Genetic engineering has to be appropriately regulated


The 21st century is the era of the DNA. Its predecessor, the 20th century, was the era of computers, which brought about remarkable technological advancements to our lives and these have also contributed to the current genetic revolution, which promises to do for life what computers did for information. We are so close to being able to intentionally manipulate DNA and thereby create organisms for all sorts of reasons and purposes, including the potential to dramatically improve our lives and wellbeing.

However, genetic engineering has to be appropriately regulated, taking into consideration ethical issues including the issues relating to human rights and justice, the dignity of the individual, harmful consequences and issues of morality, religion and fairness and uniformity of access to the applications of genetic therapies.

This paper expounds the various views on genetic engineering and primarily concentrates on "the ethics of genetic engineering-the designer baby", cloning, how it relates to ethics in engineering generally, the responsibilities of engineers and the concerns of society.

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This paper further poses questions for further debate and discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of the ethics of genetic engineering.

table of contents

1. Introduction

The purpose of this report is to present ethical arguments for and against genetic engineering with a focus on designer babies and how this correlates to the code of ethics applicable to engineering in general. The report consists of the following sections; background, laws, ethical framework and code of ethics analysis and general ethical discussion. Furthermore the report will also detail some viewpoints on moral law and pose the question: "can virtue be genetically modified?"

Viewpoints of other researchers such as Matti Hayry and Larry Arnhart are included for further debate and discussion on this topic.

2. Background

Genetic engineering can be described as the use of various methods to intentionally manipulate the deoxyribonucleic acid, also known as DNA, of cells to produce biological products or to change hereditary traits. (Columbia University, 2007) Some of the techniques used, include using needles to insert DNA into an ovum; hybridomas and recombinant DNA, in which the DNA of a desired gene is inserted into the DNA of a bacterium. (Geek, 2010)

Genetic Engineering has many uses that include(Grant, 2009):

Repairing a genetic defect

Picking a select group of genes to achieve a specific outcome in the case of designer babies

Curing diseases by altering the gene

Testing for inherited diseases.

Genetic engineering has given us the power to alter the very basis of life on earth which will forever change life as we know it today.

The possibility of perfecting the human gene is very exciting but can also be very alarming.  For example you could determine the potential of your child's future by specifying their gender, skin, eye and hair colour as well as their level of intelligence. (Kleiner, 2009) Currently there are two types of cell and gene therapies; somatic and germ-line.  Somatic cells are cells that already exist in the human body whereas; Germ-line cells are referred to as cells that are found in eggs or in sperm. When a gene is added to a patient to help them overcome a particular illness this is referred to as Somatic Cell Therapy(Grant, 2009). It is often used to help patients who suffer from cystic fibrosis. Germ-line therapy is used to make modifications to genes that can affect future generations and is very controversial.(Mauron, 2008)

3. The laws

Currently in Australia there are a few laws pertaining to the collection and use of personal genetic information. Only three states in Australia have laws that regulate infertility treatments and genetic screening. These include Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. In the remaining states, the decisions are left solely to the ethics committee within the institution. (McKEW, 2002)

Australia had prohibited human cloning (2002), however in December 2006, a bill was passed in the House of Representatives authorising therapeutic cloning and the creation of human embryos for stem cell research (2002).

4. Ethical Frameworks

4.1 Utilitarianism

The utilitarian principle is based on undertaking actions or decisions where the net social benefit is maximised. The net social benefits are resultant of the social benefits minus the social costs.(Grant, 2009) A utilitarian would judge genetic engineering beneficial to society where the technology and know-how provides an improvement in the quality of human life. However, a utilitarian would deem genetic engineering harmful and a cost to society if it caused diseases or suffering to patients and as a result lowered their quality of life.

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In the case of "designer babies", parents are told that their child could suffer from a serious heart condition and are given the option of replacing the gene associated with that illness. If the parents chose to replace the troublesome gene, a utilitarian would consider this move would be beneficial to society as it would not burden the health system as the child grows up. This decision undertaken by the parents may not gain the support of broader society who regards genetic engineering as tampering with Gods will.

