Should Christians Select Their Children?

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Should Christians be able to decide between having a very disabled or non-disabled child if no embryos are destroyed in the process? This is a question which will soon be facing many parents! And it is difficult to see whether any appropriate arguments exist to prevent them making such a choice. As a result, the Christian church may well accept a number of child-selective procedures such as heritable genome editing (changing the entire genetic heritage of a person). In so doing, however, it would also be in line with a precedent from the last century when Christians, especially in the Protestant communities around the world, supported some forms of eugenic ideology.

It is in this context of questioning that I very much welcome Russell DiSilvestro’s proposal to develop and further clarify a Christian perspective concerning heritable genome editing, in a responsible, balanced and careful manner, in his 2019 Dignitas article entitled “Gene Editing, Potential Persons, and Eugenic Concerns.”[1] This is especially relevant since the concepts being discussed are both complex and very important.[2] However, in his piece in Dignitas, he indicates that some of the arguments I presented in a previous 2018 article in the same journal may need further clarification.[3] These relate, first of all, to the manner in which I view the effects of different genome editing procedures. Secondly, he questions why I view “an ethically problematic eugenic element tracking the effects of certain procedures more closely than the intent of those procedures.”[4]

In this regard, I recognise that some of the arguments I presented in my last article should have been further clarified, and I do actually do this in the book entitled Christianity and the New Eugenics published in 2020.[5] But I would still like to further develop these arguments in the following sections.

The Effects of Some Gene Editing Sub-Types

In considering the challenge of distinguishing between different kinds of genome editing procedures, DiSilvestro is right to question whether a difference exists between undertaking a genome editing procedure on (1) the egg and sperm cells before conception and (2) on the resulting embryo after conception. This is because, it could be suggested, that whether the procedure happened before or after conception, it still eventually benefits the resulting person because it leaves him or her better off than he or she would have been without it.[6]

Origin Essentialism

However, to understand why an important difference does exist between pre-conceptive and post-conceptive genome editing, it is necessary to first consider the concept of Origin Essentialism as it relates to whole biological persons. This indicates that the origins of living persons are essential to their existence, personal identity, and who they are, since a particular individual can only be brought into existence from a very specific set of creative conditions.[7] In other words, Origin Essentialism states that the different elements of a given individual’s origin are crucial to the very beginning of the individual’s life trajectory. These elements include (1) the material substance, (2) the form of the individual, (3) the instant in time, and (4) the place (in the three dimensions of space) in which the individual is brought into existence.[8] This means that when a new individual is brought into existence with a specific life trajectory, all the original physical variables mentioned previously should be taken into account all at once. Origin Essentialism then indicates that only one specific life trajectory will ever exist for one individual through time and space, which begins and ends at a particular three-dimensional place and at a certain time. Of course, an individual’s life trajectory can change direction over time because of different variables, such as an illness, but it remains the same trajectory and the same individual continues his or her existence.[9]

Origin Essentialism, as it relates to persons, thus indicates that the beginning of a life trajectory is especially important for the rest of this trajectory because:

  • Only one whole person can exist in space and time with a specific substance and form.[10]
  • People look to their origins to help build their personal identity.[11]

Thus, Origin Existentialism means that if a particular egg was fertilised by a particular sperm cell at a particular time and place then a specific embryonic individual would come into existence. However, if the original sperm or egg cell (or both) was genetically modified (either substantially or only slightly) then a different embryonic individual would come into existence who would be completely different to the one who would, otherwise, have existed. And, in this regard, what matters is that a difference in the origins exists, not the extent of the difference.[12]

Of course, challenges to Origin Existentialism exist and it may be the case that more reflection is necessary to better understand and explain the concept.[13] For example, it may be useful if Origin Essentialism was further developed in the context of (1) human persons who are brought into existence in a creative instant (by God) and (2) how persons consider their origins to form an important part of their personal identity.[14]

The Non-Identity Dilemma

The next concept which needs considering before the consequences of genome editing are considered is the non-identity dilemma described by the British philosopher Derek Parfit (1942–2017), which only arises if Origin Essentialism of persons is accepted.[15] In this regard, DiSilvestro explains the non-identity dilemma in the following manner:

Imagine parents contemplating germline engineering as a way of benefitting their first child, who they plan to name Carson. They say:

“If we do not use this technology, Carson will be born with this genetic disease. But if we do use this technology, Carson will be born without this genetic disease. Whatever else may be true, we are benefitting Carson by using this technology.”

Their doctor, who believes in genetic essentialism, will explain to these parents their mistake.

“If you do not use this technology, Carson will be born with this genetic disease. But if you do use this technology, a child different from Carson will be born without this genetic disease—‘Donald,’ let’s say. Whatever else may be true, you are not benefitting Carson by using this technology.”

