A question that has been raised recently is “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? Firstly, and this may sound rather heartless in saying but, life since year zero has been full of ups and downs; life and death; tragedy and joyous occasions. If life were easy and nothing was a problem then what would life even be? World peace? I think not. There will always be something that humans will use to divide ourselves. So in terms of a “moral obligation”, that is purely down the person and their own opinion (which is many cases will be more biased and subjective, rather than objective). What one person perceives to be the right thing can easily be the complete opposite of the person sitting next to them on the bus. Secondly, should this unknown world of science be explored? Once again, that’s a matter of opinion, I believe. For every action there is a positive outcome and a negative outcome. It all depends on which one you want to focus on.
Of course all of us don’t want to see suffering and death around us, whether you know the person or not, but isn’t that how this planet is supposed to be? Survival of the fittest? It’s a sad and hard truth. Over the decades, it is obvious that the population on Earth has risen tremendously, more and more people are surviving conditions that used to shorten their lives to a few months or years, to extending them to almost adulthood sometimes, but do people think of the strain that this many people living at one time puts on the Earth and the need to support each and every one of the humans. Animals are dying off, plants are too, but humans are thriving. Gene therapy, genetic engineering and eugenics are becoming a thing of the norm these days, as science is advancing at alarming rates in which hereditary conditions can be eradicated from entire family trees, in laboratories. I am definitely pro-life, to be biased I would want my father, mother, child, friend to survive if they had a genetic condition that could be fixed, but I also have a rather objective view towards life and believe that “if it’s your time, it’s your time.” I am going to explore the differences of gene therapy, genetic engineering and eugenics to put together the pros and cons of each to formulate either an evidence base for my current opinion, or learn something completely new.
Gene therapy is the technique of using genes to change certain genes to correct any genetic defects thus treating or preventing diseases. There are 2 different types of gene therapy, as it depends on the type of cell that is to be treated; somatic gene therapy which is the transfer of DNA into non-sex cells – these new traits will not be passed down through reproduction – although in germline gene therapy, they can be passed on as this type is aimed at the egg and sperm cells of a person. It is currently being researched, with promising studies on treatments of genetic diseases such as Muscular Dystrophy and Cystic Fibrosis (CF). Year-long trials on CF treatment have made it possible that a treatment may be available within the next 5 years (Boseley, 2015). This condition particularly hits home for me as I had a friend who was born with CF and eventually had to go for a double lung transplant – as this was the only form of treatment available in the later 2000s. Unfortunately she did not survive, not because the lung failed but because our health care system did. She developed bed sores, which the nurses didn’t check up on. Although her death is not related to the type of treatment, but if gene therapy were available to her then, I believe that she would still be alive today. This is where I become biased in being pro-gene therapy – as it has affected my life in a way. Gene therapy is favoured in the sense that it can save lives and ensure more children are allowed to live a healthy life, rather than die at young ages as they have always done. By eliminating the defective gene from a family-tree line, certain disorders and diseases could potentially be eradicated from existence, provided a new opportunity for disease-ridden families to have their own biological children without the fear of them being born “different” in some way. Society has a nasty habit of being discriminative to those with debilitating diseases or impairments in which the idea and practicality of gene therapy to remove these factors could result in the removal of discrimination objection; this can be taking either as an argument for or against use of gene therapy to “fix” people. On the contrary, there has been deaths of trial patients (although this can’t be determined to be a direct effect of the trial) but the science behind it is not well known to say if the cells, the DNA, the vectors are affecting the correct cells we intend for them, or is it causing an irreversible effect. Using “deactivated” viruses as vectors for the corrected DNA were first thought to be the best way to distribute the changes as they infiltrate cells easily, although these could potentially not be as harmless as we may think, and thus cause diseases that we could not have predicted. Adding the corrected DNA to nuclei, there is no guarantee that these corrections will in fact reach the places they are intended to go and thus other issues may arise. Lastly, under the type of therapy known as germline, undesirable effects may only be noticed once these changes have been passed down onto future generations and by that time, it may be too late to reverse. These all lead to dangerous situations created by gene therapy. Another point in the rejection of gene therapy is now those embryos that have detectable undesirable genes in them can prior to in-vitro fertilization could be discarded which would bring ethical dilemmas into the situation.
