Science in Christian Perspective



Recombinant DNA: Round No. 2 - The Supreme Court Decision
John W. Haas, Jr.
Gordon College
Wenham, Massachusetts 01984

From: JASA 33 (September 1981):173-175

During the 1970's science finally lost any pretense of innocence. The fact that science and technology take place in a socially-loaded context is now undisputed by scientist and layman alike. As much as any other contemporary issue, the genetic engineering debate has opened wide its gates to admit historians, philosophers, theologians, lawyers, sociologists, politicians and the "general public".

The recombinant DNA (RDNA) discussions have been unique among the issues of recent years in that the implications of the research were widely discussed prior to any significant application of the techniques to specific systems. Some members of the scientific community have pointed with pride to an apparent growing sense of responsibility among scientists to police their activitiesin this case to publically air their concerns over the potential risks of RDNA research.1

Whether this sense of responsibility was all pervasive among those involved or whether a decision to halt the research would have been circumscribed is a moot questions. In any case, a decision to go ahead was made after extended discussion. Most (but not all) western nations have committees which advise appropriate government agencies and provide review and control over suggested research projects. In the US the RDNA Advisory Committee advises the NIH while in the UK the Genetic Manipulation Advisory Group establishes regulations.

Recombinant DNA technology involves chemical synthesis or isolation of one or more genes from an organism followed by insertion of this DNA into a piece of DNA of a host organism (recombined DNA) in such a form that the host organism will copy the inserted DNA. Once reproduced (cloned) in the host organism, the inserted DNA or its gene product (e.g., protein) may be isolated and purified from the host cell. The absence of any unique hazards stemming from over five years of research (that is, hazard over and above that of the organisms which are under investigation) has resulted in a relaxation (but not abandonment) of the original guidelines.

At this writing newspapers and scientific journals daily recount the advances being made. The popular press has become more positive than in the past in reporting the benefits of a particular discovery rather than creating sensational scenarios for potential hazards. Science recently devoted an entire issue to discuss current research.2 The explosive development of the field has resulted in an equally expanding vocabulary for which the editor of this issue provided a three page listing of "ad hoe" definitions. Late in 1980, Geneteck became the first RDNA based company to offer its stock publically.

MIT Historian Of Science, Charles Weiner early recognized that the RDNA issue offered a signal opportunity to view the ways in which science relates to modern society. With his MIT colleagues, he has amassed a unique collection of written and oral material on the subject. The oral-history approach has been found to be particularly effective in capturing those perceptions and details which are so often lost, destroyed, laundered or mythologized as time takes its toll on memories.

The Journal ASA published a cross-section of evangelical thought on the subject during the 1970's. A representative selection of the papers is found in 1980 reprint collection, Making Whole Persons-Ethical Issues in Biology and Medicine, edited by Robert L. Herrmann.3

The Supreme Court Decision

Although the intensity of the debate had diminished markedly by the end of the '80's a nagging problem lay unresolved. This situation was clarified (for the present) by the US Supreme Court which by the narrow vote of 5 to 4 ruled that "a live human-made organism is patentable."4 This June 17, 1980 finding opened the way for commercial development of the processes and techniques of the embroyonic genetic engineering industry. At that point well over 100 patent applications were backed up awaiting a definitive decision from the courts.

The signal case before the Supreme Court involved a 1972 patent application by A. M. Chakrabarty of General Electric for a process by which four different plasmids capable of degrading four major components in oil spills could be transferred and maintained stably in a single Pseudomonas bacterium which itself has no capacity for degrading oil.