So, then, the surprising result is that, far from making a particular child’s life better than it would have been otherwise, germline engineering actually blots out a child’s life before it even begins.[16]

This means that the parents have made a choice between two completely different possible children because of the non-identity dilemma.[17] The first child would have been born with a disorder and the second, whose life would have been entirely different from the first, would have been born without a disorder. But, in both cases, the disabled and non-disabled children would come into existence with their own specific bodies, which are intrinsically part of who they are in reflecting their particular identities. In philosophy, this means that they are numerically different. In the previous case, for example, it is possible to characterise both children by a different number. In other words, numerical identity examines the number of persons who exist and whether they are distinct, which would enable them to be numbered. If a creative procedure results in numerical identity changes, then a new individual is brought into existence who would not otherwise have existed. This is in contrast to qualitative changes which may take place on an individual though the person remains the same person. For example, a qualitative change takes place when a person recovers from a sickness, but the person remains the same person (the numerical identity remains the same).[18]

Thus, the non-identity dilemma is a philosophical puzzle which recognizes that, had the child not been born with the disability, he or she would not have existed. Instead, a very different child, with a different identity and life trajectory to the one affected by the disability, would have been born. It would have been a different child with another life and existence.

Intentional Genomic Changes Before the Creation of a Future Embryonic Person

This all means that if any physical variables are intentionally changed (such as in the genes of sperm and egg cells) in the bringing into existence of a future child, then a completely different person is brought into existence from the one who would have existed had no deliberate changes occurred. In other words, it would mean that a form of selection had occurred.

But, from a Christian perspective, the value and worth of the disabled and non-disabled possible future child are completely the same. This is because, in Christianity, every individual reflects the same image of God, meaning that they should be valued in exactly the same way as any other individual. Indeed, their value and worth does not depend on whether they are affected by a disorder and how much pleasure or suffering they will experience throughout their lives. Thus, there is no reason to make a eugenic selection between a disabled and a non-disabled possible future child.[19]

However, in my previous Dignitas article, I should maybe have emphasised that selection procedures may not always be eugenic if extenuating circumstances exist. For example, some parents may be prepared to welcome any child into existence (without preferences) but may decide to avoid having a child with certain characteristics because of a lack of societal support in caring for such a child. In other words, when parents select against a child with certain characteristics (such as disabilities), the reason may simply be a recognition, or belief, that they themselves lack the financial, physical, psychological or the social resources and support necessary to look after such a child. That is to say, they may be recognizing their own limitations or that of society, rather than regarding the child as unwanted, substandard, or as unworthy of life.[20]

But if intentional selection did occur based solely on genetic factors, this would be incompatible with the absolute equality in value and worth of all human beings, which is the very basis of a civilised and genuinely inclusive society. Accordingly, if all persons, including all possible future persons with or without a disability, are fundamentally equal in value (which is God’s perspective), then there is no reason or basis for any selection to ever take place between these future persons through heritable genome editing, unless real welfare challenges remain for the parents themselves and for society.[21] Indeed, if no extenuating circumstance exist, then:

  1. Choosing between possible future persons is an outward expression (revelation) of an often concealed discriminatory value system of a person or a whole society already in the real existing world. Such a system accepts an inequality in the inherent value and worth of existing persons with, for example, a disability (otherwise, there would be no rational reason for the choice);
  2. Such a choice may give a real negative message to persons with a condition, such as a disability, who already exist, that they should not have existed.

As a result, it is difficult to see how heritable genome editing can ever be seen as ethically acceptable by a pro-equality and appropriately inclusive society. This is because such a civilized society will always seek to consider all individuals with or without heritable biological disabilities or differences—variations which will never disappear—as inherently equal in value and in worth. Such a society will always seek to do more in order to provide the social resources and support necessary to parents to enable them to welcome into existence even the most different and most challenging of children. Thus, just as it would be unacceptable to simply provide sex-selective reproductive procedures to parents or a society who do not make any effort to uphold the equality of sexes, it is unacceptable to provide ability-selective reproductive procedures to non-inclusive parents or society who do not make any effort to accept all children as being equally valued.[22]

Somatic Genome Editing

As already noted in my original article in Dignitas, if the genetic editing does not take place before or during conception but, instead, on a mature embryo, fetus, child, or adult with the aim of addressing a genetic disorder, this could be considered in a similar manner to already existing somatic gene therapy. Moreover, this would not generally (or intentionally) affect descendants and has generally been accepted by society. This form of therapy would then correspond to the aims of classical medicine in the restoration of health to the patient. Such applications of gene editing for therapeutic purposes, therefore, would not raise many new ethical problems, apart from safety and efficacy. The numerical identity would remain the same though the qualitative identity would change.

