Gene therapy vs Genetic engineering vs Eugenics. Where do we draw the line?

People fear change, fear the aspect of not being in control; and there is constantly a fight for control in one way or another. There is constantly new studies and new things being synthesised in the medical field as well as other fields; but the possibilities that arise when opening these doors can lead to many other arguments and moral dilemmas.

Gene therapy has been defined as ‘The introduction or alteration of genetic material within a cell or organism with the intention of curing or treating a disease’ (Griesenbach & Alton, 2013). This can help improve the life expectancy of many people, and improve the condition under which people live. For example those who are diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis, which is affects more than 90’000 people worldwide (Boseley, 2015). Another common example would be Down syndrome, which is probably a more well known disease, specifically associated with children.  There are many other conditions in which gene therapy can be helpful, which begs the question of how is this against our morals?

Some people may argue about how gene therapy is being tested, in other words, the testing done on animals. Unfortunately this is the case for many medical advances, and not solely gene therapy; although gene therapy may be affecting the animals in a completely different manner to which other drug testing does. Others may think we are attempting to play god by changing the physical genes of humans in order to cure such conditions, however this can be thought of in both ways. We are changing the genes and rely a lot more on technology in this generation, but it can be argued that the only reason we have this opportunity is because our brains have the ability to learn and improve on the technology and medicine which has been done in the recent years; and this can also be classified as god’s creation. Although it could also be argued that god gave these people the genetic disorder, and therefore the strength for the person and their family to overcome the challenges of the specific condition and live their life to the fullest regardless of the challenges faced. It is very difficult to determine what the opinions of the society would be as so many people and their families are affected by these conditions in their day to day living, while many others are completely oblivious to these circumstances until a loved one of theirs experiences it. I have no experience in these cases, no loved one has had an illness that has affected me in such a way. I have, however, seen many cases as I’ve grown which has helped me understand in a small way the effect it has. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be, and even though I believe everything happens for a reason and they are now stronger people for it; I would be happy knowing that fewer people, or possibly no people at all in the future, had to experience this as a result of our advancing medical field.

With regards to genetic engineering it is important to make a distinction between biological and non-biological enhancement; “biological enhancement is enhancement that directly alters our biology rather than alters that biology indirectly, non-biological enhancements will take the form of “add-ons” rather than alterations” (Cohen, 2014), for example learning for a test. From my understanding of these definitions and to simplify, genetic engineering is making enhancements to the ability of learning a skill (non-biological) or to the physical appearance (biological). This is more of a moral dilemma for many people and some may say that this is too close to ‘Pandora’s box’. You could have the exact same arguments as for gene therapy with regards to the god complex, and how god created us in his image, but also gave us the possibility of changing it by making all these progressions in research and the genetic field. So, what makes this so different to gene therapy? Society has changed a lot over the years, making our lives inevitably easier. So many products or services we require in our day to day lives are more readily available, the opportunity to avoid household tasks or not to cook is now an option for the majority of people. This can be seen by the increase in the number of hypertension and diabetes. The number of adults with hypertension has more than doubled from 1995 to 2005; the results of a recent population-based study performed in Canada indicated that the prevalence of diabetes mellitus also increased substantially from 1995 to 2005 (Tu, Chen & Lipscombe; 2008). Even though there are multiple factors affecting the onset of these two co-morbidities, a common indicator between the two is obesity (Tu, Chen & Lipscombe; 2008).

Many people would use any opportunity available to go ‘the short cut’ as some would say; in this regard many people would use genetic engineering to lose weight, to gain muscle or learn a new skill. In these cases, where is the sense of achievement? We can all achieve the same thing in the same amount of time, with minimal effort; but then how would the future generations learn to persevere through the difficult situations? Don’t misunderstand, this isn’t meant to say that all people will now lack that perseverance. There will always be some kind of difference between people, a constant competition for who is better, which in turn could teach people this perseverance later in life; or could simply mean they can constantly change their genes to be better than one another. Another aspect would be looking at the cost of this, as not everyone will be able to afford this gene therapy; thereby causing an even greater difference in our society. Then we bring in disability, now what? Should those with disability not have the opportunity to change this? To have the opportunity to feel better about themselves. Is the government going to pay for this as though it was a normal medical treatment? The input the government can provide will differ with each country, depending on the health care system already in place; and in some countries, in may in fact be possible for the government to assist all people with disabilities to undergo genetic modification. Although for those countries where it is not possible, and even those for which it is, I do not think it should be the main focus of the government. If there are other health care circumstances that are life threatening or can affect people’s lives, this should be the focus. For those who truly would like the opportunity to take away the disability, I see no problem in this; similar to the aspect of gene therapy, this will help people and better their daily lives.

