Genetic Testing and its Implications
The Catholic Bishops of the United
States believe that, despite occasional tensions and disagreements, there can
be no irreconcilable conflict between religion and science.
This statement is the second in a series designed to show how religion and
science can offer complementary insights on complex topics like the emerging
biotechnologies. It is offered to people of science and of faith, indeed, to
all those concerned with the moral implications of humanity’s new knowledge
National Conference of Catholic Bishops
Committee on Science and Human Values
Optimum Insurance asks all applicants for individual health care
policies to undergo testing for the gene that predisposes to
Optimum Airlines alerts its employees that testing for sickle-cell trait
is now available.
Optimum Pharmaceuticals develops a therapy for depression and offers a
test to detect the relevant genetic profile.
The Supreme Court allows testing to identify those at increased risk for
Alzheimer’s disease, on the grounds that people have a
right to this
information in planning their future.
The state of Maryland denies a marriage license to two people with mild
mental retardation; testing shows they may pass severe
retardation to their children, raising health costs.
These situations, though fictional, are
not fanciful. Several are present reality, and the rest could happen in a
decade or two. Genetic testing—and genetic counseling on how to deal with the
results of tests—will certainly grow at a rapid rate, creating a burgeoning
challenge for pastors and Catholic health care providers. Obviously, the
Church cannot offer a credible opinion on the quality or reliability of these
tests; that is the province of the scientific and medical communities.
However, genetic testing raises and will continue to raise moral issues for
the individual, for the family, for racial or ethnic groups, and for society
as a whole. The Church has a responsibility to offer insights based on its
venerable tradition and current experience, not only to inform consciences and
assist in the formation of wise public policy, but also to keep tradition
Most often genetic tests show no disease, relieving anxiety. Moreover, the
Catholic Church welcomes testing when it functions as an extension of sound
medical practice. Catholics have served the sick for many centuries, and the
Church is one of the major providers of health care in the world; naturally,
it applauds every medical advance that promises healing without violating
moral law. Pope John Paul II told the World Medical Association in 1983:
A strictly therapeutic intervention whose explicit objective is the
healing of various maladies such as those stemming from chromosomal defects
will, in principle, be considered desirable, provided it is directed to the
true promotion of the personal well-being of the individual. . . .Such an
intervention would indeed fall within the logic of the Christian moral
Genetic testing can assist sound decision-making in a wide range of
situations. It is most commonly employed to detect problems with newborns.
Moreover, millions of Americans are hospitalized every year because of
hereditary disease and congenital defects. To the extent that genetic testing
sets the stage for a cure or effective therapy, it is a blessing.
Testing has legitimate uses even in the delicate arena of human
reproduction. Young couples considering marriage may want to know whether one
or both partners carry a gene associated with mental retardation, cystic
fibrosis, breast cancer, or some other heritable condition. While such testing
carries risk, it can be considered an act of prudence, whether the couple
subsequently decides to marry or not.
More and more frequently, expectant mothers are undergoing amniocentesis,
chorionic villus sampling, and other tests to detect genetic anomalies in
their unborn children. The most detailed Catholic teaching on this and related
subjects appears in a 1987 statement from the Vatican Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith called The Gift of Life (Donum Vitae). It asks:
“Is prenatal diagnosis morally licit? If prenatal diagnosis respects the life
and integrity of the embryo and the human fetus and is directed toward its
safeguarding or healing as an individual, then the answer is affirmative”
(sec. I, no. 2). The Holy Father builds on this declaration in his recent
encyclical The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae), holding that prenatal
diagnostic techniques are morally permissible “when they do not involve
disproportionate risks for the child and the mother, and are meant to make
possible early therapy or even to favor a serene and informed acceptance of
the child not yet born” (no. 63).
However, some prenatal testing poses significant risks to the unborn child,
especially when performed on embryos before selection for implantation in the
womb. Disturbing test results can also tempt individuals to make decisions not
in accord with sound morality. The Holy Father goes on to note:
But since the possibilities of prenatal therapy are today still limited,
it not infrequently happens that these techniques are used with a eugenic
intention which accepts selective abortion in order to prevent the birth of
children affected by various types of anomalies. Such an attitude is
shameful and utterly reprehensible, since it presumes to measure the value
of a human life only within the parameters of “normality” and physical
well-being, thus opening the way to legitimizing infanticide and euthanasia.
