Science in Christian Perspective



Repository for Germinal Choice. A Christian Option?

Jerry Albert     Donald and Valerie Mackey    D. Gareth Jones     Comments by Albert

From: JASA 33 (December 1981): 241-244.

Jerry Albert

"A unique facility has been brought into existence in San Marcos, California, for the purpose of increasing the number of offspring of the most creative scientists of our time. Donors of germinal material are limited to Nobel Laureates in science who are free of known impairment.

"The Repository for Germinal Choice functions in the same way as Artificial Insemination, Donor (A. I. D.) as commonly practiced except that, in accordance with the concept of Dr. Muller:

" 1). The Donors are unpaid and contribute solely out of willingness to increase the distribution of genes which helped to make them outstanding in their lifetime.

"2). The germinal donations (semen) are sealed in ampules and kept under liquid nitrogen (-1920C.) in a cryogenic vessel which is sheathed in lead and kept in a subterranean chamber. Donations to the Repository are thus preserved and protected from mutagenic radiation.

"3.) The Recipients are genetically selected by a medical panel. They are young women whose husbands are infertile but do not wish their wives to be denied motherhood. Recipients may choose from written descriptions of two or more donors the one whose characteristics they would most like to have in the father of their child. Thus it offers to qualified couples a new resource-the opportunity to choose the specific father of their child or children, and to do so from among the most creative scientists of our time. The great geneticist Hermann J. Muller often said that his concept of Repositories for Germinal Choice was "the most significant contribution of my life". He ranked this even ahead of the accomplishments for which he received a Nobel prize.

"It was Robert Graham's (Secretary, RGC) privilege to have joined with Dr. Muller in organizing the first Repository to carry out his concept and it is his privilege to carry it forward in his name.

"The chosen donations are shipped to Recipients, or their gynecologist, under liquid nitrogen to arrive at the appropriate time in her fertility cycle. The shipping Dewar will hold sperm in viable condition for about 10 days. There is no charge for this service except for expenses incidental to shipping. There is a deposit of $250 on the Dewar, which is refunded upon its return."

Response by Donald and Valerie MacKay

One's first gut reaction to a proposal of this sort is negative. It feels indecent. It seems to suggest that intelligence (of the kind that makes Nobel prizewinners) should be valued above other inheritable human characteristics. It reminds some of us older ones of Hitlerian talk of Herrenvolk ... But the question we are asked is whether, from a Christian perspective, such a program is ethical, This breaks down into two:

(1) Is A.I.D., in any form, ethical?

(2) If so, is it ethical to offer the recipient the kind of choice offered by this program?

1. Is A.LD. ethical?

A Christian's answer to this question depends largely on his understanding of what counts as adultery. Is it the physical insemination of a wife by another than her husband that matters, or is the sin of adultery essentially one of breach of faith? If the first, then any form of A.I.D. is adultery. If the second, then provided that the arrangement is desired and agreed by both husband and wife it can hardly be called adulterous. There may well be pragmatic objections on psychological or other grounds; but there would be no biblical basis for condemning the practice as unethical. Since in the Bible adultery is practically synonymous with marital unfaithfulness (being often used as a metaphor for unfaithfulness in general), we feel that the second interpretation accords better with the evidence than the first.

2. Is "germinal choice" ethical?

Even if fertilization of an ovum by A.I.D. is not in principle unethical, it might well still be argued that the introduction
of "germinal choice" violates the sanctity of the marital bond by per sonifying the donor as an intrusive "third party." As long as fer tilization can be carried through as a completely impersonal opera tion, like having an injection, all may be well and good. If however, we imagine a case at the opposite extreme, where the donor personally known to the recipient, it might be less obvious that harm would be done by the powerful emotional associations in volved. True, there are biblical precedents for the idea that a might "raise up seed to his brother" by insemminating the latter's widow; but if we want to argue on these lines there are also biblical precedents for polygamy! Our feeling is that A.I.D. from a known donor could hardly avoid doing unethical damage to the delicate fabric of a marital relationship.

We do not feel that this objection is removed if the recipient is only allowed a photograph or a written description of the donor.  What the would-be-parents may ethically want to know is the likely genetic make-up of their child. Only if information derived from knowledge of the donor was transformed into these terms (by some intermediate party) would we think it ethical to pass it on to them.