The worry is simply where do we stop? When do we know that we’re crossing the line between genetic engineering and eugenics? Eugenics is the positive selection of “good” versions of the human genome and the weeding out of “bad” versions, not just for the health of an individual, but for the future of the species (Lopez-Bao, Kaczensky, Linnell  & Boitani, 2015). This could include all people gaining muscle easier, or being more resilient to drugs or alcohol. Further, this could go to changing the complete physical appearance of everyone who has access. Yes, we could say that everyone has their own opinions and nobody will then look the same; but what about those few who follow and try to be so much like a specific actor, for example. Furthermore, this is changing the genetics of your unborn child. If you’re changing your own genetics, then you have a say in the matter; but what about changing the genes of your child to ensure they are smarter? This is of course for their own benefit, but when can it be considered morally wrong. Is there a greater difference from when they’re fetus compared to a new born? How can anyone make this decision for someone else, no matter the fact that you have their best interests at heart. Would you have liked the opportunity to choose your eye colour, have it be completely random, or know that your parents chose it. This is therefore playing very close to the god aspect, and how people want to be in control of every part in their lives. Yes, if you make decisions for your newly born child at this stage of the genetic research, there should be a way to reverse it; but will all opportunities for change also have a reversal button? Like buying a pair of jeans and deciding a day later that you no longer like the way it sits on you, so exchanging it for a completely new pair. Again, this plays a lot on the aspect of money; and more so in many people’s eyes: the god complex.  A study was done which found that religion was the deciding factor to the eugenics legislation, with this said; both the Eugenics Education System and the American Education System saw the issue of religion as a source of considerable concern, and made great efforts to attempt to ensure their work was not publicly offensive (Baker, 2014).

The real question is how do we draw the line? How do we know that we’re moving from genetic engineering to eugenics? I don’t feel is something that we should fear, as this fear will not change it possibility of it happening. However, whether or not it should be embraced is a personal decision. I feel as though it should be focused on the medicine, to help people improve their lives instead of changing our look. I hope the gene therapy becomes successful and a is used to help many people, genetic engineering to help those who are disabled, but and I am conflicted when it comes to anything more. If you really want a look or a specific skill, I feel it is something people should work for; not something that simply changes. 

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References

Baker, G. (2014).  Christianity and Eugenics: The place of religion in the British eugenics education society and the American eugenics society, c. 1907-1940

Boseley, S. (2015). Gene therapy treatment for cystic fibrosis may be possible by 2020, scientists say. The guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jul/03/gene-therapy-cystic-fibrosis-2020-scientists

Cohen, I. (2014). What (if anything) is Wrong With Human Enhancement? What (if anything) is Right with It? Tulsa Law Review, 49(4):645-687. Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.law.utulsa.edu/tlr/vol49/iss3/4/

Griesenbach, U. & Alton, E. (2013). Moving forward: cystic fibrosis gene therapy. Human Molecular Genetics, 22. doi:10.1093/hmg/ddt372

Lopez-Bao, J., Kaczensky, P., Linnell, J. & Boitani, L. (2015). Carnivore Coexistence: Wilderness not required. Sciencemag 348 (6237). DOI: 10.1126/science.348.6237.871-b

Tu, K., Chen, Z. & Lipscombe, L. (2008). Prevalence and incidence of hypertension from 1995 to 2005: a population-based study. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 178(11):1429-35. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2374870/pdf/20080520s00015p1429.pdf

 

 

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