His original application was rejected by a patent examiner and the Patent Office Board of Appeals on the ground that living things are not patentable. The court of Customs and Patent Appeals reversed this decision concluding that "the fact that microorganisms are alive is without legal significance for purposes of the patent law." The patent office then appealed the case to the Supreme Court.5

Both the majority and minority opinions agreed that neither the morality of genetic engineering or changes in the patent laws were involved. Rather, the issue hung on the interpretation of already existing patent law. The majority opinion followed a broad view of the patent laws which considers anything made by man to fall under their provence except for laws of nature, physical phenomena and abstract ideas. Keys to the discussion were the 1930 Plant Patent Act and the 1970 Plant Variety Protection Act that authorized patents for certain asexually and sexually reproduced plants but excluded bacteria from its protection. The majority held that the exclusion of bacteria in the specific plant case did not extend universally to cover all areas of "manufacture" or "composition" of matter related to living things.

The minority opinion felt that the patent protection act has limits and should not be routinely applied to "unanticipated inventions" -especially where the "composition sought to be patented uniquely implicates matters of public concern." They also expressed the reservation that the majority's attempts to explain away the specific exclusion of bacteria in the 1970 Act "ring hollow."

From a distance it appears that the Court was able to have things both ways. They could affirm the right under current law for patents of life forms yet in the same breath remind Congress that it alone has the power to "broaden or narrow" the patent law; e.g., the ultimate decisions concerning the scope of RDNA research rest with the Congress.

Reaction to the decisions was mixed both within and without the scientific community. Leaders representing the US Catholic Conference, the Synagogue Council of America and the National Council of Churches, jointly, sent a statement to President Carter and to the Presidents Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavorial Research. Morris Abram, commission chairman, has promised to "survey the field to find out whether genetic engineering should be the subject of a review." The Science report noted that the church groups seem content to press their concern in a deliberate way. None has budgeted funds to do additional research on the issue and the Catholic Conference has dropped the two staffers who were working on it.6

Ethical Concerns

The issues which initially brought RDNA before the public eye appear to have been resolved in the scientific community and general public to the point that the number of workers in the field and areas of research are rapidly expanding and their work is reported in the press in terms of public benefit rather than public risk. For British biochemist Robert Williamson: "one of the joys of this field is that there will be goodies for all." "For the first time in many years, the techniques are more powerful than the intellectual abilities of those using them" "The man or woman with a good, elegant and insightful idea in molecular biology should, during the next decade, find little problem in putting the idea into practice. "7

There are, however, individuals who continue to express various concerns about RDNA research. These concerns touch on three areas: (1) fundamental hazards associated with the work, (2) potential "dehumanization" of man from specific application of the techniques and, (3) related economic factors. In commenting on any of these questions one is faced with certain obsolescence due to the rapid expansion of knowledge in a field where research results have been discussed before congressional committees prior to publication in the scientific literature.

In seeking to minimize (or eliminate) the hazards associated with the research, biological and physical containment methods are employed. The former involve use of "fastidious" bacterial hosts which could not survive in natural environments and the use of extrachromosomal elements (called vectors) used to clone DNA which are able to grow only in highly specific hosts and unable to move from one host type to another. Physical containment involves use of portable hoods or negative pressure labs.

While containment procedures may adequately minimize hazards related to "in house" RDNA research, commercialization and application of RDNA products poses a more complex problem-the creation of a new type of biological pollution. What happens to GE's Pseudomonas once it has finished "eating oil?" The results of gene pollution may be of a different level of significance from those stemming from traditional pollutants in their effect on living material and man.

The extension of these genetic methods offers the potential for elimination of human genetic deficiencies (e.g., the approximately 1600 genetically oriented diseases, and for modifying man in terms of intelligence, strength, etc. Speculation about these possibilities and their extension to various Frankenstein-type creatures has provided fodder for the press. However, most workers in the field feel that applications in these directions lie far in the future and that basic scientific questions must be resolved before extending the work to man. Clearly, research guidelines in this area will be needed. However, the exact definition of the guidelines should come relatively close to the point the research begins in order to take advantage of the experience of the past.

The major economic issue raised in the patent case dealt with the concern that a few big companies would dominate the genetic business through the ability to finance crash research programs and buy up patents from individuals who were unable to develop their work commercially.8 The effect, in some eyes, would be a control on prices and a supply dependence that would not be in the public interest.

