Peter Parker’s Progeny: Power, Genetics, and Virtuous Parenting in Spider-Girl

With Leah DeJong I co-authored a chapter in Theology and Spider-Man. Publisher link.


From the beginning, the story of Spider-Man has considered the ethics and responsibilities associated with power. In the last panel of Amazing Fantasy #15, the 1962 comic in which Spider-Man first appeared, comes the simple cornerstone caption: “with great power there must also come—great responsibility!” This quote, later reattributed as the last words of Spider-Man’s uncle, is consistently used by writers to frame Peter Parker’s moral life. Perhaps the most common and basic dilemma Peter faces is the choice between living as an ordinary student or fighting evil with his powers. However, in some time- lines Peter has grown up, married Mary-Jane, and had biological children, creating new challenges for our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Indeed, in stories like Spider-Girl, Peter’s children May and Benji inherit his abilities, meaning the Parkers not only face the normal responsibilities of parenting but must consider if and how to raise another generation of superheroes. In our chapter, we bring the parenting choices of the Parker family into conversation with Christian ethical reflections on the emerging science of gene editing. First, we summarize how the rapid development of gene editing technologies such as CRISPR may soon make fictional questions around the ethics of transforming children relevant for contemporary parents. Second, we introduce key ethical distinctions between gene therapy, enhancement, and experimentation, and also between somatic and germline gene editing. Third, we compare the ethical categories provided by official Roman Catholic teaching on gene editing and evangelical James C. Peterson’s ethics of genetic intervention with more agent-focused moral analyses by Roman Catholic Celia Deane-Drummond, Methodist Brent Waters, and Lutheran Alexander Massmann. Fourth, we draw on the positions of the Catholic Church and James Peterson to evaluate the near-future genetic choices that could be available to the Parkers during Mary-Jane’s pregnancy with Benji, their second child. We argue that both positions endorse the Parkers’ strategy of neither trying to avoid passing on Peter’s abilities or enhancing them further. Finally, drawing on the ethical perspectives of Deane-Drummond, Waters, and Massmann, we dig deep into Peter and May’s relationships to highlight the importance of considering character in the ethics of gene editing. We conclude by arguing that examining the vulnerability, virtues, and parental desires active in the Spider-Girl story can provide real-world guidance for parents considering the prospect of gene editing.