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By definition, genetic engineering is the altering of the genetic structure of an organism by artificial means, by obtaining the most desirable traits. It raises many bioethical issues which have been heated subjects of countless debates. Scientists are constantly on the lookout for ways to improve human nature's qualities such as intelligence, physical abilities, aesthetic appeal, or resistance to certain detrimental substances. There are many who feel that human need and compulsion is far more dominant than one's obligation to adhere to strict morals. There are often strong opinions from both sides of the argument, as some believe that eugenics is a form of improving mankind and others believe that eugenics is morally inappropriate, as it crosses a threshold where we "Play God." Lives could be changed, genes could be altered, and the entire human race could be revolutionized.
Because of the lack of knowledge towards the field of human genetic engineering, this type of artificial reproduction should not be utilized. As well, using human genetic engineering to eradicate disabilities is one of the morally vexing issues. Human genetic engineering raises many moral concerns towards the values of disability, the aesthetic appeal, playing God, cloning, and technological advances. In addition, aesthetic appeals and levels of intelligence place obesity and idiocy on the lines of moral inspection. Ethicists have predicted that large margins of error will be achieved by activities which are related to unnatural processes such as the tampering with the roots of nature. Moreover, due to the lack of technological expertise, even the most miniscule error poses potential dangers which could lead to unbearable consequences in this generation as well as the future generations. Thus, the authority to genetically alter life for the sake of societal progressions of humans is substantially questioned.
The suggestion of eugenics and genetic engineering has first emerged in Plato's generation. Plato's Republic suggested that the group of the Guardians should breed selectively (Ross, 2001). The Guardians will have families in common. Their children will be raised in common, and most importantly, will not be randomly conceived. It was crucial that the children were bred according to the most desirable traits to become the best offspring, to strengthen the future of the Guardians (Ross, 2001). Every year, a breeding committee is selected to run a fertility festival. Suitable mates are selected by the state during one's child bearing years through a lottery ticket. After the years are over, the individuals are free. This idea that humans should be bred similarly as animals was referred to as "eugenics." (Ross, 2001)
It is important to note that human genetic engineering is a completely different type of genetic engineering than that with plants. The general concept of "improving characteristics" remains, but instead, it involves modifying the genotypes of humans before birth and manipulating certain traits of the individual. Furthermore, selective breeding as an attempt to bring out the best traits has also been practiced for centuries. The most prominent example is Nazi Germany's use of eugenics, eliminating the degenerates, the weak, the homosexuals, with hopes of improving the Aryan race as a whole. (Hall, 1995). Adolf Hitler strongly believed that Germany's weakness originated from the weak and corrupt "degenerates" of society who were contaminating the German bloodstream. Adolf Hitler's use of Nazi eugenics not only sent the disabled to gas chambers, but also enforced sterilization against one's will. (Hall, 1995).
Sir Francis Galton was a massive supporter of eugenics. As a eugenicist, anthropologist, and proto-geneticist, Galton suggested that only by extinction of the weak can a society elevate as a whole. (Plucker, 2007). He wrote books such as Hereditary Talent and Character (1865) and Hereditary Genius, which states, "Consequently, as it is easy, notwithstanding those limitations, to obtain by careful selection a permanent breed of dogs or horses gifted with peculiar powers of running, or of doing anything else, so it would be quite practicable to produce a highly-gifted race of men by judicious marriages during several consecutive generations." (Galton, 1870).
Despite supporting the risks of genetic engineering, DNA code and Nobel laureate Dr. James D. Watson stated, "This is a matter far too important to be left solely in the hands of the scientific and medical communities. The belief that...science always moves forward represents a form of laissez-faire nonsense dismally reminiscent of the credo that American business if left to itself will solve everybody's problems. Just as the success of a corporate body in making money need not set the human condition ahead, neither does every scientific advance automatically make our lives more 'meaningful." (Epstein, 1999).
Similarly, political philosopher Jurgen Habermas argues in his book, The Future of Human Nature: On the way to a Liberal Eugenics?, that despite the futuristic aspirations of technological enhancements, there are still many risks and "slippery slopes" in the field of eugenics. In essence, no matter how far technology has advanced, one should not interfere with nature, as humans should not even think about reshaping human nature. (Habermas, 2005).
