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NCC policy helps member churches join biotechnology debates

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Courtesy of the National Council of Churches

Clare Chapman presents the biotechnology policy to the National Council of Churches 2006 General Assembly in Orlando, Fla.
Dec. 13, 2006

By Linda Bloom*

NEW YORK (UMNS) -- Should people of faith join the debate on stem cell research, speak out about questionable methods of human "enhancement" and push for adequate regulation of the biotechnology industry?

The National Council of Churches, representing some 45 million church members, adopted a policy in November advocating just that type of action.

The policy challenges the idea that the representatives of the scientific community and the government "ought to control the discussion simply by virtue of their expertise. ... To be a responsible church, members must be fully informed, equipped and empowered to serve the common good."

Clare Chapman, an executive with the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, led the committee that developed the policy, allowing the churches to jointly "bear witness to their beliefs in an age of emerging technologies."

Chapman, who will become the NCC's chief financial officer in January, attributed the successful adoption of "Fearfully and Wonderfully Made: A Policy on Human Biotechnologies" to a "stellar committee" and diligent attention by delegates at both the 2005 and 2006 NCC General Assemblies.

The committee was named in 2003. "We worked for a full year just looking at the science and then started drafting the text," she said.

Other United Methodists on the 16-member committee were Blythe Crissman, a pediatric genetic counselor at Duke University Medical Center; the Rev. James Fenimore, the Albany District superintendent for the Troy (N.Y.) Annual Conference; and Victor "Leon" Cyrus-Franklin, a recent graduate of Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta. NCC staff representatives were the Rev. Eileen Lindner and the Rev. Marcel Welty.

Two resolutions -- on cloning and on biotechnology and national security -- also were approved by the 2006 General Assembly. The cloning resolution calls on Congress "to enact federal legislation that would attach criminal penalties to the creation of human reproductive clones" and asks worldwide governmental agencies "to regulate and oversee laboratories with the capacity" to create such clones.

The resolution on biotechnology and national security calls for the creation of a National Science Advisory Board for Bio-Defense within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The board would oversee and regulate bio-defense activities within the government and private sector.

The NCC is asking its member communions to study and implement the biotechnologies policy and has developed a curriculum and study guide. The guide grew out of "a request to the committee from last year's first reading" for a hands-on, easy-to-read curriculum, according to Chapman.

She pointed out that while some background on the science of biotechnologies is helpful for making statements of faith on the issue, "you don't have to get in the real deep science to engage in policy statements."

Not in full agreement

"Fearfully and Wonderfully Made" does not represent complete agreement on biotechnology concerns among NCC members. The section on stem cell research recognizes the divisiveness of the issue within the Christian community.

"There are places in ecumenical life when you agree it's not possible to come to agreement on an issue," Chapman explained.

In this case, the policy compares the lack of agreement to a similar lack of consensus regarding abortion more than two decades ago. "As with the abortion debate, much of the stem cell debate turns on the differing views we hold on the moral status of human embryos," the policy notes.

While the policy "neither endorses nor condemns experimentation" on human embryos or the use of embryonic stem cells for research, "We are, however, in agreement in our recognition of the irreducible sanctity of human life, as well as the intrinsic moral and ethical good inherent in efforts to reduce human suffering through medical science."

Recommendations

Among the policy's various recommendations are that NCC members identify scientists who are church members to interpret biotechnologies; recruit clergy and lay members who have the health care background to serve as resources on the issue; and develop worship materials "that address the emerging needs created by the new biotechnologies and the issues they present."

On the congregational level, priests, pastors and others are encouraged to "recognize that genetics and bioengineering raise a number of pastoral and theological questions with which they, as clergy, are frequently and traditionally involved."

The committee's work is done, but Chapman said the NCC is teaming with the World Council of Churches to sponsor an international consultation on biotechnologies sometime in the fall of 2007.

The idea for such a consultation occurred after representatives of the NCC committee met in Toronto with their counterparts in the Canadian Council of Churches "and found a great agreement on much of this work," Chapman said.

More information about "Fearfully and Wonderfully Made: A Policy on Human Biotechnologies," including downloadable versions of the policy and study guide, can be found at www.ncccusa.org/biotechnology/ on the NCC's Web site.

Information also is available by calling Welty at (212) 870-2379 or writing to the National Council of Churches Office of Research and Planning, 475 Riverside Dr., Room 880, New York, NY 10115.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Audio

Interview with Clare Chapman: "We are pleased with this policy."

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Resources

Biotechnologies policy and study guide

NCC 2006 General Assembly