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Surprise -- The crucial religion story of 2018 is the specter of 'designer babies'

Surprise -- The crucial religion story of 2018 is the specter of 'designer babies'

Newsroom story conferences are impossibly clogged with items in the Donald Trump Era.

This month everybody is sifting through everything in order to figure out the Top Ten events of 2018. The Religion Guy proposes that, without question, first place belongs not to political or economic eruptions but scientists’ onrushing effort to “play God” and re-engineer the human species through genetics.

With all the fear-mongering about animal or vegetable GMOs and “Frankenfood,” how shall we now cope with the similar and serious specter of creating human “designer babies” with desired traits?

Alas, the Guy has seen precious little media input from organized religion and urges reporters to bring those viewpoints to the center of this developing public debate.

The news: He Jiankui, a U.S.-trained biological researcher in China, says he has successfully altered the genes of newly born twins, with a third such birth expected soon. The claim has not been verified through the normal academic reporting process, much to the distress of fellow researchers, Chinese officialdom and the university and hospital where He works.

However, his background makes the claim plausible. There were important advances in such work during 2017. If He’s claim falls through, scientific success elsewhere, with the moral quandaries that result, appears inevitable. If it can be done, some scientists somewhere will do it, and self-regulation by science or government restrictions will be difficult to achieve.

The headline on a New York Times dispatch out of Beijing put matters bluntly: “In China, Sacrificing Ethics for Scientific Glory.” There were immediate hostile reactions from scientists. For one, Francis Collins, head of America’s National Institutes of Health (and a devout evangelical), spoke of “epic scientific misadventures” that will sully valid work on genetic diseases by provoking “outrage, fear, and disgust.”

CRISPR sounds like some newfangled kitchen gadget hawked as a Christmas gift on late-night TV. (“But wait!!”). However, it’s the acronym for a new tool for editing genes, Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, using the “CRISPR-associated protein 9” enzyme abbreviated as “Cas9.” Importantly, scientists say this method suddenly makes gene manipulation easy and quite precise.

It’s hard enough for mere journalists to fully comprehend this process, much less explain it to our audiences, but the biological basics and moral implications are crystal clear.

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Old questions about the headline you did not see: Why didn't press spot royal 'fetus bump'?

Old questions about the headline you did not see: Why didn't press spot royal 'fetus bump'?

For years, it was one of the most painful, divisive journalism questions faced by reporters and editors, a question that they couldn’t look up in the Associated Press Stylebook — the bible of most mainstream newsrooms.

The question: When is an unborn child an “unborn child” or a “baby”? When should reporters use the supposedly neutral term “fetus”?

Here is the top of a recent news story that serves as a perfect, and tragic, example of this journalism issue:

A grieving widower has revealed why he shared photos of his dead wife and unborn daughter after they were killed by an allegedly drunk driver.

Krystil Kincaid was eight months pregnant with her daughter, Alvalynn, when their car was struck on a California highway on Sept. 9. Her heartbroken husband, Zach, who lives in San Jacinto, Calif., decided he wanted the world to see the unsettling images of the 29-year-old mother and their little girl lying in a coffin together at their wake.

That’s a tragic example of this journalism issue.

Here is another new case study, drawn from current celebrity clickbait news. After all, it’s hard for journalists to ignore a royal baby bump.

In this case, the New York Times headline proclaims: “Prince Harry and Meghan Markle Announce She’s Pregnant.” The lede is where we see the “problem.”

LONDON — Another royal baby is on the way.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, are expecting a child in the spring, Kensington Palace announced.

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Patricia Heaton doesn't work for GetReligion; but her Down syndrome tweet is a must-see

Patricia Heaton doesn't work for GetReligion; but her Down syndrome tweet is a must-see

If you know anything about politics in Hollywood, then you probably know that there are few "players" in that scene who are out-and-proud moral, cultural and religious conservatives.

However, if you are left-of-center on most matters political, yet you also oppose abortion or even simply abortion on demand, then you may be aware that Emmy Award-winning actress Patricia Heaton (click here for her many credits) has been bold enough to serve as the honorary chair of the organization Feminists for Life.

She also has a fairly large following on Twitter, although nothing by Kardashian standings.

So, this progressive pro-lifer is taking on CBS. Why?

Because of a report which, in its online form, has this provocative headline:

"What kind of society do you want to live in?": Inside the country where Down syndrome is disappearing

This long feature opens like this:

With the rise of prenatal screening tests across Europe and the United States, the number of babies born with Down syndrome has significantly decreased, but few countries have come as close to eradicating Down syndrome births as Iceland.
Since prenatal screening tests were introduced in Iceland in the early 2000s, the vast majority of women -- close to 100 percent -- who received a positive test for Down syndrome terminated their pregnancy.
While the tests are optional, the government states that all expectant mothers must be informed about availability of screening tests, which reveal the likelihood of a child being born with Down syndrome. Around 80 to 85 percent of pregnant women choose to take the prenatal screening test, according to Landspitali University Hospital in Reykjavik.