This also means that in the previous scenario of the couple choosing between possible future children, their dilemma is entirely different from deciding whether to treat a disorder in an already existing child (including an embryonic child)—something they should always be prepared to do. There is thus an important difference between preventing a possible future person with a disability from existing and seeking to treat a person who already exists with the same disability.

Differences Between the Effects of Some Sub-Types of Gene Editing and Their Intent

Regarding DiSilvestro’s second point that there is a morally relevant difference between intending to create a new individual (through eugenic selection) and effectively doing so (unintentionally), I must agree. There is, indeed, a moral difference between an action occurring with a specific intention and the same action occurring as a result of a misunderstanding of what is actually happening. But this means that it is all the more important for Christian prospective parents to carefully think through what they are actually doing in the field of procreation with heritable genome editing. I also agree with DiSilvestro when he argues that:

While it is easy enough to excuse the good intentions of prospective parents who use germline engineering—after all, they have never given any thought to this argument in their lives—it is also not hard to see that their position has changed once they are made aware of this [non-identity] argument.[23]

However, most parents do not give much thought to (1) why they may actually want a child, (2) why they may want a child “of their own” (in all the different ways this expression may be understood), and (3) why they may only want a non-disabled child. Thus, it is very unlikely that the arguments presented in this paper will have much influence on modern society and most prospective Christian parents. Between the option of bringing into existence a very sick child and one who is healthy or even enhanced, most prospective parents will not hesitate for the second. But if they are encouraged to reflect on their decision and seek to see things from God’s perspective (and not their own), then any choice between the possible future children is meaningless if no extenuating circumstances exist. Indeed, God considers every existing and possible future child as being absolutely equal in value and in worth from the very origin of his or her existence right through their lives—each with a specific life trajectory–because they are all created by him in exactly the same way with his same image.

Finally, I am grateful to DiSilvestro for introducing his article with the very relevant quote from C.S. Lewis when he said: “If any age really attains, by eugenics and scientific education, the power to make its descendants what it pleases, all men who live after it are the patients of their power.”[24] In this regard, it may also be possible to further develop this quote by indicating that “power” over others can also be expressed as an ability to “control” others, including their possible future genome and physical characteristics. But this kind of “control” is usually incompatible with unconditional acceptance of the other which is an expression of agape-love.


[1] Russell DiSilvestro, “Gene Editing, Potential Persons, and Eugenic Concerns,” Dignitas 26, no. 3–4 (2019): 16–21.

[2] DiSilvestro has already enumerated a number of arguments that, he suggests, are questionable in another article on the topic. See Russell DiSilvestro, “Three Christian Arguments Against Germline Engineering,” Christian Bioethics 18, no. 2 (2012), 201–18.

[3] Calum MacKellar, “Gene Editing and the New Eugenics,” Dignitas 15, no. 1 (2018): 3–9.

[4] DiSilvestro, “Gene Editing, Potential Persons, and Eugenic Concerns,” 23 (italics in original).

[5] Calum MacKellar, Christianity and the New Eugenics (London: IVP, 2020).

[6] DiSilvestro, “Gene Editing, Potential Persons, and Eugenic Concerns,” 23.

[7] For a further presentation of Origin Essentialism, see Chad Vance, “Origin Essentialism: What Could Have Been Different about You?” 1,000-Word Philosophy, April 28, 2014,; Russell DiSilvestro, “Disability, Origin Essentialism, and the Problem of Differently Constituted Precursors,” Journal of the Christian Institute on Disability 6, no. 1–2 (2017): 88.

[8] See also: DiSilvestro, “Disability, Origin Essentialism, and the Problem of Differently Constituted Precursors;” Calum MacKellar, “Genome Modifying Reproductive Procedures and their Effects on Numerical Identity,” The New Bioethics 25, no. 2 (2019): 121–36.

[9] MacKellar, “Genome Modifying Reproductive Procedures and their Effects on Numerical Identity.”

[10] It may be possible for two individuals to have the same form (such as identical twins) and it may even (theoretically) be possible for two individuals to be composed of the same physical matter at two different instants in time, but it is impossible for two different living individuals to be composed of the same physical matters, have the same form, and exist in the same three-dimensional place in space at the same time.

[11] As social anthropologists Marit Melhuus and Signe Howell explain: “To know your biological origin is tantamount to knowing who you are.” Marit Melhuus and Signe Howell, “Adoption and Assisted Conception: One Universe of Unnatural Procreation: An Examination of Norwegian Legislation,” in European Kinship in the Age of Biotechnology, ed. Jeannette Edwards and Carles Salazar (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2009), 146. For example, Origin Essentialism (as it relates to persons) is important to the way many people, or even society, consider elements, such as nationality, date of birth, country, name, sex, specific bodies, race, titles of nobility, right to become head of state in monarchies, etc. It is even important when a person is recreated by God and “born again” to become one of his children through baptism with a new identity in Christ.