4.2 Rights and Duties

The rights principle is defined as undertaking an action in which one has the moral rights to do, which has no impact on the moral rights of others. In the case of designer babies, parents should be given the right to choose whether their child's genes should be replaced if the child is at risk of disease and health suffering in the future. However, this decision may be influenced by the family's religious beliefs, values and culture. Society should not be given the right to change the traits of their unborn child for enhancement purposes.

Duty based ethics also known as "deontological" ethics are non-consequential and stemmed from German philosopher Emmanuel Kant. Duty based ethics are principles are obligatory regardless of the consequences that may arise from the decisions we make. For example it would be wrong not to act on health information to achieve some benefit

If we look at this from the view of moral rights and duties, genetic engineering advances can be criticised even further than when they are examined in the light of their adverse outcomes. (Häyry, 2010) Although the harmful consequences are severe, they can sometimes be outweighed by the benefits flowing from genetic engineering.

Fundamental human rights and corresponding obligations provide straightforward grounds for the rejection of immoral practices even when the harm inflicted by them cannot be measured accurately.

As per Matti Hayry, "The most serious deontological objections to human genetic engineering include the following: By selecting our offspring, we treat unborn children inhumanely, and use them as a mere means to our own ends. Cloning violates the moral law by denying the freedom and individuality of the clones, by causing offense, and by shattering the symbolic order of things. Genetic tests encourage abortions, which are morally wrong, and testing in insurance and in the workplace is a possible source of injustice. Stem cell research involves the destruction of human embryos, which is unethical, and gene therapies can instrumentalise people".(Häyry, 2010)

4.3 Virtues

Can Virtue be genetically engineered?

As Larry Arnhart said: "We are not born virtuous or vicious. But we are each born with innate temperaments and capacities that influence our acquisition of virtue by learning and judgment" (Arnhart, 2010). As Aristotle said in the Nicomachean Ethics (1103a24-25): "virtues arise in us neither by nature nor contrary to nature; but by our nature we can receive them and perfect them by habituation." (Arnhart, 2010)

While we are not all the same and most parents would understand this that their children will differ in their innate personality traits, and consequently plan the moral education of their children so as to nurture them in ways that fit their distinctive personalities, some children are harder to train or may not be receptive to change, and some children may be born with temperaments that do not fit into the family environment, thereby becoming more inclined to be vicious rather than virtuous.

Arnhart concludes that "If we keep in mind the adaptive complexity of human nature, we can foresee that biotechnology will be limited both in its technical means and in its moral ends".(Arnhart, 2010)

5. Code of Ethics

Engineers Australia provides a set of guidelines for their members to use when exercising their judgment in the practice of engineering. The engineering practice requires ethical judgment, interpretation and balanced decision making thereby creating engineering solutions for a sustainable future for the betterment of society at large. (Engineers Australia, 2010)

Engineers demonstrate integrity, by acting appropriately when they perceive something to be wrong. In the case of genetic engineering it is important that as engineers we "demonstrate integrity" by (Engineers Australia, 2010):

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Acting on the basis of a well-informed conscience.

Being honest and trustworthy and,

Respecting the dignity of all persons, free of discrimination, prejudice, race, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation, marital or family status, mental or physical handicaps and national origin

Engaging responsibly with the community and other stakeholders.

Practicing engineering responsibly to foster the health, safety and wellbeing of the community and society at large and the environment.

Balancing the needs of the present with the needs of future generations.

6. The Ethical Discussion

Advocates of human genetic engineering, particularly cloning, believe the procedure could provide genetically matching cells for medicine as well as tissues and organs for transplantation. Jacob M. Appel argued that "children cloned for therapeutic purposes" such as "to donate bone marrow to a sibling with leukemia" might one day be percieved as hero. (DOE, 2009)

Supporters of human cloning believe that it would produce benefits. For example, Severino Antinori and Panayiotis Zavos had a vision to create a fertility treatment centre that allows infertile parents to have children that contain some of their DNA (Delaney, 2001).

