary to check to avoid undesirable side effects. Designer babies may prove to be less acceptable.  Maybe they will be condemned as GMOs or called Franken-babies.

Tomorrow we will celebrate the miraculous birth of Jesus the Christ. We believe as Christians that his birth changed the world. Last month, we learned about a very different kind of miraculous birth.  The births of Nana and Lulu also have the potential to change the world.  Let us pray that this new fruit of the knowledge tree of good and evil will be used wisely.