Ross Bay: Sanctity of life pivotal subject as churches face advance of science

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I have had wide feedback from a news report after the announcement of my appointment as the next Dean of Auckland. I know that the dean's role, from time to time, requires talking about ethical issues that, sooner or later, we have to grapple with.

The reaction to a report on genetics, published in the Herald on Monday, has confirmed for me that we, as a society, need to be engaging in a debate about the ethical implications of the new reproductive technologies.

I'm not a scientist. I'm not a geneticist. I am, though, someone with an interest in people and, dare I say it, a care for people. During my 18 years as a priest, I've listened to many folk who have grappled with the deep personal things to do with life and death. And the angle I always start from is my belief that God is the Creator and the source of life.

The gift of life is a sacred thing. Our laws reflect that. They seek to protect human life above all else. That's why our society does not allow euthanasia. We believe there are limits to our right to interfere in the natural course of life.

Advances in reproductive technology make the issues less cut and dried and offer us the opportunity to intervene in life in quite different and complex ways. The galloping advances in reproductive science will be used to help couples who don't want to pass on hereditary diseases.

I recall a family, many of whose members have been afflicted, for generations, by stomach cancer - and some of whom have no choice but to have surgery to remove their stomachs. I don't think there would be many of us who would quibble if a breakthrough in gene therapy helps such a family to steer clear of such an inherited disease, or such drastic measures to stop its spread. But the issues are a good deal trickier than that.

The potential now exists to select human embryos with or without particular physical characteristics, such as the colour of a person's hair.

Earlier this year, I read about an English couple who wanted to avoid their child being born with red hair. One of them had suffered serious social stigma from growing up with red hair.

I think that if we are beginning to contemplate using reproductive technology for cosmetic purposes then we're on dangerous ground.

We're at risk of creating a society where certain physical characteristics are regarded as desirable while others are not.

I believe that God's vision is for a society where human life is valued for its own sake, not on the basis of appearance or ability.

That raises the question about people living with disabilities as a result of being born with a medical condition. Many people would see it as a good thing if we could use reproductive technologies to reduce or even prevent people being born with conditions that create severe physical handicaps.

But that, in turn, raises questions about our view of the place of disabled people within our communities.

The opportunity to help people avoid bearing disabled children could easily begin to imply that our society would be better off if they weren't there. That's a message which the disabled already receive in far too many ways. Again, I'm convinced that's not the vision of the kind of community which God calls us to build together.

The Maori voice needs to be heard on these things. The 2001 report of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification noted a widespread opposition among Maori to the mixing of genes across species.

I'm aware that one of the guiding principles for the work of the ethics committee on assisted reproductive technology is respect for the needs, values and beliefs of Maori.

We all need to grow in our understanding of that perspective on the application of technologies.

So for me there are important questions to be addressed around the sanctity of life, our right to interfere in the natural course of life and the vision of the kind of society that we are seeking to create.

These are deeply sensitive issues and I suspect that I'm not alone in having only a limited grasp of the potential of these technologies and the ethical implications of them.

Our society needs to discuss and debate the ethical parameters we need to set as these new technologies develop.

The church, with a particular concern for the sanctity of each life as one created by God, and as a result the value of every human, has a role to play in helping that discussion to take place.

* Ross Bay is Vicar of St Mark's Anglican Church in Remuera. He takes up the post of Dean of Holy Trinity Cathedral, Parnell, in November.

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