The Search for Harmony
Edited by Gene A. Sessions and Craig J. Oberg
The New Biology and Mormon Theology
James L. Farmer, William S. Bradshaw, and F. Brent Johnson
[p.17]Exegetes as willing and capable as early Mormon apostle and intellectual Orson Pratt, who combined empirical and theological insights in sermons and pamphlets, have all but disappeared from the Mormon scene. His successors have retained the enthusiastic optimism of early Mormonism, but they have not replaced the empirical beliefs of the nineteenth century with more correct information which is available to us now. One can only wish that the discoveries of modern science had been available to Pratt and his contemporaries, for some of the discoveries open up new possibilities for theological discussion. The new biology has given us insights into the nature of life that bring into question many of the easy assumptions that were made about the nature of the soul (body and spirit). Recent developments raise interesting ethical and theological issues. In this essay we outline some of these without presuming to propose definitive answers.
Apostle Pratt believed that the spirits of human beings were created before the earth was formed, and that these spirits had the same dimensions and appearance as individual physical human bodies. It is now possible in laboratory experiments to remove cells from a human being and keep them alive indefinitely—long after the donor has died. Organs can be transplanted into another human being, where they function as part of the new body. Finally it is [p.18]possible to keep a human body “alive” long after the brain is dead. Conversely there are organisms which begin life as single, independent cells, which at a certain time crawl together and form a new organism with specialized body parts and a new form of behavior. One wonders where the spirit is in these examples. Do new spirits inhabit the cultured cells? Does a “general” spirit quicken lower life forms?
It is also possible to fuse two or more mouse embryos to produce a single mouse (a chimera) with three, four, or more parents. As pointless as such a creation sounds, it has great practicality for the study of biological processes. It is almost certainly possible to create human chimeras. If the spirit is present from the moment of conception or from very early embryonic development, how many spirits are housed in a chimera? Closely related to this question is the phenomenon of identical twinning. Identical twins begin as a single embryo which at some point in development splits into two. At what point are two spirits present?
Identical twins are clones. Another type of clone can be formed by removing a nucleus from an individual and implanting it into an enucleated egg. After the egg has developed into a many-celled embryo, several of the nuclei from the embryo can again be transferred to other enucleated eggs. These eggs develop into adults which are genetically identical to the original nucleus donor. This procedure proved to be valuable to stock breeders. If it can be applied to cattle, it can also be applied to humans. If human cloning is ever accomplished, what role will the spirit play—and at what stage of development?
The test tube baby is a reality. Ripe eggs in the ovary of infertile women are removed surgically and then fertilized by the husband’s sperm. One or more healthy embryos are reimplanted into the woman’s uterus. From this point on the pregnancy is not unusual. The unused embryos may be discarded or frozen. Are the discarded embryos human souls? What is the status of a frozen embryo? Mormons have a plethora of opinions but no clear doctrine on this point.
External fertilization offers several other new possibilities. Women have borne children without being pregnant, surrogate mothers having nurtured the embryos. It is possible that two women [p.19]could have a child, since it seems possible to use one egg to fertilize another egg to produce an apparently healthy embryo. A woman who was totally incapable of producing eggs could bear children produced by external fertilization of a donated egg by her husband’s sperm and the implantation of the embryo into her uterus. This last procedure is much like artificial insemination by a donor, a procedure accepted by the LDS church but not encouraged.
Stock breeders are perfecting techniques to allow them to maintain sperm, eggs, and embryo banks. Thus a mating which produces superior stock could be repeated thousands of times, with the embryos being implanted into surrogate mothers. If perfected, these techniques would allow humans to “custom order” their children from human embryo banks. For instance, a couple who wanted a superior athlete as their progeny could order an embryo produced from the sperm of a professional basketball player and the egg of a professional tennis player. The sex of the child could be controlled by discarding the embryos of the unwanted sex.
There do not seem to be any great technical obstacles to these procedures. The LDS church does not seem to be inordinately concerned with biological parentage, judging from its encouragement of adoption and its tolerance of artificial insemination. Perhaps then the crucial question would revolve around the fate of unused embryos.