Genetic engineering, also known as genetic modification, is the science aimed at modifying genes to produce capabilities beyond what they should normally be; enhancing an organism. This is achieved through the use of DNAs called plasmid in which desired genes are inserted to produce the wanted/needed cells. Genetically engineered animals are being used to produce pharmaceutical proteins and replacement tissues in their eggs, blood, and milk. These proteins are then used to treat conditions in humans such as cancer, heart attacks, haemophilia, rheumatoid arthritis, pandemic flu, malaria and small pox. Organ transplant from pigs to humans is also being researched as this will supply an “unlimited access to undamaged organs and cells for transplantation and, eventually, donation from deceased or live human beings will become obsolete” (Groth, 2007). The production of insulin for Type 1 diabetes sufferers is also a widely known genetic engineering process that was produced first in the 1920s and perfected in the 1980s (Maxham, et al. 2013). Another example is for those women suffering from mitochondrial diseases. The fertilized nucleus from the mother’s egg will be transplanted into the “healthy” donor egg (which has it’s own nucleus removed) which will lead to a healthy fertilized egg. This is seen as a taboo topic in the scientific field as to “tinker with people’s DNA” (Starr, 2013) can cause problems if it is damaged in some way and the fear of passing on these damages to the next generation. At the same time, with this fear in mind, it can be eliminated by only allowing the mother to give birth to a son as men do not pass of mitochondrial DNA (it is destroyed by the egg after fertilization). Probably the most beneficial side to genetic engineering would be that disease could be “a thing of the past” (Arnold, 2012) as well as extending the lives of those with life-shortening diseases (similar to the effect of gene therapy). The medicinal side of science is greatly assisted in terms of artificially producing “hormones, enzymes, growth and coagulation factors, antibodies as well as vaccines” (Donatz, et al., 2001) in the treatment of patients. The consequences revolving around this topic is that changing humans on a genetic level messes with the natural law of order of the Earth and Human life. I can, objectively and rather harshly, say that some people are just meant to be worse off than others – unfortunately – and we shouldn’t be trying to defy these laws because there is no knowing what potential back-fires could come to be. Try to imagine if every single person who were born were to live to an average age of 60 years old – there would be no space on this planet, no food, no water, it would be dead (and it’s already on it’s way out). With the idea of wiping out discrimination, possibility of producing people who are unlike the natural ones created, this could alienate them further in society as they could potentially be seen as “nonhuman” (“Gene therapy and genetic engineering”, 2016). This is also a version of eugenics in which removing unwelcome disorders or traits in people to potentially satisfy the needs of those who are alive, and disregarding what others would like, or even that child.
Eugenics can be a very touchy subject still as it is well known to be in practice in the second World War in Germany by the Nazis. “The term eugenics is derived from the Greek word “eu,” meaning good or well, and “genos,” meaning offspring” (“Modern eugenics: building a better person”, 2009). It describes the “selection of desired heritable characteristics in order to improve future generations, typically in reference to humans” (Wilson, 2017). Unbeknown to most people today, myself included, eugenics were a big practice found in the Unites States that began before World War 2, and was seen still researching as recently as 1980s. During the 20th century, 33 states in America condoned the sterilization of people housed in mental institutions, that were deemed “unfit to procreate” (Mercola, 2011) such as; alcoholics, epileptics, blind, deaf or other disabilities, the poor who were on welfare, women who were thought of as promiscuous, criminals, those labelled as “feeble-minded”, as well as children who were victims of rape crimes – of which some 65000 Americans underwent these programmes where most were unknown to what had happened, nor consented to such a procedure. Between the 1930s and 1970s in Sweden, some 60000 people (mostly women) were also sterilized in the hope “to reduce the number of children born with genetic diseases and disorders” (Kevles, 1999). As unsavoury as the research done to find pros for eugenics, after reading such horrible stories about it, makes me cringe, to see that it can be used to assess the medical needs of an unborn child in terms of preparing the parents for the future they are going to endure and thus potentially ensuring a better life for the child. It can also be used to prevent superfluous hereditary disorders such as physical deformities and problems, and mental health issues, furthermore eliminating the disorder for future generations. You are also able to decide which gender your child will be with astounding accuracy which could ensure families have their “dream family”. Lastly, creating better humans. Production of children with improved mental capacity and processing that could make them kinder, hard-working, smarter individuals. (“10 fundamental pros and cons of eugenics”, 2015). The problems surrounding eugenics is that, firstly, it is extremely expensive thus making the difference between rich and poor that much larger. By changing your child to what you want or society sees as “perfect” causes the destruction of human diversity and can also lead to “extreme discrimination” as they can be alienated because of their “healthier bodies, smarter minds and better looks” (“10 fundamental pros and cons of eugenics”, 2015). As is feared in gene therapy and genetic engineering, the potential to cause genetic defects instead of preventing them is still at large as the gene pool will be significantly smaller which can also lead to conditions found in inbreeding. Because of the foundations of eugenics laid by the Nazis, even if in the future the intentions around eugenics if pure and good, the world will never forget it’s dark past.
As I have discussed, given examples for and explained the differences between these 3 scientific fields, it still comes down to matter of opinion – to me. It would be amazing to see the uprooting of hereditary diseases such as CF, Alzheimers, Huntington’s, Haemophilia, etc., there are too many ethical points to address first such as; could these sciences be used to make people decide who lives and who dies on a more world-widely available platform? Do the parents choose to not bring a “defective” child into the world purely because they don’t want to deal with the responsibilities for that child? Who gets to decide what is “normal” and what isn’t? This can also bring about unfair advantages in the world as people could be genetically modified to be the best in their class at school purely because their parents are wealthy, or be a world renowned athlete who beats Usain Bolt by 3 seconds because he was engineered to be better than him before even being born.
In my opinion, I was to believe that all this research will be only ever used for the good purpose of giving children the lives there are entitled to without the complications of a disease or disorder, but this is what makes us human; the differences, it allows us to adapt and learn to be more humble and accepting of what is around us. If it weren’t for congenital and hereditary conditions, the medical field would probably not be as large as it is today. The course I am studying would not be needed as much, and in that sense I am biased. I am still very on the fence about these 3 topics and believe I will remain this way for many years to come. There will always be pros and cons for scientific ideas. To answer the question raised about “moral obligation”, I don’t believe so. We are an advanced race as is but there is no reason to push for better. We are human, simple as, not robots.
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n.a (2017, June 20) What is gene therapy? Retrieved from: https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/therapy/genetherapy
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