Another criticism follows the line that in producing various chemicals, hormones and drugs by cost effective genetically engineered microorganisms, we may become dependent on a very limited number of fragile biological entities for vital medicine and chemical necessities rather than the variety of current natural sources of these species. Society is thus seen as being forced into the hands of big business and high technology.

Concluding Comments

The scientific community can point with pride to the body of scientists involved in RDNA research for their willingness to discuss the hazards associated with their work in the initial stages and on a continuing basis. Going public before the fact seems preferable to heavy handed governmental control after the horse is let out of the barn.

Several lessons have been learned which have broad implications. Many scientists have been introduced to "realpolitik" and the media for the first time. Going public means that the general public which directly or indirectly funds our work may have other structural frameworks within which to evaluate progress than those employed by scientists. Within a democracy the community has the right to make the ultimate decisions even if wrong. The press is often concerned only with headline news and seldom has reporters who can understand and communicate scientific matters. The scientist must speak with extreme care recognizing that the potential to misread what is said is no less than that found for any other public figure.

Another lesson involves the point that prejudice or gut feelings are no substitute for hard facts. Some of the early concern in the RDNA case would have been minimized if the people involved had known more about infectious disease, epidemology and pathogenesis and hazard analysis, or talked to those who were experts in the field.

A further lesson concerns the need for a rapid, non-bureaucratic method for interfacing scientists, the public and government where contentious issues involving both safety and science policy are found.

The future will decide whether RDNA research lives up to its potential for biological understanding and industrial application as the latter has been encouraged by the recent Supreme Court decision.


1J. Dorman, New Scientist, 85, 86 (1980) 
209, 19 September 1980
R. L. Herrmann, Ed., Making Whole Persons: Ethical Issues in Biology and Medicine, American Scientific Affiliation, Elgin, 1980
Chemical and Engineering News, 58 (34), 10 (1980) 
5The United States Law Week, 48, 4717 (1980)

6 N. Wade, Science, 208, 31 (1980)
7R. Williamson, New Scientist, 84, 12 (1979)
8J. Rifkin, The Case Against Patenting Life, Amicus Curiae, #79-136, Supreme Court of the United States, October Term, 1979

Economic Causes of Soil Erosion in the United States

We youngsters pointed out that the tops of our rises were turning clay-brown, that bushels of black dirt washed into creeks and ditches every time it rained, and that in the non-Calvinist counties the tops of the rises were black. We were told we were arguing by results, not by principles. Why, God could replenish the black dirt overnight. The tops of the rises were God's business.

Our business was to farm on Biblical principles. Like, Let everything be done decently and in good order; that is keep weeds down, plant every square inch, do not waste crops, and be tidy. Contour farmers were unkingly because they were untidy. They could not be prophetic, could not explain from the Bible how to farm....

from Calvinist Farming by Sietze Buning

Since the middle 1970's, the Christian church has paid increasing attention to the problems of world poverty and hunger. This renewed concern has arisen from both a heightened appreciation of the biblical emphasis on the necessity of caring for the poor, and also from increased study devoted to a world food system that does not seem to be working as well as we would like it to. Part of the concern for world hunger has focussed on the problem of soil erosion and declining soil fertility in the United States. Agricultural practice in the U.S. seems to promote soil erosion, and it is obvious that we cannot expect indefinitely to maintain or increase food production in this country under those circumstances. It is estimated that "more than one-third of the cropland in the U.S. suffers soil losses in excess of the amount believed consistent with maintenance of soil productivity over the long run." (Crosson and Frederick, p. 181) One Christian observer has stated:

(I)t is becoming increasingly evident that agribusiness is bringing about a situation in which soil fertility has reached its limits and is in fact declining. The high production yields of the past twenty to thirty years have been achieved to some extent at the expense of the natural soil fertility which was present. . . . A form of sterility is developing in this important area of food production which our society has come to take for granted. (Zylstra, p. 10)

Similar concerns have been expressed by Geiger, Freudenberger, and Bossi among others.