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Cynthia Fitch

Dr. Cynthia Fitch, professor of genetics and molecular biology at Seattle Pacific University, spoke from her experiences of teaching General Biology to non-Biology majors.”[W]e learn that if the gene is mutated, and someone inherits two copies of the mutated gene, disease is the result. I know that the severity of the disease is often variable and the environment can serve to modify the genetic expression of a particular mutation. But these nuances are difficult to explain to a class of over 150 college students not interested in majoring in anything remotely resembling biology. They are simply trying to understand ‘big A,’ ‘little a’ and what on earth an allele has to do with them.”

“Why do we insist that all students take a course in biology?” Fitch asks. Quoting Dr. Cole-Turner on Rothman, Fitch says, “every possible issue of our time—race and racism, addictions, cancer, sexuality has all been placed in the genetics frame.” Therefore, Fitch says, “educating our students and our colleagues about this powerful tool called genetics is essential to our understanding of our world today.”

Referencing the opening story in Cole-Turner’s book Pastoral Genetics, Fitch tells of a pastor faced with counseling a couple whose fetus exhibited the gene for Cystic Fibrosis. The couple terminated the pregnancy and, after much counseling and prayer, chose to bear another child—who was born healthy. The pastor struggled “to help, to listen, to cope, and to advise on principles that might run contrary to her own,” Fitch says. The pastor “’wished she could remember what she had learned’ in high school genetics and ‘she hoped she would never again face a similar situation.’” “My goal,” Fitch says, “is for my students to remember their genetics instruction as being significant and important and how to find resources when they have questions.”

“My fellow geneticists, biochemists, and biologists should also be helping to educate our communities about genetics, technology and the power of the information it provides,” Fitch says. Scientists, she says, “must be accountable for the information we are uncovering. We cannot simply deliver it without compassion and feeling. Yet, as scientists, we are called to objectivity and [are] obliged to present all the genetic knowledge that is before us. We cannot try to simply make a genetic disease go away because it feels bad.”

“Where scientists have failed, however,” Fitch says, is in “learning to rely on the community ... the Pastors and counselors to help disseminate the information in a way that is healing or sensitive.”

“We have long had a relationship between clergy and physician,” Fitch says, “one to heal the soul, the other the body. Now we add scientists and their genetic predictions to this complex relationship.”

“Pastors, your understanding of this genetic information is crucial,” Fitch says. “You, too, may be called upon to counsel” in a situation similar to that of the pastor in Cole-Turner’s book, for “[m]embers of your congregation face some form of genetic testing or recombinant DNA-based medicines every time they go to a large hospital.”

“Scientists and Pastors probably seem odd collaborators,” says Fitch, but our mutual mission of providing vital information related to the value of a life can bring us together.” Pastors and scientists must collaborate, dialoguing “both formally and informally about the genetic future and the information it holds.” And Fitch concludes, “Let us help young parents possess this genetic information so that when faced with a life and death decision, it will be with all the facts of the day.” Thus, the decisions made by individuals facing genetic disease will reflect integration of solid genetic information and sound moral reasoning after “consultation with pastors who understand genetics and geneticists who understand the value of life.”

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