Now, in the world of Twitter push promotion materials, that translates into this:

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MZ for the win: Before taking shots at the Bible, journalists need to do their homework

MZ for the win: Before taking shots at the Bible, journalists need to do their homework

Every newspaper that I worked for had several shelves of reference books or an entire library of them, often backed with other pre-Internet reference materials.

In each case, there was large and somewhat intimidating Bible, often placed near a library-sized edition of a Merriam-Webster Dictionary. The whole idea (especially in a city like Charlotte, N.C.) was that journalists needed to be able to look up "Bible stuff" when religious people dared to mention religion in public.

That was how it was supposed to work. In reality, people used to swing by my desk and ask about "Bible stuff" and other religious questions. This was, at The Rocky Mountain News, the reason that people gave me a nickname that stuck -- "Monsignor Mattingly."

I would say that nine time out of 10, my newsroom colleagues found out that the Bible didn't actually say what people thought it said, or just as common, what newsroom people thought that it said. I also had to tell them that it was rarely enough to quote one Bible verse, often out of context, and then call it a day. I used to say over and over: The Bible is an adult book and it needs to be treated that way.

This brings me to another example of M.Z. "GetReligionista emerita" Hemingway of The Federalist having a bit of a GetReligion flashback when confronted with one or more examples of mainstream journalists tripping over a fact or two when covering a religious issue. It really sets her off when people mess up when talking about the Bible or Christian doctrines that have been around for 2,000 years or so.

Thus, here is a piece of "Classic MZ," offered as this weekend's think piece. The lesson this time around is a familiar one: If journalists are going to take shots at the Bible, or promote the work of people doing so, it really helps to do some homework (or call up scholars who can provide another point of view on the issue being discussed).

Take it away, Mollie. The headline: "Media Falsely Claim DNA Evidence Refutes Scripture." We pick things up a few lines into the piece:

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USA Today asks: Do private schools with doctrines have a right to the NCAA brand?

USA Today asks: Do private schools with doctrines have a right to the NCAA brand?

If you didn't see this big-time sports story coming then you haven't been paying attention.

During a radio talk show a few months ago, I speculated that if Baylor (one of my two alma maters) had qualified for the final four in football, it was highly likely that gay-rights groups would petition the NCAA powers that be to have the Bears (and other private schools with doctrinally based lifestyle covenants) kicked out of the association.

Not yet. But the arguments are beginning, as evidenced in the new USA Today feature that ran under the headline, "When religion and the LGBT collegiate athlete collide."

Now, if you believe in old-school journalism ethics -- think "American Model" of the press -- then the goal of this story is to accurately represent the beliefs of representatives on both sides of this debate. Want to guess how that turns out?

Meanwhile, it's crucial to remember that the NCAA is not a government agency and, as a private body, is not limited by the First Amendment's free exercise of religion clause. To further complicate matters, the NCAA includes both private and state schools. Thus, while there may be legal issues involved (television and conference contracts, for example) in this NCAA debate, this really shouldn't be called a religious-liberty debate. The NCAA rules.

This feature starts, of course, with a gay athlete -- swimmer Conner Griffin -- who attends Fordham University, a Catholic school that is clearly enlightened since it has chosen the spirit of the age over attempts to live out (some would say "enforce") Catholic doctrines on marriage and sex.

So right up top there is this exchange:

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When will ‘three-parent babies’ come to the U.S.?

When will ‘three-parent babies’ come to the U.S.?

The headline above is borrowed verbatim from a Feb. 6 Scientific American article (coverage here) after the House of Commons voted by 75 percent to make Britain the first nation to legalize “three-parent babies.” The House of Lords gave the final approval Feb. 24.  Newcastle University researchers are already paying women to be genetic donors, and the first such births are expected next year.

The hope here is to avoid babies with devastating “mitochondrial” birth defects and related ailments like muscular dystrophy.  So these experiments have the best of motives, though scientists and theologians alike question the means.  Reporters should note good online coverage of pros and cons by Sarah Knapton in the London Telegraph.

News media take note: The U.S. debate will gain prominence with a March 31 – April 1  “public workshop” in Washington by the  panel that’s advising the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Institute of Medicine on this. Its delightfully bureaucratic name: “Committee on Ethical and Social Policy Considerations of Novel Techniques for Prevention of Maternal Transmission of Mitochondrial DNA Diseases.” 

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