Book Review — Claiming Power over Life: Religion and Biotechnology Policy

January-February 2003

Claiming Power over Life: Religion and Biotechnology Policy
By Mark J. Hanson, ed.
Georgetown University Press, Washington, DC
2001, 192 pp., $44.95 (hardcover)


The eight essays constituting this book emerged from a three-year project on “Religion and Biotechnology” sponsored by the Hastings Center. Four of the essays—those by Mark J. Hanson, the book’s editor; John H. Evans; Audrey R. Chapman; and Elliott N. Dorff—have appeared elsewhere but were revised or adapted for this volume. The other four—by Courtney Campbell, B. Andrew Lustig, Ronald Cole-Turner, and Gerald P. McKenny—are published here for the first time.*

* Elliott N. Dorff and Courtney Campbell were among the contributors to a January-February 2002 Health Progress special section on technology and ethics.

The subject of these essays is a difficult one, both internally and externally. The topic of religion and biotechnology is internally difficult for religious organizations because biotechnological breakthroughs have in recent years occurred too quickly for thorough analysis by such groups. Religious groups have, moreover, the general problem of determining how to use the resources of their particular traditions—formed at a time when even rudimentary genetics was unknown—to deal with such exotic topics as stem cell research, xenotransplantation, and gene therapy. This is not to argue that religious traditions have no resources or have not in fact responded. They have responded; many have done so very helpfully. Rather, the point is that this engagement is particularly difficult because of the highly specialized nature of new topics in genetics.

Religion and biotechnology is also a difficult subject externally because the current cultural climate hesitates to allow religion into public policy debates. This hesitance is partly a remnant of the distaste left by the posturing of the so-called Moral Majority and partly also a rejection of the premise that religion has anything positive to contribute to such debates.

Fortunately for those who want to engage the religious traditions in a dialogue with current genetics and public policy, we have this book. The eight essays—which focus on a variety of topics, ranging from religion and public policy, on one hand, to considerations of nature and the intricacies of patenting laws, on the other—are models of how to engage in such a dialogue. The general lesson of the essays is that we should do this knowledgably, critically, constructively, and competently. All of the essays are characterized by an excellent degree of comprehension of the scientific or policy issues at stake. They also manifest a deep grounding in particular religious traditions or perspectives. If you are interested in a book that gives an excellent introduction to this area, this is the one to start with. On the other hand, several of the essays are not for the faint of heart. Both Evans’s and Hanson’s articles on patenting go into significant detail in their analysis and show clearly both the religious and legal issues that are at stake.

The essay by Chapman on religious traditions and biotechnology is an excellent overview that provides a wonderful presentation of a variety of traditions and what they have said about biotechnology and genetics. This is an excellent first article for individuals unfamiliar with this material. The same is true of the essay by Dorff. Although he focuses mainly on providing an overview of Jewish bioethics, he does highlight several of the themes on genetics that are discussed by others.

The articles by Campbell and Lustig directly engage the issues of religion and biotechnology and provide an excellent engagement with many of the current biases against the presence of religion in the public arena. Not polemics, these essays are carefully considered arguments about the positive contribution that religion can make to public policy debates.

Cole-Turner and McKenny each engage religious traditions and perspectives to challenge religion to take a deeper look at their resources and begin a critical discussion of the issues.

Books on genetics, biotechnology, and religion have the inherent problem of being quickly made dated by ever-newer scientific developments or public policies. However, these essays are thematic enough to help us begin to think through carefully which resources a particular religious tradition offers in dealing with the ethical and religious implications of policy issues and particular scientific developments. Although not a particularly comforting book—it clearly lays out the difficulty of the tasks ahead—Claiming Power over Life nonetheless gives us a most useful framework for beginning this task.

Thomas A. Shannon, PhD
Professor of Religion and Social Ethics
Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Worcester, MA


Copyright © 2003 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Book Review - Claiming Power over Life Religion and Biotechnology Policy

Copyright © 2003 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.