The Church condemns and will never cease condemning the taking of innocent
unborn life, surely the saddest aggression of our violent time.
Other uses of genetic testing, though perhaps not clearly sinful, invite
serious moral reflection. Current therapies, by and large, manipulate a single
gene or gene product. Science has not identified the multiple genes that may
help determine high intelligence, a strong heart, immunity to cancer, a sunny
personality, forcefulness of character, or other complex traits. Within ten
years or less, however, the Human Genome Initiative will have decoded the
physical structure of all 100,000 of our genes. Decades, perhaps centuries, of
research and experiment may be needed to develop sophisticated technology from
this data. Even then, some traits may turn out to have no significant genetic
component, while others may spring from so complex a combination of genes,
environment, and experience that they remain beyond the reach of empirical
Nevertheless, the rate of discovery for genes that cause disease or
influence physical and mental traits is accelerating rapidly. Within one or
two generations, human beings may be able both to change significantly an
individual’s genetic makeup through somatic cell therapy and to affect
heredity through germline therapy. As time passes, we will learn more about
our amazing diversity and our uniqueness. Unfortunately, we will also have the
capacity to make finer distinctions among people and to discriminate
accordingly. A predisposition to colon cancer is already detectable. If
someone tests positive, should this information be available to insurance
companies, whose financial success depends on minimizing risk? Potential
employers? Potential marriage partners? What if the existence of a gene
predisposing to homosexuality is confirmed? Who should have access to test
results? These simple examples illustrate the enormous potential for abuse.
The Church’s knowledge of the human heart springs from 2,000 years of moral
reflection based ultimately on divine revelation. However, Catholic theology
and the Catholic moral tradition mostly predate the development of genetic
technologies, which offer new challenges. In an address to the Pontifical
Academy for Life in November 1995, Pope John Paul II said:
Indeed, the biomedical sciences are currently experiencing a period of
rapid and marvelous growth, especially with regard to new discoveries in the
areas of genetics. . . . But if scientific research is to be directed toward
respect for personal dignity and support of human life, its scientific
validity according to the rules of each discipline is not enough. It must
also qualify positively from the ethical point of view, and this presupposes
that from the outset it endeavors to promote the true good of human beings
as individuals and as a community. This happens when efforts are made to
eliminate the causes of disease by putting real prevention into practice, or
whenever more effective therapies are sought for the treatment of serious
Clearly, the scientific community cannot shoulder the whole burden of
bringing ethics to bear. Catholic clergy and laity must become knowledgeable
about emerging biotechnologies if they are to help people make the critical
decisions they will inevitably face. Both the Church and the scientific
community, we believe, can benefit from the effort to harmonize scientific
advance with religious insight. Genetic testing is an important tool, but many
will suffer if wisdom and sound morality do not guide its use.
Also of Interest
Science and the Catholic Church
The first in a series designed to show how science and religion can offer
complementary insights on complex topics like the emerging biotechnologies.
The series is offered to people of science and of faith, to all those
concerned with the moral implications of humanity's new knowledge and power.
From the U.S. bishops' Committee on Science and Human Values.
No. 085-0, brochure
Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic
Health Care Services
Reaffirms the ethical standards of behavior in health care that flow from the
Church’s teaching about the dignity of the human person. Provides guidance and
direction on moral issues that Catholic health care providers face today. From
the U.S. bishops.
No. 029-X, 28 pp.
New Binder Edition: No. 5-034, 16 pp.
To order these resources or to obtain a catalog of other USCC titles, call
toll-free 800-235-8722. In the Washington metropolitan area or from outside
the United States, call 202-722-8716. For other titles on science and the
Church, visit the
of the Publishing and Promotion Services' catalog.
Committee on Science & Human Values
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
3211 4th Street, N.E., Washington, DC 20017-1194 (202) 541-3000