Genetic and ethical engineering: are we ready?

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Written by Audrey Eaves

Advances in science and technology have made human genetic cloning and engineering possible. In contemporary society, these biological technologies are controversial. Many government, scientific and religious organizations are fiercely opposed to genetic engineering due to controversy in the context of safety and moral outcomes. Nonetheless, advocates and proponents argue that these technologies are fundamental to delivering cures via regenerative medicine through genetically identical human cells, organs or tissues. Other areas of health such as cosmetic and reconstructive surgeries, infertility, burn treatments, heart disease, cancer and diabetes can benefit from new technologies available through gene therapy. Gene therapy can help millions of people with illnesses and disorders. Biomedical researchers are working on effective solutions for some major genetic diseases such as sickle cell anemia and hemophilia, but there are always risks.

Genetic engineering certainly has its dilemmas, but it also has moral and ethical value in contemporary society, therefore, a new branch of ethics has been born: bioethics. Bioethics refers to the application of medical and biological sciences in an appropriate, humane and responsible manner. Proponents see genetic engineering and cloning as a viable way to duplicate organs and tissues for patients who otherwise would not be able to find transplants and could escape lifelong drugs with unwanted side effects. Yet some fear that, if done badly, genetic engineering could actually introduce new disorders that would eventually circulate in the population and thus become a permanent feature of the world’s population.

The majority of biomedical researchers consider genetic engineering to be a crucial tool for medicine, especially in providing solutions to various terminal health problems. Consider these disheartening statistics from Kidney.org: The average wait time for a kidney needed is three to five years, and some patients can’t wait that long. According to another source, Donate Life America, 8,000 people die each year while waiting for an organ, 80% of which are kidneys. However, in a world where slavery, the harvesting of human organs and black markets continue to pose problems, genetic engineering and cloning could offer even bleaker opportunities for these human rights crimes. A realistic approach in the context of humanity’s place in the world and a code of ethics to form the foundation of human genetic engineering practices are needed.

Religious factions are by no means the only moral compass in society, but they tend to be the strongest alarm bells of anything morally questionable. While their objections sometimes (but not always) stray from science and can thwart progressive efforts, they play a necessary role in a symbiotic system of checks and balances within the scientific communities they oppose. It is constructively beneficial that science is always challenged and forced to prove itself before diving head first into the deep waters of the latest and greatest technological discoveries.

Embryonic engineering and cloning in particular draw criticism from people of various faiths who argue that creating embryos for research purposes does not respect life. A number of religious denominations claim that embryos should be given personality. This particular characterization disarms the objectification practices that are currently in place regarding human embryos. During the process of embryonic research, surplus embryos are created and destined for destruction, which is another challenge for bioethics. However, this is nothing new, as the IVF process does the same for couples struggling with infertility. Problems of human waste always arise in these waters. Even with natural pregnancies, research shows that half of the embryos fail to implant or are lost. Although embryo loss occurs in natural pregnancies, most people do not equate laboratory embryo loss with infant mortality, which implies that they have a different moral value than most in society. Does viewing human embryos as mere objects that can be used in any desirable way cause them to miss the nascent aspect of human life and meaning? Whatever side of the argument, it is vital to foster the culture of a society that sees life as having great intrinsic value. This understanding and respect for life makes the difference between barbarism and civilization.

There are still other religions that place great spiritual importance on what is going on inside their body. This can apply both to what is in their food as well as to medical treatments. For these groups, there could be a moral dilemma posed by significant genetic modification of foods and drugs. For example, various genes are injected into peppers and tomatoes to make them grow faster and more filling. Animal and human cells are also used in the production of some vaccines. This raises the question of how many human and animal genes can be present in vegetables or drugs without it being considered inappropriate for vegans or the millions of religious followers who abstain from certain animal by-products and humans, as with Islam, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Judaism. While these unique groups of people are ultimately responsible for their own decisions, sensitivity to various belief systems must also be taken into account by the scientific community.

Despite all the current ethical concerns regarding genetic engineering and human cloning, the practice still has enormous potential in light of more conclusive scientific research studies on this particular topic. However, the challenges encountered in past genetic experiments should be a major factor in discouraging a rushed start in biogenetics. More research should be developed to examine ethical and moral considerations in genetic engineering practices. A full understanding of what we are doing and its consequences takes some time to catch up with technology. Most important is the belief and culture of a society that protects and improves life in all its scientific endeavors.

Photo by Edward Jenner of Pexels


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