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?

The answer to that question is simply that, “I don’t know.” Initially my attitude and thoughts towards this topic was “I don’t care, what happens happens you know?”

I am a Grey’s Anatomy fan, but I think of a more appropriate way to say it is – obsessed. So whilst watching this series (when I should’ve been doing other work), the topic of gene therapy was highlighted again, and again, and again. Immediately I thought to myself was “Okay, this is the universe telling you to stop being some damn ignorant and actually to stop and think about it for a minute, because sooner or later it is going to start happening.” Well actually, it already has.

One of the examples was a little boy who was riddled with cancerous tumours, and because he was so weak, another surgery would result in killing him. But then one of the doctors suggested another approach; “It’s called genome mapping, if we can identify the specific DNA sequence of AJ’s tumour it could open up a variety of treatment options and targeted drug therapies.” When you see a little boy so sickly, having to be on oxygen to help him breath, you think to yourself how could one simply say no to something which could be life-saving?

Another example which highlighted gene therapy was that one of the doctors have a genome lab at the hospital, where she occupies herself with disease association. This is the process of identifying a genetic element that is responsible for a disease, allowing her to custom design a specific drug to treat the disease. One of the doctors went through such a hard time dealing with her mother who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, and she couldn’t understand what was happening with her mother or why she acted the way she did and why she treated her the way she did until she was actually diagnosed. This specific doctor then approached the doctor with the genome lap to take her genome map as she had just adopted a little girl and wanted to know whether or not she too had the Alzheimer’s disease and also because she doesn’t want her little girl to go through what she went through.

This hit home, as my gran suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease for ten years, and I watched daily how this affected my mom and her siblings – feelings of anger, confusion, frustration, helplessness and complete heartache. And it ended up tearing the family apart – and to this day family members do not speak to each-other. So something as simple as just removing that Alzheimer’s gene could’ve firstly, prevented everything my gran suffered through, and secondly, my family would not be as broken as it is today.

100 years ago the average life-span was plus-minus 55 years – so diseases like Dementia and Alzheimer’s were relatively unknown. Cancers also. Now that our life-spans are increasing (by an average of 20 years), we are faced with a proportional increase in these diseases, and their socio-economic effects, i.e. strain on the medical system with individuals living longer. We are living longer for a variety of reasons, namely: regular diet, increase reliability of medicines, exercise, etc. And also perhaps increased intakes of hormones and other genetically modified foodstuffs which are passed on through the food chain. As a result of this, a whole range of ‘new’ medical ‘situations’ surround us, and we have not yet found a cure for these. Some of which are man-made, e.g. legionnaires disease. The world is also now divided into the ‘have’s and have-nots’ – which can also be described at the rich and the poor. Generally this means that the rich have more access to the new medicines and practices that are available including gene therapy, genetic engineering and eugenics. This raises a moral issue – “everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others.” Poor countries and people do not have access to basic medicine let alone ‘new technology medicines’. Morally, these medicines and technology must be made available to everyone irrespective of their socio-economic class.

I fully agree on the topic of genetic engineering when it comes to the eradication or treatment of life-threatening diseases and conditions – but it’s a different story when parents are wanting to make their children have blonde hair instead of brown, and blue eyes instead of green eyes etc. – so much for autonomy. Adding to my thoughts on autonomy, some authors have argued that the human use of reproductive cloning and genetic engineering should be prohibited because these biotechnologies would undermine the autonomy of the resulting child. Conversely, according to a paper written by Mameli (2007), two versions of this view were discussed. According to the first version, the autonomy of cloned and genetically engineered individuals would be undermined because knowledge of the method by which these individuals have been conceived would make them unable to assume full responsibility for their actions. According to the second version, these biotechnologies would undermine autonomy by violating these individual’s right to an open future. There is no evidence to show that individuals conceived through cloning and genetic engineering would inevitably or even in general be unable to assume responsibility for their actions; there is also no evidence for the claim that cloning and genetic engineering would inevitably or even in general ‘rob’ the child of the possibility to choose from a sufficiently large array of life plans (Mameli, 2007). But this is the thing – we don’t know what potential adverse effects there may be and we don’t know what will happen in 10, 20, 50 years down the line.

Are we ‘playing God?’ Is this going to be a solution for world peace or simply the creation of utter chaos? I don’t know.

References

Mameli, M. (2007, February ). Reproductive cloning, genetic engineering and the autonomy of the child: the moral agent and the open future. Journal of Medical Ethics, 33(2), 87-93.

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