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Genetic engineering involves a partial or complete alteration in the structure, form and function of an organism through artificial replacement, addition or deletion of genetic composition and sequence. This alteration or modification may result in the organism acquiring a whole new characteristic. This technology promises immense benefit to the human society since various disorders and ailments can successfully be treated.
It has the potential of altering the course of human destiny either positively or negatively. According to scientific research the genes in every living organism contains the information about the function and structure of all tissues and organs. Understanding this information has ensured that certain human conditions that troubled man throughout the centuries has been pushed into the past. Today, various inherited conditions can successfully be treated through genetic engineering.
Breakthroughs in genetic research have advanced our understanding and knowledge of approaching genetic interventions as solutions to treating diseases caused by abnormalities in genes (Franken, Chapman 1). Efforts to develop techniques for treating diseases at molecular level arose due to the limitations of the current therapies to treat genetic diseases. An advance in animal research has also increased the possibility of modifying the genetic composition of the future generations. Advanced knowledge of genetics is also making it possible for the enhancement of human characteristics such as strength, intelligence and eye color (Ibid 2).
Humans can now access the information about their biological system and functioning which poses major ethical complexities. Information got with regard to genetic research may be of harm to the human society. We have successfully managed to introduce foreign genes into the system of other animals and we cannot deny the same possibility with regard to humans. Much study has been focused on the possibility of applying the findings of such study on human beings.
However, the current application of genetic engineering is in the field of medicine particularly to treat various genetic conditions. Gene transfer is pursued as an attempt to curb the symptoms of diseases which are historically known to be inherited. The treatment involves the transfer of a gene which has no defects to the tissues affected by disease. However, this method of treatment has various consequences to the individual and the society in general. This essay seeks to look at the moral consequences of genetic engineering as a technology for enhancing life in this planet.
Gene therapy may be considered as a major step in curbing certain conditions in the society such as old age and disease. Today, an individual may reduce the effects of old age such as stiff joints and worn out muscles through gene therapy. However, there have been controversies with regard to the ethical implication of carrying out genetic research. Even though some people are cautious when it comes to commenting on this issue, others have boldly argued that genetic engineering holds all the answers to human existence.
Experts in the field of genetic engineering have often argued that the benefits of reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning, the main subjects of controversy, far much outweighs the risks. They have often said that genetic engineering holds the key to the answers concerning human health. However, it is important that we reflect on the human values and how generations are preserved before we can pass judgment on the practice. Every human individual is driven by the desire to achieve a perfect life.
Even though this is an unattainable desire we always strive towards achieving a relatively better life. It is this desire that through the millennia has driven man to evolve from a simple hunter-gatherer whose life is dictated by natural phenomena to a complex capitalist whose life is dominated by science. However, this development has taken place owing to the desire to improve the present condition for ourselves and for the future generation. Man throughout these stages of development has been propelled forward by the obligation to the succeeding generations consciously or unconsciously.
There is a general belief that the quality of a person’s or society’s life depends upon its concerns for the future generation. These concerns largely lie in the present decisions that we make with regard to how we want to live and what we want our children to inherit. In order for us to assess the ethical implication of genetic engineering it is important that we look at it against the future generations. Our present practices if left unchecked may lead to future catastrophe.
This is evidenced by the current statistics concerning global warming and the food crisis. The desire to amass wealth has seen the ecosystem being destroyed, not to mention the inequalities that we experience today. In the same manner, the desire to realize a human society free of disorders and sickness may lead to man’s self destruction.
With the possibility of human cloning the natural life of human individuals may be in jeopardy. A preservation of the common genetic heritage of humans and the protection of the rights of future generations to inherit original and unhampered genome may not be realized if we go by the principles of genetic engineering. The foundations of moral human status are defined by the cluster of genes collected through time. Thus any manipulation or change in this legacy has a consequence of distorting the identity of the succeeding generations. Human reproductive cloning which involves replicating the entire organism is bound to spell doom to the human race.
Since the mandate to carry out experiments and subsequent use of thus technology will solely be in the hands of biotech corporations, there is the risk of human beings being dehumanized. These corporations may hold patents on genetically engineered products thereby manipulating this industry according to their preference. All the specimen and products of research will be in their possession and considering that human subjects are involved, they may as well pass as machines.
Some humans will have owners. The authority of the scientists to determine the uses of cloning may lead to the breeding of humans. Certain undesirable genetic traits could be eliminated even though these may be necessary in the realization of a complete society. This ability to manipulate and enhance humans poses a serious threat in the sense that governments and wealthy individuals may resort to producing superior human beings. These superior humans might realize that strength hence might seek to further the principles of discrimination. They may even root for some kind of special treatment leading to political awareness. This may lead to a “clone revolution”.