[12] This also means that even though the numerical identity of egg and sperm cells may remain the same while their qualitative identity may change, in the instant when they are used to create a new embryonic individual a particular new person with a particular life trajectory is brought into existence. This is similar to the reality that a father and mother remain the same individuals with only qualitative changes taking place throughout time to their bodies though they procreate numerically different children. Thus, if a prospective father and mother had eaten different foods at certain times in their lives resulting in different compositions of the egg and sperm cells used to give rise to a child, then this child would be different from the one who would otherwise have been born.

[13] See for example: DiSilvestro, “Disability, Origin Essentialism, and the Problem of Differently Constituted Precursors;” Tim Lewens, “The Fragility of Origin Essentialism: Where Mitochondrial ‘Replacement’ Meets the Non-Identity Problem,” Bioethics 35, no. 7 (2021): 615–22.

[14] Thus, in many ways, the creation by God of a whole human person is both fascinating and wonderful since before a specific instant no person exists, and after this instant a whole living human being created in the image of God exists (since no living person ever exists with only a partial image of God). And, a new trajectory is always created through the fertilisation of an egg by a sperm cell in contrast to derivation as may happen in the twinning of embryos, though even in this last situation, there is always an instant between the non-existence and the existence of a second twin. In this respect, living human persons with an identity are different from wooden tables or ships that can, for example, be gradually brought into existence from other older tables and ships.

A Christian understanding of God’s creation of a person is also important for the theological doctrine of Creationism which states that God creates a living whole person at the same instant in time as a new human being is brought into existence. In the same way as the embodied life of Adam was directly created by God when he breathed life into the earth which became his body, the life of a human embryo is also created by God at the same instant as he creates its living body. Parents do not create a living child; they only procreate the child in that they participate in God’s creative act.

Creationism is thus opposed to both the idea of a pre-existence of the soul and the theory of Traducianism whereby all persons are, somehow, created entirely and uniquely by God in one single act ‘at the beginning.’ In Traducianism children are simply being propagated like the branches of a tree down the generations which can only be considered as mistaken since any participation by the human procreators in God’s creation is sadly impossible. St. Jerome (ca. 347–420) and John Calvin (1509–1564) were opposed to Traducianism indicating that Creationism was the set opinion of the Church, though Martin Luther (1483–1546) and St. Augustine (354–430) were undecided. Amongst the Scholastics of the Middle Ages there were generally no defenders of Traducianism, with St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) indicating: ‘It is heretical to say that the intellectual soul is transmitted by process of generation.’ Charles Dubray, “Traducianism,” in The Catholic Encyclopaedia, Vol. 15 (New York: Robert Appleton, 1972),, (Accessed on 13.12.07). See also David Albert Jones, The Soul of the Embryo (London: Continuum, 2004), 102–8.

[15] See: Derek Parfit, ”Rights, Interests and Possible People,” in Moral Problems in Medicine, ed. Samuel Gorovitz et al.  (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1976) 369–75.

[16] Russell DiSilvestro, “Three Christian Arguments Against Germline Engineering,” 212 (italics in original). Moreover, it should be noted that before conception and the original instant of conception an individual does not exist, thus cannot experience any benefit in any way. Indeed, it is difficult to understand how it is possible to compare existence to non-existence (of anything or anyone).

[17] For a further presentation of the non-identity problem, see Duncan Purves, “The Non-Identity Problem,” 1,000-Word Philosophy, February 27, 2014,

[18] Qualitative identity examines similarities between the same individual in different settings or between distinct individuals. If a procedure results in qualitative identity changes, then the original individual continues to exist. See MacKellar, “Genome Modifying Reproductive Procedures and their Effects on Numerical Identity.”

[19] MacKellar, Christianity and the New Eugenics, 66.

[20] Calum MacKellar, “Why Human Germline Genome Editing Is Incompatible with Equality in an Inclusive Society,” The New Bioethics 27, no. 1 (2021): 19–29.

[21] For a development of this argument, see MacKellar “Why Human Germline Genome Editing Is Incompatible with Equality in an Inclusive Society.”

[22] In the same way it would be unacceptable to provide race-selective reproductive procedures to non-inclusive parents or societies who do not make an effort to address racism.

[23] DiSilvestro, “Three Christian Arguments Against Germline Engineering,” 212.

[24] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Harper San Fransisco, 2001), 57.