Do we have a moral obligation as a society to ensure that genetic engineering is pursued, or should we do everything possible to ensure that we do not open this Pandora’s box?
Genetic engineering is the deliberate modification of the characteristics of an organism by manipulating its genetic material. Genetic engineering is not new. It is something is used globally and has been around for hundreds of years.
Artificial selection is most often utilized in plants. The earliest evidence of artificial selection of plants dates back to 7800 BCE in archaeological sites found in southwest Asia, where scientists have found domestic varieties of wheat. Usually, genetic engineering in plants is used to make them more resistant and durable. In 1988, Scientists inserted genes into soybeans, ultimately creating what would become the most common GMO: glyphosate-tolerant soybeans. Making a crop that was resistant to herbicide made it much easier, and cheaper, for farmers to control weeds while producing high yields. Soon, other GMO seeds were developed including potato, cotton, rice, sugar beets, sugarcane, and tomatoes, with the intention of making these crops resistant to insects, antibiotics, diseases, herbicides, and pesticides.
From this, one can conclude that genetic engineering, at least in plants, is a good thing. It has a positive effect and has great outcomes for us as humans who need these plants and products for nutrition. It decreases the effort to produce them, making them cheaper and more accessible to us. So genetic engineering is good, right? There has been contradicting studies performed, trying to discover alternative effects of GMO foods on humans. Humans experiment with the genetic make-up of something is supposed to be “natural” and then consume it. We are no longer consuming natural products. If the product is unnatural, does this make it unhealthy? To date there hasn’t been enough research to determine whether GMOs are entirely healthy for humans. Some concerns include the fear that altering the natural state of an organism has unknown consequences for humans, and that genes meant to keep plants resistant to herbicides or antibiotics could potentially harm humans later on. For now, these concerns haven’t been substantiated. FDA has listed GMOs as safe to consume.
Whether one likes the idea or not, humanity has already opened this Pandora’s Box – the modification of genetic make-up. Many people are uncomfortable with the prospect of changing an organism’s natural state. Many are doubtful of changing the order of Mother Nature. To this I say; “wake up and smell the coffee”. Nothing humans do or consume is natural. Technology is unnatural, driving vehicles is unnatural, wearing clothes is unnatural and little to none of the food we consume is completely natural. These habits and mannerisms have evolved and developed over hundreds of years, all to make resources available with less effort with the long term effect of advancing society and humanity. Opening Pandora’s Box has been a cautious process, and rightly so, but thus far only positive effects for humanity have been found.
Scientists have experimented further with genetic engineering and have broadened their sample field to include humans with genetically transferred diseases. Gene therapy was introduced as a promising treatment option for a number of diseases.
Gene therapy is an experimental technique that uses genes to treat or prevent disease. In the near-by future, this technique may allow doctors to treat a disorder by inserting a gene into a patient’s cells instead of using drugs or surgery. Replacing a mutated gene that causes disease with a healthy copy of the gene, inactivating, or “knocking out,” a mutated gene that is functioning improperly, or introducing a new gene into the body to help fight a disease are some of the approaches to gene therapy. The technique remains risky and is still under study to make sure that it will be safe and effective. Gene therapy is currently only being tested for the treatment of diseases that have no other cures.
A disease that is under intense research for gene therapy is cystic fibrosis. A mutated gene transferred from the parent causes life-long suffering in the offspring. Those born with CF have a limited lifespan. Their body produces thick mucus, which affects the lungs and digestive system in particular. CF is a cruel condition that has no cure, which thousands of CF sufferers so desperately desire. It is not like influenza or pneumonia where a patient can take antibiotic tablets and after a few days be cured of the illness. If only every illness has the same mechanism to cure it. No, CF, among other diseases is more complicated. No matter the extent of a disease a cure is desired and one needs to be found.
Scientists now believe they have proved gene therapy is possible in treating cystic fibrosis. Cystic fibrosis was an early target for scientists excited by the concept of gene therapy when the mutated gene that causes it was identified some 25 years ago.
CRISPR, a new genome editing tool, could transform the field of biology—and a recent study on genetically-engineered human embryos has converted this promise into media hype. CRISPR allows scientists to edit genomes with unprecedented precision, efficiency, and flexibility. The past few years have seen a flurry of “firsts” with CRISPR, from creating monkeys with targeted mutations to preventing HIV infection in human cells. Chinese scientists recently announced they applied the technique to nonviable human embryos, hinting at CRISPR’s potential to cure any genetic disease. In short, CRISPR is far better than older techniques for gene splicing and editing.
CRISPR modifies the genetic make-up of an organism and as CF is a genetic disease, CRISPR holds the cure to CF so many have been praying for. This means that to cure CF in a human, one will have to change their genetic make-up. When we experiment further than GMO plants and extend to gene therapy in humans, many people may be slightly more uncomfortable with the idea. Once again, we are interfering with nature’s natural order but this time it is more personal. Changing the genetic make-up of humans is where many may draw the line and “close Pandora’s box”. If one choses this, one also opposes the cure to CF and many other genetic diseases. Because the cure to these diseases are more complicated than pneumonia and require small changes to the genetics of the person, do we not cure these diseases because they are now crossing a line? Any mother in her right mind who is raising a genetically sick child would desire nothing more in life than a cure for the disease and leave her child healthy. No one desires for a child to be sick. Everyone desires health. So why should scientists draw the line now and “close Pandora’s box” when the cure is now in their hands?
With the technology and science that is available to researchers and scientists, we, as a society, definitely do have a moral obligation to pursue genetic engineering in medicine. Curing diseases and relieving suffering is what the government should be aiming towards. It is absolutely remarkable what can be done with gene therapy such as CRISPR and I believe that we should be using this in the medical field. But if we don’t draw the line on modifying human genetics, where do we draw the line? Is there a line to be drawn? When do we decide to close Pandora’s Box and live in what is remaining of the “natural” state of the world? If we continue to live in experimentation of Pandora’s Box and maximize the abilities of CRISPR, it may lead to designer babies. Parents picking out only the best qualities in their unborn children. Qualities such as hair colour, intelligence, height, physique, eye colour etc. In the not so far future, this may all be a reality.
I think it is up to each individual to decide when to draw the line. Different people with different cultural and religious backgrounds will have different opinions about this. Each person needs to formulate their own opinion on what is morally correct to them.
Personally, speaking as a Christian, I draw my opinion on looking at the intentions of mans’ heart. The intention of picking out the best genetic characteristics for ones’ offspring is a selfish and proud act. The only benefit of doing this is for ones’ self; to become better than others, ultimately gaining power over them. Trying to make your offspring the best of the best for what purpose? To try and take on the role of God? Make no mistake, no human could ever take on the role of God.
As seen before in history (Genesis 11), the people of Babylonia attempted to become as powerful as God by building a tower to heaven, the tower of Babel. Pride and selfish desires were in their hearts. Needless to say, it is impossible to become God and God would not allow it. He intervened by changing the language of the people, confusing them and forbidding them to continue with their project. Whether it may seem so or not, God is always ultimately in control of every situation.
If a person desires to create a human with the best genetic characteristics, their heart is proud and selfish and their intention is to become a “god”. Here, one is no longer trying to relieve suffering and pain of diseases but trying to become more powerful for selfish gain. There is a big difference. I believe that God is in control of this too and I do not worry about humanity’s futile attempts to become “god.” I do not believe in designing my own offspring to be the best because I strive to fill my heart with good intentions, in line with Christ. I close Pandora’s Box when it begins to no longer serve a purpose in medicine, relieving suffering and working for the better of humankind, but instead is used for humanity’s selfish desires, racing to the top to gain power over one another.