Group Seeks to Help Churches Address Bioethics Issues

May 16, 2003 12:09 PM EDT

WASHINGTON – A working group of the World Council of Churches plans to carry several recommendations on bioethics to the organization’s Central Committee in Geneva this summer.

The working group would like to see the WCC encourage attention to "upstream questions," said Martin Robra, the council executive who works with the bioethics issue. Robra spoke at the end of the working group’s May 10-13 meeting, hosted by the United Methodist Board of Church and Society. The United Methodist Church is a member and major supporter of the council.

Upstream questions are not concerned with what to do about cloning or embryonic stem cell research, Robra explained. Those are "midstream questions," and they tend to dominate most of churches’ discussions on genetics, he said. Rather, the working group seeks a discussion of "What has brought us here and what did we learn?" he said.

"What is the specific contribution that has to come from churches?" he asked.

The working group hopes the WCC and its member churches will focus on mapping the debate rather than doing the scientific exploration of the topics, he said. The Central Committee will meet Aug. 25-Sept. 2.

"What is the problem and who defines it?" he asked. Technological and sociological viewpoints vie for dominance in thinking about genetics, he observed. The technological approach tends to isolate a problem and go for a simple cure, but it ignores the context of the problem. Rarely does an effect have a single cause, he added.

Alternatives require seeing an issue in context, he declared.

Lopeti Senituli, a member of the working group and director of the Human Rights and Democracy Movement in Tonga, told of that South Pacific island nation’s experience a few years ago.

In 2000, an Australian firm named Autogen announced that it had signed an agreement with the Tongan minister of health to do a study of Tongans’ DNA. The focus was on type II diabetes, also known as adult-onset diabetes. At the time, 14 percent of the adult population had this form of diabetes.

"Basically all negotiation was done in secret," Senituli said. The company claimed it would build a research facility, provide research grants and share any product developed with the Tongan people free of charge.

The Tongan Council of Churches was the first group to ask why the issue had not been discussed in the parliament, he said. The council also received assistance from the WCC in finding a way to inform religious leaders of other Pacific nations about what was happening. The WCC funded a workshop in 2001 and brought together experts from Germany and the United States, theologians from the Pacific region and Tongan legal experts.

"As a result of that workshop, the Tongan National Council of Churches was ready to confront the Tongan government and Autogen on not only theological grounds but also in terms of scientific knowledge as to why the Autogen research proposal should not be accepted," Senituli recalled.

The council of churches believed that research should not include changes that would be impossible to monitor closely, he said. Since the research aimed to identify and alter the gene related to diabetes, any genetic modifications would affect future generations, he said.

People also felt revulsion for the idea that someone could own part of someone else’s body, he added. "The human person is God’s creation," and the Tongans could not accept a "commodification" of people or their parts, he said.

"We’re very concerned about the 14 percent of the Tongan population who suffer from diabetes," he said. The council was challenged for objecting to research that could lead to a cure, but the group responded that the "cure" was questionable and not certain.

"Type II diabetes is a lifestyle disease," Senituli asserted. The cure is preventive care involving changing dietary habits and increasing exercise, he said. He credited the ministry of health with doing a good job of education about this.

Autogen withdrew in light of the opposition it encountered.

In the case of Tonga, Robra noted, an Australian company was acting for the French subsidiary of Merck, a German pharmaceutical company. Such complex relationships, coupled with the opportunities to sell properties or go out of business, make legal and financial liability extremely difficult to pursue.

"Churches are confronted with a variety of justice issues," he remarked.

Some of the examples he cited include prenatal diagnostics that could be used for "negative selection" or aborting certain types of babies; discrimination resulting from people with disabilities being seen as defective or inferior beings; commodification of children; and exploitation of individuals and groups through patenting.

"It’s a question of the trajectory of our culture," Robra said. Is it a community of caring or an individual fix – "health as nurture versus health as product (a technological fix)?" Perhaps society overemphasizes the technological fix and forgets "health as nurture" in the context of a caring community, he theorized.

The working group’s recommendations for WCC member churches include establishing an ecumenical network by which the churches could share information on such issues as bio-piracy. Bio-piracy refers to an organization, such as a company, seeking an agreement with a group or individuals to use their cells, DNA or blood to develop a medicine or therapy that becomes a patent-protected product of that corporation, Robra said. The "donors" may get a little care or compensation, but the profit and ownership rests with a far removed corporate entity, he said.

"Our task is to somehow create an ecumenical platform to exchange information and respond," Robra said. Other recommendations developed by the group include continuing the working group, holding a bioethics seminar in 2004 and a larger conference the same year, and releasing a study document in 2005.

By Albert H. Lee
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