I’m currently taking an ethics class as part of my MDiv studies at Talbot, and the topic for this week is biotechnology and genetic therapy. Since I am a father (adoptive) to a daughter with Down Syndrome and an uncle (biological) to a nephew also with Down’s, the questions being raised in this topic are not just theoretical by very personal. Since the technology exists which can identify the gene responsible for Down Syndrome, then if a couple is tested and one is carrying that gene, should they be morally obligated to not procreate in order to prevent the conception of a child with Down’s? And the bigger question that follows logically
from that: Is Down Syndrome something that humans should be seeking to eradicate (like malaria or scarlet fever), or does its presence in society serve a larger purpose of God that humans should not be messing with?
To be clear, my question is NOT whether those living with Down Syndrome among us are somehow less than full persons or whether they are problems to be done away with–certainly not!! Those whom I am related to and know with Down’s are beautiful people who enrich the lives of all those around them. Rather, the question is whether medical science should be pursuing genetic testing and genetic engineering that could eventually lower or even eradicate future occurrences of Down Syndrome.
I do not have the definitive answers to those questions, and one blog post can only scratch the surface, but here are some of my initial thoughts and wrestling…
I believe in a God who is both sovereign and good, therefore I wholeheartedly agree with how Desiring God worded their theme statement for the conference on disability that they hosted in 2012: God’s Good Design in Disability. Disability (including Down’s) does not somehow fall outside of God’s sovereignty and intentionality, as if it were a cosmic mistake or oversight, rather it is part of His purposeful design. And disability does not somehow compromise God’s goodness–His mercy and kindness is displayed through all His works.
Therefore if I believe that Down Syndrome also fits within God’s sovereign purposes and good design, my gut response is that maybe He has good reason for allowing it to continue. As Christians, science (and medicine and genetic manipulation) is not our Savior, nor is our hope in this life here and now. As Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer writes in one of the textbooks for my ethics class, “If life’s fundamental problems can be reduced to (and solved by) science, then there is less need to trust in or pray to God. In the modern social imagination, even hope has become this-worldly: medicalization is nothing less than the secularization of salvation.” Sin is our most basic problem–not genetic anomalies like Down Syndrome–therefore salvation in Christ is our most basic need–not freedom from suffering or syndromes or sickness.
In a recent “Ask Pastor John” interview, John Piper dealt with a similar question of whether medicine (in that case, chemotherapy) impedes God’s good plan for our suffering. Piper’s answer (in part) was that the use of medicine is not in itself a sinful intervention; rather it is how we think about that medical science that could be a problem (i.e. is it our savior?), and how it relates to God and to faith and to love for one another.
So while I certainly understand (from first-hand experience!) the difficulty of caring for someone with Down Syndrome and the limits that come with that extra chromosome, I would be very reluctant to say that we should mess with genetics in order to eradicate all future possibilities of Down’s. While there may be some who disagree with me in this, I think there are many who would join me in saying that society would not necessarily be “better off” without the existence of Down’s, but in fact that God does have a good design in allowing it to continue.