In other words should they grow in numbers and assuming that their freedom is not restricted, they may advocate for certain rights. Another dilemma would concern the identity of these cloned individuals. Will they share equal rights and opportunities with the “normal” individuals, intermarry and coexist? Will institutions such as marriage be irrelevant?
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Genetic engineering, some people have argued, will erode human dignity since the destiny of men often will be in the hands of genetic scientists. Even today, it is the scientists who define health standards for the rest of humanity. The authority to determine which baby to be born and which one to be terminated is within their reach. In other words, it may be claimed that they have the power to determine life and death.
However, people in support of genetic engineering are of the opinion that should scientists respect nature and employ their knowledge in serving humanity, then their practice is justifiable. According to them, genomic knowledge has been bestowed man so he can improve the state of human condition on earth by alleviating human suffering. These proponents of genetic engineering dismiss the uncertainties that surround this practice holding to a rather slippery premise that as long as these scientists evade the sins of pride and greed in this field, things may turn out to be perfect. However, considering that these scientists are human individuals, we may not guarantee that they are immune to pride and greed.
The limits of human genetic modification are not clearly defined. However, a line was marked between treatment of diseases and enhancing human traits to achieve goals that are not medical. Genetic interventions that affect somatic cells were differentiated from those that have the capacity to result into intergenerational transmission or modifications. What is apparent is that we may not be in a position to maintain this line between enhancement and treatment as a conceptual matter. Even so, somatic gene therapy posses the risk of altering germ cells and the targeted somatic cells. Up to date, the public is ignorant on the realities behind genetic engineering.
Our understanding of the ethical and policy implications on this subject has not kept pace with the rapid advancements in science (Frankel, Chapman 5). This has left the society to proceed in a reactionary mode as it scrambles to relate its values to these scientific developments. However advancement in science which raises the possibility of manipulating the genetic future of humans should be given an upper hand with regard to planning and deciding on how to proceed with its development. (ibid)
Rigorous analysis coupled with public dialogue should guide this technology failure to which it may pose serious consequences on the future generations. If the public are not made aware of this progress and subsequently give out their views, future catastrophe may be inevitable.
As much as there could be genuine concerns surrounding genetic engineering, history has proven that good intentions have always led to fatal mistakes. Supposing that human cloning becomes an acceptable practice, companies may order the best clones for specific jobs. A company may place its order with specific requirements since it is clear that genetic engineering may enhance various traits. In other words, individuals will be focused on increasing their intelligence or strength in order to remain competitive.
Those who will not be in a position to meet these costs will definitely be extinct because they will not be in a position to compete at equal grounds. Going by the Darwinian theory of survival for the fittest and natural selection, we may as well remain with the best of quality within the human race which will happen to be individuals whose genes have been modified. Another consequence is that the original human genes may be modified to the extent that at some point in time a new species may arise.
We ought to consider the possibility of an individual or groups creating a superior race of humans using the new tools of genetic engineering. However, it is not yet clear as to what genetic factors determine certain desired traits. Nevertheless, traits such as intelligence, personality and appearance have significant components which may be subject to genetic manipulation. (Bohlin: Human Genetic Engineering))
Without the proper guidance to our perception of culture, we are at risk of other elements taking over the evolution of the human species. Our brains may develop to an extent that we may be able to understand enough to alter our identity as a species to meet our future survival demands. Future genetic dilemmas are inevitable because man will be caught between preserving his culture and meeting his future needs.
Presently IGM cannot be carried out on humans without posing any risks because the current methods for somatic gene transfer are inefficient and unreliable. The process which involves the addition of DNA to cells instead of replacing or correcting the mutilated gene with a normal one may cause unforeseen consequences. (Franken Chapman 7). There are concerns about the financial motives behind this research since they are basically funded by the private sector.
In other words they may be motivated and influenced by commercial interest which could place the society into jeopardy. Companies may decide to trade on “human spare parts” manufactured from other humans. Genetic engineering may alter the entire structure of the human society owing to the change in attitude towards the human person. Certain structures in the society like the family will be altered to the extent that we may not foresee the relevance of such institution.
Since human relationship is the building block of the human society, it is difficult to predict what will become of procreation as a means of cementing human bonds. Such normal practices like sexual intercourse may have different meaning for the future generation. It really does not add up to the kind of society that we may want for our succeeding race. It is the imperfections in the society which subject us to more inquiry thereby bringing us closer to nature and to each other.
