Genetic Engineering Debate: Are There Lines We Shouldn't Cross?

The relationship between ethics and science has had a long, complicated history.  Although the atrocious Nazi experiments performed in the name of science are 70 years behind us, science continues to cross new boundaries. An advancing science that is currently forcing society to re-evaluate ethical boundaries is genetic engineering. 

Genetic engineering (also called genetic modification) is the direct manipulation of an organism’s genome using modern DNA technology. So far, the study and application of genetic engineering has been much slower, more complex, and less effective in humans than in plants and animals. Whereas animal cloning has been somewhat successful since Dolly’s famed birth in 1996 (and more recently the capacity to clone your beloved dog for $100,000), the ability to successfully clone humans has proved difficult scientifically and highly controversial ethically.

Genetically modified plants and animals have led to significant benefits, such as herbicide resistant crops and fast-growing animals.  At the same time, this technology has created major ethical concerns relating to the perceived “unnaturalness” of changing a living organism and a fear that scientists are “playing God” through their alterations of an original being. In humans, researchers have predicted that gene therapy will not only allow us to treat and prevent debilitating diseases (an elusive goal for scientists over the past 20 years), but also enhance or improve normal human traits.

Should we have the right to enhance our muscles, memory and moods through genetic modification? At what point should genetic engineering be forced to draw a line? The answer to this is tricky.

Although still mainly limited to science fiction, genetic enhancement in humans is a controversial issue. The largely publicized topic of “designer babies,” for example, leads to debates over whether it is significantly worse for parents to try and give their children the best opportunities by selecting certain genes using in vitro fertilization (IVF) and pre-implantation diagnosis (PGD), versus hiring sperm and egg donors with coveted genetic traits.  Personally, I find it easier to agree that disease prevention and treatment are beneficial goals of genetic engineering in humans, than for me to accept human enhancement as a morally acceptable goal.

However, we do not yet grasp the full extent of what genetic engineering means for human development. What we deem “acceptable” or “unacceptable” in the world we currently inhabit with our presently available science and technology could easily change as scientific capacity advances. Our notion of what is right or wrong and even our fundamental understanding of what it means to be a “normal” human being have continually changed through scientific progress. Once, the only option for biologically influencing a person’s development was through mate selection. Today, scientific advancements such as prenatal screening technologies, in vitro fertilization, and pharmaceuticals targeting cognitive and emotional functioning allow parents to avoid certain birth defects, select for sex, and improve their child’s cognitive ability and moods.

Instead of drawing an imaginary “do not cross” line or moral boundary for genetic engineering in humans, we should emphasize the need for continuous negotiation with moral notions and beliefs with the purpose of directing and influencing policy as a result of this mutual interaction.  Organizations such as the Stanford Center for Integration of Research on Genetics and Ethics (CIRGE) are examples of this approach.  CIRGE is one of six interdisciplinary Centers of Excellence in Ethical, Legal and Social Implications (ELSI) Research (CEERs) created by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) “to proactively identify and deliberate ethical, legal and social issues in current and emerging genetic research.” 

This strategy of anticipatory ethics advocates that “ethics” should accompany and monitor advancing technology rather than simply react to it. Instead of demanding immediate draconian controls, a vigorous concurrent moral debate should occur to provide a framework within which genetic engineering can progress.  Good research-based policy decisions should result from the continuous and simultaneous review of advancements in genetic engineering as studied from an analysis of their ethical and social consequences.  Science should raise ethical issues and ethical issues should influence science, thus creating a healthy tension between genetic engineering research and ethical checks and boundaries, and hopefully avoiding potential harmful consequences of unmonitored science through this balanced approach.

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