Engineering The Future: Bioethical Issues of Genetic Engineering
The year is 2010 AD, and we humans are on the verge of some amazing breakthroughs in medical technology and genetics. With bright futures and endless possibilities for the newest emerging fields, such as cloning, gene therapy, and genetic engineering leading the way. Although these fields are now far from science fiction, writers have been contemplating the ramifications of these fields decades before the technology was even possible in books such as Frank Herbert's The White Plague and even in movies like I Am Legend. Each of these areas of study have their own pitfalls in the bioethical arena, but genetic engineering has some large hurdles to overcome for instance genetic cures, genetic enhancement, and maverick behavior.
Although this may seem at first glance to be a non-issue, with closer inspection there are a number of areas that have the potential for great harm and should be considered very carefully. The first and foremost is the limitations of the current technology. With the base pairs reaching approximately 3.5 billion and only 5% of that being identified genes the remainder is considered to be “Junk DNA” or spacer DNA. (Epstein, 1998) The question to be asked here is the remaining 95% actually junk or do we not have the technology or the insight to see where they connect to humanity as a whole. Could those unknown pairs be a link to our past, leftovers of evolution? Or is there the possibility that they are the stepping stones to humanities next evolutionary phase?
Assuming that spacer DNA is just that, another area of consternation is the knowledge that by replacing even one single gene in the genome could possible cause unforeseen problems in other systems of the body. “Our systems interlock and overlap so that if we change one physical characteristic, we disrupt the overall healthy balance of our structure.” (Hardcastle, 2004) If it is possible, the next step in this line of inquiry would be what damage could come from that change? Could curing a debilitating disease start a chain reaction in the DNA that generations from now our children will have to repair or deal with? Looking at something as simple as a virus is a frightening prospect. The medical community battles daily with natural mutations that nature creates, such as MRSA and AIDS. How well would it deal with a virus that after infecting genetically enhanced tissue mutates to include the enhanced DNA? (Epstein, 1998)
Once these problems have been satisfied, we are still left with having to decide to whom access will be granted to the process and who will not. Admittedly the process will not be cheap. So do well allow those with money enough to utilize this process to live while those without funding will die? The German community has a very unique view point when it comes to this. Unlike the United States, the bioethics community is split not by party or conservativeness but by the idea that the potential benefits and associated risks do or do not outweigh the limits of the technological solution and the cost to the individual and society as a whole. On one side, believes that ethics is a matter of choice and that the task of ethics is to rationally balance diverging values. (Braun, 2005) The other side takes a point of view from a common post-war belief, “derived from the historical experience of the Nazi crimes, incorporates a common will not to be the sort of people who distinguish between a life worth living and a life not worth living.” (Braun, 2005) Their belief is that ethics is a battle between science and economics against the lessons learned from the past. (Braun, 2005)
Perhaps all of this is just alarmism at its best and all goes as planned. The human race conquers disease and all is right with the world, what then? Of course nothing can be left all happy and grand because by fixing one problem we created another. Not only do we have overpopulation due to the decrease in the death rate, but we also have an ecological problem on our hands with trying to feed and house the ever expanding population. Not to mention the social and healthcare costs. (Lauritzen, 2005)
Genetic enhancement may seem to have already been covered by curing diseases; however this breeds new problems of its own. We have already seen the lengths that people are willing to go to produce their idea of perfection in themselves through cosmetic surgery, liposuction, dieting fads, cosmetics, hair dye, and so much more. How far would people go to create perfection in their children? To be able to give their children that edge above the future competition? To be able to choose the sex, hair color, eye color, height, mental ability, physical strength and agility? How far is too far? Where is the line in the sand stating that we have stopped helping humanity and started playing God? Alba is one very interesting example of this conundrum:
“Alba, the GFP Bunny”. Alba was an albino rabbit that had been genetically modified by the insertion of a gene from a jellyfish that gave it a green fluorescent protein (GFP), causing it to glow green under certain light. (Lauritzen, 2005)
The question of enhancement can be taken even farther. Assuming that we do genetically enhance our children, are we helping them or cutting off opportunities for them to advance? Currently we have ethical issue with professional athletes using different drugs, stimulants, and steroids to increase their natural abilities. So it begs the question, would it not be seen in the same light if a genetically enhanced athlete were to compete against an athlete with unenhanced natural ability? Would we then have to face a different form of discrimination against either those who are enhanced genetically or against those who are not? (Hardcastle, 2004)
Humans are not the only thing being genetically enhanced. Our food supply is as well. Plants are being enhanced to grow faster, bigger, be more resistant to herbicides, and use less water. Once again we are left asking ourselves, how is this a bad thing? Once a new crop is introduce into the ecosystem it interacts with the natural vegetation and cross pollination giving us stronger herbicide resistant weeds. It would also enter into the bacteria and fungi in the soil which could cause the soil to inhibit the growth of plants. (Epstein, 1998)
The most worrisome bioethical issues are the ones we can't control. Once the technology is available not everyone will be willing to conform to ethical standards, regulations and laws. You will have those who are willing to bend research regulations to skew results; companies that will promise a magical cure when none is available just to make a profit; people whom, for the sake of vengeance, will voluntarily engineer viruses and bioweapons. The first two we have seen in one form or another since the beginning of science and medicine. It is the last group that is the hardest to predict and control. There has been a threat of biological warfare for a long time, for instance, Agent Orange in the Vietnam war, Gulf War Syndrome in the first Gulf War is suggested to have been a bioengineered weapon, Anthrax, Plague, and Botulinum toxin (Kortepeter & Parker, 1999) threats from terrorist groups.
Everything considered there are still a large number of bioethical questions that have yet to be answered about the area of genetic engineering, and will continue to be debated well into the future. As science and technology progress, hopefully these answers will become evident without the worst possibilities and scenarios becoming reality.
Braun, K. (2005). Not Just for Experts: The Public Debate about Reprogenetics in Germany. Hastings Center Report , 42-49.
Epstein, R. (1998, December 26). Redesigning the World: Ethical Questions about Genetic Engineering. Retrieved March 01, 2010, from Genetic Engineering and Its Dangers: http://online.sfsu.edu/~rone/GEessays/Redesigning.htm
Hardcastle, V. G. (2004, July 01). Bioethics: Is Enhancement Right? Retrieved Feburary 25, 2010, from The Dana Foundation: http://www.dana.org/news/cerebrum/detail.aspx?id=1318
Kortepeter, M. G., & Parker, G. W. (1999, July-August). Potential Biological Weapons Threats. Retrieved March 03, 2010, from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/eid/vol5no4/kortepeter.htm
Lauritzen, P. (2005). Stem Cells, Biotechnology, and Human Rights: Implications for a Posthuman Future. Hastings Center Report , 25-33.