Genetic engineering for the purposes of enhancement also poses many challenges and problems. An improvement in the human form and function has the consequences of widening the social gaps. Enhanced individuals will be at the top of the social table and this may result into discrimination and all kinds of social evils. In a society where there is prejudiced access to health care facilities the introduction of IGM may pose various issues of justice thereby introducing new or magnifying old inequalities.
Religious perspectives on Genetic engineering
All the world’s religious traditions favor healing. Medicine is endorsed as some form of a highly valued human action. This includes the recognition that it treats diseases by sometimes altering and interfering with the pathogen’s natural course. However there is a general discomfort with regard to actions which might affect the normal human relation or alter human nature. This discomfort has been extended to the field of science with regard to medical advances.
Approval of somatic cell gene therapy by religious scholars was largely based on the argument that it was an extension of medicine. However, a more cautious response has characterized an attempt at alterations which may impact on the future generation’s genetic inheritance. It is important to note that these religious bodies have not however come out to openly condemn genetic engineering but rather they have been very cautious in handling the issue.
Since most of this research is carried out on the embryo, there has been differing views among the religious communities concerning the state of the embryo. The main object of controversy lies on the question of when to regard the human embryo as a human person. In other words, when does the human life begin? According to the Muslim and Jewish traditions, embryos created in vitro are technically not considered humans. According to these religions an embryo within the first 40 days of conception is considered as not having a soul. However, it is an official position of major churches and a personal belief among the Christians that a human embryo from conception should not be regarded as a human person. This implies that the embryo is not to be equated with an object of experiment.
According to these religions humans are limited in their understanding and comprehension. Religious thinkers hold the belief that humans exaggerate their ability and knowledge to manipulate and control nature through technology. Some Christian denominations are also of the position that humans are deceived in thinking that they have the full capacity to access knowledge and predict the future. With regard to this many in the religious circle are concerned about the possibility of power and dominance being the driving force behind technology. In other words, it could be used for personal gains.
Unequal access to health care is also a major concern of many religious communities. This inequality contradicts the belief that the benefits of creation should be shared. This raises a question of equity with regard to access to IGM within the religious community because technology will enhance children in a competitive way. This will secure positions for the offspring of the wealthy and powerful against competition.
A special significance and value is attached to the human genes because they are essential to our existence biologically. The core of our humanness lies in these genes since they mark the destination between individuals. Value and worth can be derived from genes in the same way we can derive it to other body parts. In recognition of this it is unacceptable to sell body parts or mutilate bodies after death. It thus follows that it is ethically important to ensure that our genes function accordingly. If we had the technical ability to enhance the performance of our genes without jeopardizing our well being and important societal values, then we would have the obligation to mend genes in those who are alive.
Since the gene pool represents genetic patrimony future generations have a right to an unmodified human gene pod. In other words, every generation has a right to inherit a gene pool which has not been modified artificially. There are doubts as to if IGM could have serious effect on the gene pool.
However, in order to initiate any change in the composition of the gene, some analysts have argued that it would be necessary to seek for the future generation’s consent. The protection of the interests of the future generation is our responsibility and this may include eliminating bad genes and ensuring that their health is improved. This is where the major controversy lies with regard to IGM because its proponents may claim that they are working towards ensuring that the future generation is free from certain diseases and conditions.
According to William Gray, genetic engineering cannot be left to proceed without proper regulation and control considering the potential risk it poses to individuals and society. Genetic engineering exposes both human and non human subjects to troublesome possibilities. Our capacity as humans to be responsible for our own actions may be jeopardized in the sense that there will be more controlling factors in our lives.
If many individuals root for enhancement, certain human characteristics will lose their value. Admiration for achievement will fade as the role of enhancement increases making it shift from the performer to the actual pharmacist responsible for such performance (Michael). Will an athlete who has enhanced his energy through technology compete at the same level with a normal athlete? We can embrace genetic engineering in curing certain disorders but it would not be ethically viable to improve through modification the natural state of humans. According to Michael Sandel, there is a moral distinction between curing and enhancing even though he accepts that it is not certain what the difference consist of. Currently, we must embrace the strides made in genetic research while at the same time trying not to stretch our limit.
Blackford, “Russel.Genetics Ethics and the State”. Quadrant Magazine Company. 1999: P35.
Bohlin, Dr. Ray. “Human Genetic Engineering”. Probe Ministries.
Frankel, M., S., Chapman, A. R. Human Inheritable Genetic. 2000.
Grey, Williams. The Ethics of Human Genetic Engineering. 1996. P.55-56.
Ossokrio, Pillar, N. Inheritable genetic Modifications: Do We Owe them to our Children? Baltimore: TheJohn Hopkins University Press.
Sandel, Michael. The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering. Cambridge: Havard University press, 2007.