Christians of some traditions might be tempted to feel that to exercise "germinal choice" is somehow to to "usurp a divine prerogative." This however would surely be a misunderstanding. The degree of effective choice offered would be no greater (and probably much less) than that available before marriage to every girl who scans her suitors and wonders what kind of children they would sire. If God has revealed no objections in principle to A.I.D., we have no reason to suppose that he would begrudge us  whatever freedom of choice can be gained by intelligent use of ethically derived information.

In summary, although we doubt that Nobel prizewinners have much claim to superiority for the purpose, and there are obvious dangers in choosing a donor with a much higher I.Q. than the recipient's husband, we can see nothing unethical from a biblical standpoint in the idea of offering A. L D. from a sperm bank an well stocked and fully documented as responsible stewardship can make it.

Response by D. Gareth Jones

The elevated status according to scientists by the "Reposit for Germinal Choice" is symptomatic of the arbitrary elitism the whole endeavor. Creative scientists and their genes are b worshipped, rather than the God who brought both into existence.  Quite apart from the major question mark of the genetic value the whole enterprise we are confronted with the quasi-religious pomposity of the exercise.

This, in turn, is made possible only by a willingness to worship the impersonal. The promise to maintain complete anonymity' no virtue of medical ethics; rather, it is an integral facet of "impersonal" syndrome. In this, genes reign supreme and those possessing the genes are honored for the sake of the genes rather than for their own sakes. In this sad new world, there is no lo room for human beings in their wholeness and frailty; only for acceptable genes and approved characteristics.

Underlying the endeavours of Robert Graham is the post that biological solutions are the only acceptable ones mankind's future. All questions are reduced to biolo parameters, as human beings are motley amalgams of biological-and nothing else. This reductio ad absurdum is all-too common today, and here we have an example of it in all its starkness. Human beings are nothing without the right combination of genes, and the family unit is a hindrance if it obstructs the coming-together of appropriate genes. No longer is there any place in society for the weak and disadvantaged, for the ill and retarded; all that matters is biological perfection.

Of course, there is no such state as biological perfection; there is not even any assurance that these procedures will produce their desired goal. "Repository for Germinal Choice" is, almost without doubt, the aberrant fancy of misguided individuals. Nevertheless, it reflects far more numerous and much more subtle examples of biological reductionism in contemporary society.

Human beings are not just an assorted array of genes; they are people with choices, hopes, fiars, responsibilities, goals, and even defects. They have a dignity because of who they are in the sight of God. They are loved and cared for by Him, however many deleterious genes they possess. This is not to argue that medical science should not strive to eliminate bad genes, or help people cope with their expression. But it is to argue that people are people, not just an assembly of genes and their expression.

One wonders why, in these proposals, the wife's genes are acceptable but not the husband's. Where is the biological rationale in this? Probably there is none; it is just another aberration in a woefully aberrant enterprise. But it does call in question the scientific integrity of the exercise.

And then, there is the promise that exceptionally gifted individuals-if they were born by these proposals-will change mankind for the good. They may affect mankind, but it may be for evil. The idealism of the proposals again comes to the fore, revealing the humanistic incredulity of its base.

Comments by Jerry D. Albert

The response of the MacKays exactly and thoroughly describes my own position. They begin by identifying a negative gut reaction and initial feeling of indecency. But these and the side issue of super-racism through eugenics are brushed aside by plunging into ethical evaluations of artificial insemination, its relationship to adultery, and "germinal choice." Christian and biblical perspectives are considered and taken into account.

Although donor anonymity is important to the MacKays, Jones claims that "complete anonymity is no virtue of medical ethics." Both responses question the wisdom of valuing and choosing intelligence of Nobel Prize winners over other inheritable human characteristics. Jones, however, goes farther in charging that idolatry of these creative scientists and their genes is involved. He raises some interesting points, which may be summed up in the statement that humans are more than expressions of their genes. Jones is also critical of the humanistic idealism espoused by Graham, the spokesman of the Repository.

To correct a misconception in Jones' response: The recipient's (wife's) genes do have to be acceptable. "The recipients are genetically selected by a medical panel." The requirement is for the "recipient to be of superior health and intellect, to be under 35 years of age, and-preferably-to have a sterile husband who agrees to the process of insemination."