It is my belief that genetic engineering has promised to better mankind, and it is our ethical obligation to research it but not exploit it. There is a need to have morally correct legislation that guides the way science develops this.
The Random House Webster’s College Dictionary defines bioethics as a field of study and counsel concerned with the implications of certain medical procedures, genetic engineering, and care of the terminally ill. I will be exploring and commenting on how bioethics relates to genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is a branch of biology dealing with the splicing and recombining of genetic units from living organisms, according to Webster’s New World Dictionary. I will look at bioethics from the point of view of personal privacy, societal effects, religious concerns, medicinal benefits and legislation.
The topic of genetic engineering stirs up debates, as it is a controversial area with enormous potential for both good and bad in our society. Genetically prepared drugs have already helped tremendously, in the treament various diseases. Biogenetically prepared vaccines and insulin have already proven their benefit medicine. Other genetically engineered drugs are waiting Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approval. However, critics claim that it will cause more harm than good.
Many theologians believe that genetic engineering, should not be investigated at all, they feel Mother Nature knows best and any tampering with genetic material is evil. The primary reason why theologians argue that genetic engineering is unethical is because it defies all that has been described in the story of creation in the bible and other religious texts. However, it is my belief that genetic engineering has promise to better mankind, and it is our ethical obligation to research it but not exploit it. There is a need to have a morally correct legislation that guides the way science develops this (Toward E01.)
It has been only four decades since James D. Watson and Francis H. Crick made one of the most profound discoveries ever, the double helix structure of DNA. Today we know, human DNA is made of up twenty-three pairs of chromosomes and is found in all cells of the human body. Human genes are short segments of DNA that determine human traits, ranging from sex to eye color (Toward 1995.) To a large extent, DNA predetermines what diseases we will get, what our IQ will be and how we will function etc. According to Time magazines DNA is a complex structure that has 100,000 genes and 3 billion chemical codes (Isaacson 42) which encrypt the very basis of our biological unit. DNA is the true thumb imprint which makes each individual unique, and the entire controversy surrounding genetic engineering revolves around the idea of destroying the human by changing this code. Genetic engineering today has already helped many infertile patients to have children by a technique called in-vitro fertilization (Toward E01.)
In October 1993, the Doctor Jerry L. Hall, a geneticist, at George Washington to University Medical Center cloned a human embryo. This set off an ethical debate. Ethicists asked why the cloning was done, and who will set the guidelines for this practice in the future. There are those who believe that this issue is about individual autonomy. They believe that this is not society’s business and no one should be allowed to interfere with a person’s personal privacy and that nothing can be more personal then genetic material that makes us who we are (Kolata A1.)
According to Richard A. McCormick, S.J., who teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame, “one’s approach to cloning will vary according to the range of issues one wants to consider.” For example, he says some people look at it from the point of view of helping infertile couples to have offspring and they say that this is not wrong because geneticists are only helping where mother nature failed. McCormick believes that people with this point of view are being “frighteningly myopic”. He sees this issue as “… extremely social matter, not a question of mere personal privacy. I see three dimensions to the moral question: the wholeness of life, the individuality of life, and respect for life (McCormick 1148.)”
The danger of genetic engineering lies in the fact that the individuality of life could be lost as natural selection is gives way to forced selection to propagate and incode a few preferred genetics traits in the lab. The danger is that we may want only some qualities in each human, we may want the ability to pick and choose qualities that appeal to us and then put them into a human.
In this kind of future there is no regard for the whole human, we just want the bits and pieces of that human that we find desirable. We want the right to have perfect babies but this right implies the right to destroy imperfect babies and this concept leaves a bad taste in our mouths as we grapple with it. The concept of wholeness is being destroyed. People should not be considered as parts, they are who they are, and they are individuals with strengths and weaknesses. Genetic slices put together in a lab will never make an individual human being, it will only be a humanoid. Do we want to replace the Mendelian laws of inheritance with genetically sliced humanoids? Where will this lead us? This future would hold consequences far worse then splitting an atom, which resulted into the production of nuclear weapons.
In the 50 million years as the homosapiens evolved away from their ape ancestors only a two percent mutation in the genetic code has occurred (Isaacson 43.) Can we afford to let the likes of Ventor, a brilliant but impatient geneticist who is pushing rapid development of this field, change the human genetic material over the next twenty years (Thompson 54.) Singles genes don’t perform a single function, as one changes a defective gene it may have disastrous unforeseen consequences. Even in nature a single change in DNA sequence in the hemoglobin resulted in sickle cell anemia. This change occurred because many people were dying from malaria in Africa. This genetic mutation gave host protection against malaria. However this protection against malaria came at a hefty price. It resulted in hemoglobin, which was defective, and patients with sickle cell have a shortened life span and numerous painful episodes.
