REVIEWED BY SONDRA ELY WHEELER
Wm. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 2001, 364 pp., $22 (paperback)
James C. Peterson has written an easily accessible, highly informative book
concerning the ethical issues raised by the ongoing revolution in genetic knowledge.
The book is aimed at a broad audience, encompassing professionals and interested
laypeople in a variety of fields, although its Christian perspective may make
it especially useful to pastors. The author seeks to provide a systematic treatment
of the whole range of related questions occasioned by progress in genetic research,
genetic testing, and genetically based therapies.
Peterson prefaces his discussion with three general chapters. The first reviews
the historical and intellectual relationship between science and Christian theology,
the second considers the possibilities and risks of technology, and the third
gives an account of the legitimate aims of technology from a Christian standpoint.
The remainder of the book is organized into four parts, each of which treats
questions arising in a particular area of genetic science. Peterson presents
these issues according to the order in which they have come into actual use
and affected our lives and our decision making: the impact of genetic knowledge
and research; genetic testing; genetically engineered pharmaceutical products;
and genetic surgery and direct intervention in the human genome. The author
discusses the implications of each development, and the questions that each
raises, for the three arenas in which they have an impact: the individual, the
family, and the wider human community. The book's organization is helpful because
it imposes a certain order upon a complex array of related issues that recur
and shift across a variety of particular topics and settings. The author has
also provided an index and a detailed set of internal cross-references, both
of which enable a reader to follow a particular topic throughout without having
to read the whole book.
Peterson's book has both the benefits and the inherent limitations of a general
introduction. The author presumes no specialized knowledge of either religious
ethics or science on the reader's part, and so must not only define his terms
carefully but also lay the groundwork for every discussion "from the bottom
up." This method preserves the book's generality of address. However, because
Peterson's analysis remains fairly basic, his book may be somewhat frustrating
for readers who have an extensive background in one or the other of the fields
discussed. Readers who have strong views at variance with the author's conclusions
may be dissatisfied with his relatively superficial treatment of contested points.
His discussion of these points will not allay such readers' concerns.
For example, Peterson's discussion of the possibilities and dangers of reproductive
human cloning takes up a number of arguments both for and against the practice.
However, space limitations keep him from going very deeply into the philosophical
and theological rationales for either position. The discussion of whether cloning
would violate human dignity occupies a page and a half. In the end, Peterson
suggests (on pp. 304-305) that a proposal to clone a human being may be tested
against four criteria, which can be summarized as follows: Is it safe? Does
it bring about a genuine improvement for the recipient? Does it leave the recipient
free to make his or her own choices? Would it be the best use of resources?
To some readers, the author's willingness to apply such standards in this area
may suggest an unwarranted optimism about the reliability of human judgment
and the transparency of human motivation. It may be that Peterson can rebut
that charge, but he has no real opportunity to do so in this volume.
In sum, this is a useful book that will provide a general background for nonspecialists
and raise for discussion a wide range of issues that deserve attention in the
church and among the general public. It is a fine place to start.
Sondra Ely Wheeler
Martha Ashby Carr Professor of Christian Ethics
Wesley Theological Seminary Washington, DC
Copyright © 2002 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.