The act of human cloning also raises important socio-ethical implications in cases where cloning might change the shape of a family's structure by mixing the role of parenting within a family of complex relations. This is witnessed when; a female DNA donor would be the clone's genetic twin, rather than mother, complicating the genetic and social relationships between mother and child as well as the relationships between other family members and the clone. (Mander, 2001)

The ethical questions we ask therefore is are doctors and parents producing another child in order to act as an organ donating factory? How would the child feel about the process?

Designer babies produced to save the lives or health of their siblings or parents would know that they have been brought into existence solely to satisfy a need and not out of love for their own existence. If the creation of savior babies is allowed, will society view such new human beings as mere instruments for the good of others? (Gorner, 2004) This could cause serious socio-political, economic, ethical and religious upheavals in societies that have only just began to realise and embrace human rights and the individual's personal rights. Children should be created and loved for their uniqueness and not for the ulterior purpose of helping another sibling. Are doctors and parents playing "God"? Do they have the right to predetermine how their baby will look, what genes they will carry, or whom and for what purpose? Do they own that genetic information or does the state own it? What about the individual's rights? Who protects the rights of the unborn child?

To genetically modify a child will cost approximately US$18,000. (iGovernment, 2009) This brings us to the question: why only wealthy couples are able to prevent their children from developing genetically inherited diseases? This could cause inequalities between the rich and poor classes in society. If this practice is allowed and socially acceptable, governments have a role to play in making it available to its entire people for the benefit of society at large.

By venturing down a path of creating perfectly healthy babies that are disease and disability free, as a society we would be removing the naturalism that already exists within the world. This may result in a new wave of negative perceptions of ordinary people without these genetic enhancements. Will this super class of humans widen the gap of discrimination between people with enhancements and disabled people making them inferior? What happens to human rights and the individuals' right to exist cohesively, free of discrimination?

Society is watchful to the extent to which genetic engineering would be used.

As science and technology is advancing at a phenomenal rate, today's society is experiencing a growing anxiety with our ability to cope with these innovations. (Lee, 2003). These transformations in technology through innovation tend to be viewed as something that will bring about harm. Society has their reservations about today's scientists "playing God" given the unknown risks associated with reproductive technologies. There are views that it will generate expected problems and dangers that we as a society will not be able to cope with. (Lee, 2003).

If parents are given the choice to genetically engineering their unborn child, according to Green, this could lead to a "consumerist mentality" in parenting opposed to the parents unconditionally loving the child no matter what traits or diseases they have (Darnovsky, 2000). This brings about the issue that if parents "bought" their child rather than produced them will they still remain emotionally attached? Furthermore, the newly born child will allow the doctors within the field to uphold the principle of beneficence to the affected child.

Currently science shows that it is possible to genetically engineer an unborn child providing them with superior traits. It the parents go down the path of choosing embryos that are likely to bring about an intelligent child, if the child does not excel academically, according to the parents "is he a failure". However, if this unborn child does become very intelligent, would his accomplishments be less acclaimed because he was designed and not a naturally created intelligent person?

The Catholic Church has been among the most vocalist opponents of reproductive technologies. "Catholics fear that we are sliding towards a brave new world of designing our children".(DVD). Pope Benedict criticized the developed world for increasing investment in biotechnical research stating the "obsessive search for the 'perfect child'" through genetic selection, a renewed global push for abortion rights and same-sex marriage, which is "closed to natural procreation."(Fournier, 2007)

Couples that have been through the process believe that they want the best for their children. However, will this produce the perfect family that is happy or is it producing an artificial family without its natural fabric?

7. Conclusion

In conclusion, whatever the consequences of human genetic engineering, there are considerations based on duties and rights, on morals, religious beliefs and socially acceptable norms that make it ethically suspect. We must take extreme care in our selection of humans, in genetic testing, research and treatment, and in the matter of cloning human beings.

"We should not use people as a mere means to serve the ends of others, and moral duties must not be ignored in the name of the greater good of society or even of humankind"(Häyry, 2010).

While justice is paramount, legislators and other important decision makers should not implement unduly restrictions and regulations on genetic engineering, as it has the potential to transform our lives in useful and beneficial ways.

As engineers we must demonstrate integrity.