Random selection with survival of the fittest results in slow mutative changes, which are usually beneficial. I hope the genetic engineers think of an individual and don’t turn him into a freak by endowing some features which they think are beneficial. Even Frankenstein realized that he did not “right for my own benefit to inflict the curses upon on everlasting generations” (Isaacson 43.)
In the theological way of thinking life come from life. In the Old Testament God creates the world and tells Adam and Eve go forth and multiply. This way of procreation insures that we inherit characteristic from two parents. When we start interfering with genetic material we violate the rights of the embryo. Does the embryo not have the right to be an individual like his parents? God created human in His own image according to the Old Testament, Christian theologians argue that we cannot improve on His work.
In reproductive medicine it is rights of parent that clash with the rights of the embryo. Unfortunately, the embryo is not in a position to protect and defend himself. Theologians say in today’s reproductive medicine the right of the parent is in direct conflict with the right of the embryo. Does this generation have the right to change the future of all generations? After all, we in this generation are only one small part in the history of the human race. Do we have the right and or the knowledge to alter the course of the human race? Respect for life in its present form is being destroyed. We are trying create a new race in the test tube. We don’t respect the rules and regulations of guerilla and ape tribes, why would this new race respect our norms. We are moving too fast in a very complex area and we may unwittingly commit genocide of the human race. Let us respect our present societal values and preserve them.
Since 1883, there have been attempts to improve the human race through genetic engineering. English scientist Francis Galto gave this concept the name eugenics. Eugenics raised ethical questions such as should we try to create a “master race,” leaving the non-genetically altered at the bottom of society? This term gained a negative connotation because of the evil Nazi regime that tried to create a “master race” and wipe out the Jews, who they considered genetically inferior (Toward E01.)
In the late 1930’s, Hitler’s regime sponsored a Eugenics project. The Eugenics project was supposed to create a person with perfect genes. They were unsuccessful in creating the “superior” race because they did not know the basic unit of genes. This basic unit was discovered in 1953 by Watson and Crick and they called it DNA. In 1990 under the leadership of James Watson, the National Institute of Health (NIH), located in Bethesda Maryland, was able to obtain federal funds to start a human genome-mapping project. The more genes that scientists are able to map out, the more genetic diseases they will be able to cure. For example, we will be able to wipe out Downs’s Syndrome, Sickle Cell Anemia and other genetic diseases that affect millions of people. At present genetic testing of amniotic fluid is being done and in some cases the parents choose to abort the defective fetuses. Scientists are hoping that in the near future they will be able to correct the defective gene in-vivo, by deleting the defective genetic material and replacing it with normal genes. I believe that there are still many ruthless selfish political leaders like Hitler that would that would exploit this technology to try to make the perfect soldier to take over the world.
Charles Darwin also advocated improving them human stock to create a stronger human race. He believed that this would happen by natural selection. Instead, we could do this utlizing genetic engineering. Legislation would ensure that we do not create a “master race”; we just use genetic engineering to cure genetic diseases correct genetic defects (Toward E01.)
Germans learned a very bitter lesson about eugenics under Hitler’s regime and today they have some of the toughest legislative controls of any nation. In Germany Hitler’s mistakes have left marks on the German psyche, by this I mean Germans are still afraid of genetic engineering because of Hitler’s ruthless Eugenics project that tried to create a master race. An example of this is biochemist Carl-Wihelm Vogel. Vogel had set up a Class 1 Lab (the category denoting the least risk) at Hamburg University’s Institute of Biochemistry and Food Chemistry, in order to try to clone the gene that codes for the cobra venom factor, a protein that could prevent the rejection of organ transplants. In most countries this type of genetic research would barely raise an eyebrow; however, German laws is strict;
[it] requires a researcher to get permission from authorities for such a lab, and to wait 2 months between publicly announcing intended experiments and carrying them out—giving authorities a chance to object. (“Running Afoul of German Biotech Regs” 512)
Vogel ignored these guidelines, so when officials from Hamburg’s Environmental Agency were visiting a nearby lab and looked in on Vogel, they put a temporary halt on his research. Vogel eventually filed out the application to carry out his work. In addition, he may have to pay a fine of $60,000 (“Running” 512.)