The emotionally charged issue of abortion requires some comment. Spontaneous abortion is common in humans. Somewhere between 20 percent and well over half of all conceptions end in spontaneous abortion. Most of these happen in the first days or weeks of pregnancy, usually escaping the notice of physicians and even of the pregnant woman. When aborted fetuses are examined, a high percentage are found to be genetically defective. Thus abortion appears to be nature’s way of eliminating most seriously defective fetuses. If one were to assume that every embryo is a human soul, the simplest conclusion would be that many (perhaps most) of our brothers and sisters never experience mortality in a meaningful way. There are more complicated assumptions—for instance, the nineteenth-century Mormon view that the spirit of the aborted fetus is reassigned to another body. The common belief that mothers will be allowed to raise a baby to adulthood after the resurrection should the [p.20]child die early in this life is a variation on this theme. Scripture does not allow us to identify any of these assumptions as doctrine.
Amniocentesis is often (incorrectly) identified with abortion. This procedure, in which fluid and cells are removed from the amniotic sac for examination, can be used to determine whether or not a fetus is mature enough to survive outside the womb. It also allows the diagnosis and treatment in the womb of certain disorders such as methylmalonic acidemia and blood-type incompatibilities, conditions which are often lethal to the untreated fetus. Additionally it is possible to determine whether a high-risk fetus has a particular genetic disorder. These procedures allow couples who are known to carry defective genes or chromosomes and older women to have children without fear. These high-risk parents often forgo having children altogether if such procedures are not available. Although there is still some risk of other birth defects, the overall risk is greatly reduced.
The ethical problem associated with clinical abortion of defective fetuses is fairly obvious. At one extreme are those who consider abortion synonymous with murder. Perhaps at the other extreme are those who believe that all considerations of abortion are private matters which are not the legitimate concern of society. The position of the LDS church is less clear. Although abortions are clearly forbidden in most cases, they are permitted under exceptional circumstances when the health of the mother is threatened or following rape. Abortion of defective fetuses has not been explicitly approved or disapproved, and it can be argued that clinical abortion is an extension of spontaneous abortion when defective fetuses are involved.
Recent discoveries raise other questions about the spirit-body relationship. At least two mental illnesses—manic-depressive syndrome and schizophrenia—seem to be genetically controlled. The new science of sociobiology—which has shown to be at least as controversial as the ideas of Darwin and his successors—argues that altruistic behavior is also genetic. If it indeed is true that much of human behavior is genetically controlled and is responsive to chemical modification and perhaps genetic engineering, what role should be ascribed to the spirit in overcoming sin?
Recombinant-DNA experiments (gene splicing) allow the [p.21]transfer of genes from any organism into bacteria. It is very likely that soon we will be able to place genes from any source into any organism, including human beings. This would allow the insertion of “good” genes in place of “bad” genes in some cases. Few people would argue that such gene therapy is unacceptable. However, if it should prove possible to alter behavior or some other socially sensitive trait, the impact on our ideas about the spirit-body relationship could be profound.
Some people believe that the moment of death is divinely determined. If this is so, why is death routinely interfered with by the use of antibiotics, surgery, and prayer? If the hour of death is determined, is it sinful to intervene or is it commendable because it demonstrates our love? A related issue is the phenomenon of faith healing. Physicians who are not necessarily religious use the techniques of psychosomatic medicine to achieve “faith” healings which are at least outwardly similar to those we see in the church. What is the relationship between the spirit and the body in these situations?
Many of these discoveries and techniques have worked together to create a paradoxical attitude in many people. On the one hand, there are awe and admiration for the feats of science. On the other hand, there are suspicion and fear that science is tampering with things that ought not to be interfered with. The resulting anxiety is sometimes relieved by a general feeling that “God would not let that happen.” Perhaps there is a Murphy’s Law of history: anything that can be used for evil will be. However, it seems that the appropriate response to a potential for evil is to seek to do good rather than attempt to set limits on science. Although the new biology may alter the way in which Mormons think about some ethical problems, it will not fundamentally change the need to live by faith in a world not fully comprehendable. The Lord may have placed very few constraints on us in our search for knowledge and understanding. Science moves inevitably toward synthesis of living things, as it has already achieved the ability to alter species. It is reassuring to know that Mormon theology offers the chance for eternal progression, not only in this life but in the life to come. As we discover more and more about the nature of God’s universe, we are given the opportunity to use that knowledge to do good works.