A question 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 Pandora’s Box?” my answer “I simply do not care”. This is very subjective and biased though as my answer is only based on my opinion.
When one thinks of modifying the human body it seems like mere science fiction. For some the terms genetic engineering and gene therapy brings hope of human enhancement and improved therapy in the future. On the other hand for others it instills fear of a world where humans will become corrupted.
With time humans have always tried to improve the human condition with different technology and succeeded, which changes the world around us. But have humans ever attempted to change themselves? We all share a desire for self-improvement. We seek to become a “better” human in a variety of ways through education, work, parenthood, or adhering to religious or ethical values.
Genetic engineering and gene therapy has entered the realm of human possibility. In this essay I will discuss each of the above mentioned terms with examples in the hope that I might be able to change my already biased and subjective opinion or whether my opinion will remain unchanged.
Genetic engineering is the deliberate modification of the characteristics of an organism by manipulating its genetic material to produce abilities beyond what they should be (Koepsell, 2007). The reality of genetic engineering is not fully understood by most humans (Koepsell, 2007), hence they are misled by what could actually be achieved with genetic engineering. Genetic engineering has already proven to be a beneficial resources in medicine, agriculture and manufacturing. Genetic engineering has its benefits and risk factors, but ultimately it is up to us which one we choose to focus on.
Gene therapy is the use of genes to correct defective genes responsible for genetic disorders. It gives us the ability to treat or prevent diseases and disabilities by simply making life easier for many people and decreasing the risk of new-borns being born with life threatening diseases or genetic disabilities. If you had the ability to prevent your child from having a life threatening disease or a disability, would you take it? If this question is posed to any parent that answer will be “Yes”, this is ultimately because any parent or any human being for that matter would not want to see someone they deeply care for suffer from a life threatening disease or a disability.
There are 2 way in which this could be done, namely: somatic therapy and germline therapy. With somatic therapy therapeutic genes are inserted into the somatic cells of the human body, but these alterations and effects of the inserted genes cannot be passed on to future generations (Misra, 2013). Germline therapy is achieved by altering the sperm or egg cells by introducing genes that are integrated into the human genome and the changes of the “new” genes can be inherited by future generations of the individual (Misra, 2013).
The benefits of this is being able to ensure that your child can live a healthier lifestyle, a lifestyle free of disability and its associated discrimination’s and preventing your child from having a life threatening disease. These technologies however does not come without risk factors. Some of the risks are: the benefits of gene therapy are not long term due to the dividing nature of cells, hence patients would have to go for multiple rounds of gene therapy; disorders that affect multiple genes such as heart disease, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis and diabetes will be very difficult to treat using gene therapy (Siegrist, 2000).
We can use genetic engineering to change a single gene in the human DNA strand in order to change hair colour, skin colour, intelligence, eye colour etc. this opens up a whole new can of worms as humans might use it to obtain a certain amount of power, to change human development and to the ability of humans to be more intelligent than another, or to be more empathetic than another. Ultimately we do not have the right to make these changes. Who are we to decide on the above mentioned factors? As humans we want to be able to be in control of everything and become insecure when we cannot control certain things. Humans have the desire of wanting to look a certain way, wanting to be stronger than the next person, wanting to be better than the next person and wanting to be more intelligent than the next person, but is this all there is to life and how will it make us “better” humans? How naive will it not be for us as humans to use gene therapy as a way to change ourselves? How will this impact society? Imagine everyone looking the same, all having blonde hair and all being Caucasian, all having green eyes, how odd will that not be? The beauty of the human race is that, all of us are different, we do not look the same, and we do not have the same characteristics. This is just some of the problems we might face. Imagine the possibility of other problems such as the government using such genetic changes to control the population. Also this form of genetic changes can cause that people who really require gene therapy to be on a waiting list to receive gene therapy because as we all know everything that is beneficial for the prevention of disease and disabilities but has other effects such as enhancing humans are always used for the latter. This is solely due to the fact that the latter is always where the companies producing the goods makes their money.
Another factor that is concerning is, how many people will actually have access to these genetic changes? It will easily be affordable to the rich whilst the poor will be left not having access to this amazing future medical treatment. Will people in the under developed countries have access to this treatment? The answer is simply no, for the mere fact that they will not be able to afford the treatment. Also how many people living in under developed countries actually need this treatment way more than those living in developed countries?
Looking at both of these aspects, does it mean that genetic engineering was a bad idea to start? On one hand it can save lives and have beneficial effects for people living with life threatening disorders or with disabilities. On the other hand it can be a terrible idea which can lead to corruption, exploitation, warfare and crime.
I pose the question “Will the benefits of this future medical treatment outweigh the possible risks? Will corruption, exploitation, warfare and crime which can be linked to this new form of treatment outweigh the fact that that it can save the lives of millions of people living with disabilities and life threatening disorders?”
With regards to the ethical considerations around genetic engineering we have to make decisions regarding what is normal and what is a disability, deciding who needs it more: people with illness or people who just want to enhance themselves, deciding whether or not to cure diseases and who will have access to it.
To answer the initially raised question “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 Pandora’s Box?” my answer now is “I don’t know”. With so many things that can go wrong with the release of new and advanced medical treatment such as genetic engineering how do you decide whether or not you have a moral obligation to pursue it? Personally if I had the ability to introduce it to under developed countries where a definite impact would be made using the new technology then surely I would feel that I have a moral obligation to pursue it, but can we guarantee that humans will use this new technology to make an impact on the lives of fellow humans who really need it? Or will humans just decide to use it for their own personal gain? Human nature can sometimes be very predictable, hence humans will inevitably use genetic engineering for their own personal gain, but little do they know the dangers of the DNAge awaits.
Koepsell, D. (2007). The Ethics of Genetic Engineering . Washington D.C.: Centre for Inquiry .
Misra, S. (2013). Human Gene Therapy : A Brief Overview of the Genetic Revolution. Journal Association of Physicians India, 61, 127-133.
Siegrist, M. (2000). The Influence of Trust and Perceptions of Risks and Benefits on the Acceptance of Gene Technology. Risk Analysis, 20(2), 195-203.