The Sacramento Bee, a newspaper, carried an article that discussed philosophical issues of genetic engineering. According to the article the complete effects of altering a gene would not be known for at least a generation. We would be able to assess the positive results immediately. However, if the negative long-term effects are hidden, for example, making you more prone to get cancer, millions of people could die and it would decades before we could establish the cause-effect relationship. Another philosophical concern is should parents be able to choose the physical and mental traits of their children? An article from Science Magazine published in April 1986, it appears that many Germans are apprehensive about the gene splicing research occurring in their country because it reminds them of the Eugenics project under the Nazis. There are groups in Germany like “Greens”, a naturalist group, who believes that this kind of research can go awry and create monsters with high IQ’s.
According to Greens, natural selection at its gradual pace is the way to go.
Genetic engineering holds great promises for the future. Its use my help scientists discover cures for hundreds of diseases; its potential use for noble purposes is unlimited. Unfortunately there is a flip side to this: its potential for misuse is just as great. Therefore this promising field of science must be morally regulated to ensure that it is not misused.
Pharmaceutical companies were the first to recognize that using cell biology, the functions of a cell could be used to create drugs, which were specific for a problem and had low toxicity. The success in this field has already been spectacular with few, if any adverse consequences. So far we have targeted proteins molecules that are produced by RNA/DNA in response to disease and have battled disease at this level (Gorman 79.)
We have been able to use bacteria like E. Coli and yeast to make genetically engineered drugs and vaccines. As the population of the world exploded and number of people with Diabetes Mellitus and Hypothyroidism were increased, we started running out of hormone drugs like insulin and thyroxin which were obtained from animal organs. There were not enough animals to slaughter to keep up with the demand. Biogenetics changed all this, we now safely produce insulin in the laboratory, the insulin and thyroxin is purer, cheaper, better and more plentiful. The pharmaceutical industry so far has been able to demonstrate that science, if advanced under ethical guidance with good proper intent can lead to beneficial results (Gorman 79.)
Scientific research in genetics is not necessarily problem in of itself. The fear is that the technology will fall into unscrupulous hands and will be exploited (Gorman 79.)
Legislative regulating of biogentic engineering is not going to be any easy process. It is very clear that huge profits can result from the right kind of research. For the first time research scientists are demanding that they be allowed to patent their DNA research. So far the United States federal government has been able to mandate that this cannot be done. Scientists are tring to trademark human genes and no one individual can have rights to the codes of the human genome. By allowing patenting for various gene parts we paralyze further research in this field. However, in this era of global economics, whatever legislation is passed would have to be internationally acceptable and enforceable, if it is to succeed. The United Nations, an international body set up after World War II to help negotiate disputes among nations, has done a lot of good work but we have not been able to eliminate tyrant like Saddam Hussain. The fear is that as genetic engineering advances ruthless leaders like Saddam will exploit the technology for their own gain and will defy the ethical policies of the world policing order.
The counter effect of any legislation has been a flourishing underground that erodes the basic premise of that legislation. The more a technological innovation has potential for financial profit; more this underground black market thrives. We need to plan to combat this effect as we advance. This is the part of genetic engineering that can not be legislated; it has to be policed.
I can summarize my ethical point of view as it relates to genetic engineering by quoting the words of the brains behind this scientific revolution James Watson,
never postpone experiments that have clear defined future benefits for fear of dangers that can’t be quantified. Though it may sound first uncaring, we can react rationally only to real (as opposed to hypothetical) risks. Yet for several years we postponed important experiments on the genetic basis of cancer, for example, because we took much too seriously spurious arguments that the genes at the root of human cancer might themselves be dangerous to work with. (Watson 91)
If the fields of biogenetics and ethics can work together, incorporating each other principles the field of biogentics will revolutionize the world and make it better place for all.
“Drugs By Design.”
Time 11 Jan. 1999: 79-83.
“The Biotech Century.”
Time 11 Jan. 1999: 42-43.
“The Hot Debate About Cloning Human Embryo.”
New York Times 26 Oct. 1993 New York final ed.: A1+
Lemonick, Michael D, and Dick Thompson.
“Racing To Map Our DNA.”
Time 11 Jan. 1999: 44-51.
McCormick, Richard A. “Should We Clone Humans?”
The Christian Century
Section 1.01 “Running Afoul of German Biotech Regs.”
264(1994) : 512
Time 11 Jan. 1999: 54-55.
Toward a More Perfect Human? 1995, July 2.
The Orange County Register. P. E01
Watson, John D.
“All For The Good.”
Time 11 Jan. 1999: 91.
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