Technological advantages as time progressed allowed humans to fantasize about one day putting the idea of human genetic engineering into practice. Genetic engineering has brought many visions to society, where it is deemed possible to finally achieve a utopian race. Undesirable traits will be lost and only the exceptional traits will reside among the human population. An article entitled "Scientists Playing God? We should Rejoice" by Minette Marrin was published in the United Kingdom, explaining the optimistic facts of eugenics and the sheer volume of benefits attained from removing disabilities. The article states, "And what is appealing about this early screening is that it offers the hope that, in the foreseeable future, abortion and late abortion will be less frequently used in dealing with serious defects and disabilities." (Marrin, 2006).Although it is true that it would be easier to "get rid of a tiny collection of cells", it cannot be considered as a proper solution. Furthermore, timing may be a big factor to consider in legal decisions or the creation of societal standards about genetic screening for disabilities, but timing doesn't change the ethics of the decision. Whether one decides to abort a "tiny collection of cells" or a multi-month old fetus is nonetheless regarded as a decision to prevent birth due to genetic disabilities. (Marrin, 2006). While it is generally perceived to be true that people would prefer not to be born with a disability, Simone Apis of the British Council of Disabled People suggests that there are many people with disabilities who would prefer to be born. (Unknown, 2006). Apis also points out that people who support the idea of playing God indicate that a disabled person's life is placed at a lower value and that dispensing a disabled embryo is acceptable. Humans have spent decades researching and enhancing their knowledge in the field of eugenics, but some have disregarded the fact that disabled humans are also humans. Life is indeed a precious gift that many disabled people will fight for their rights. Working to create a utopian population might eventually result in catastrophic consequences. Although life is perfect for no one, it is nevertheless worth living. The values of persons with disabilities are strongly diminished, to the extent where they are denied life through the process of termination. Eventually, playing God will lead to devastating consequences. Who is to decide what constitutes a life worthy of living? Eugenicists are therefore not only playing God, but also playing the game of hypocrisy. To say to a disabled person that they are equal and worth living while at the same time aborting and preventing fetuses with the same disability is unashamed hypocrisy. With regards to diseases such as Down syndrome, it is rather benign compared to other types of diseases and does not cause suffering throughout a lifetime. (Unknown, 2006). Therefore, the justification of ending one's life due to sufferings caused by disabilities is invalid. However, 90% of babies with Down syndrome are aborted, as parents do not want to suffer from the humiliation attracted by the child as well as the costly medical bills for their child. (Jean, 2010). To a certain extent, if medical and health care workers enforced a more positive attitude towards the disabled, it is highly probable that the rate of Down syndrome abortions will drop substantially. (Jean, 2010). It is crucial to think profoundly of the conditions that are unworthy of life. By killing and discarding embryos with disabilities, eugenics is exemplified at its worst, and demonstrating the extreme in fatal discrimination. Eliminating embryos that have impending disabilities is not equivalent to curing the actual diseases. The "problem" ultimately remains unsolved; as such elimination is simply killing them off. Although people may be better off experiencing life without disabilities, they wouldn't be experiencing life at all if they were dead. With many moral perceptions about how much better people would be without disabilities, there appears to be a significant absence of disabled people agreeing that they should have never been born. If life was not worth living, then people would end it themselves. By providing the opportunity for every individual to experience life, it will be much more valued and cherished.
People who attend schools with disabled children are proven to be more open-minded and innovative. (Jean, 2010). Being exposed to such fundamental difference is simultaneously stimulating and educating. Thus, by eliminating the different from society may not be as beneficial as perceived; is may have an opposite effect on society, making us more bigoted, judgmental, and self-obsessed.
Stephen Hawking is one of the most outstanding individuals in the 20th century. Hawking is a world renowned physicist and cosmologist disabled by a motor neurone disease known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. (Larsen, 2005). While studying at the University of Cambridge, he was diagnosed with the motor neurone disease at the age of 21. Being a fortunate survivor, Hawking utilises a voice synthesizer to talk due to his body paralysis. (Larsen, 2005). He furthermore describes himself as lucky despite his unfortunate disease, because his situation did not hinder him from having a family. It was the slow progression that provided time to make influential discoveries. (Larsen, 2005). Hawking has been awarded with an abundance of awards such as The Albert Einstein Medal in 1979, the Wolf Prize in Physics in 1988, The Copley Medal in 2006, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, the highest civilian honour in the United States. (Woopidoo, 2008). Detecting a propensity for the disease which Hawking possesses in his parents could have led to his prevention or termination. (Larsen, 2005).
All children belong to a family; they deserve to be nurtured, to enjoy life and to be a contributing member of society. By taking life for granted, humans have become the very disease that they strive to eliminate. In essence, life should begin at conception, and any attempt to hinder its existence is murder.
The advancement of technology has not only attempted to eliminate weaker genes, but it has also attempted to revolutionize aesthetic appeal as well. Genetic engineering provides the opportunity for parents to genetically assemble their children. Their children could potentially be smarter, more athletic, have certain gifts and talents, or have a certain eye and hair colour. In the movie Gattaca, the advances in technology led to a division of society into the genetic haves and the genetic have-nots. (Agar, 2004). The children who are naturally conceived are referred to as "invalids," which suggests their fallbacks in enhancements. To parents, being able to customize their children is indeed a great leap forward, as every parent aspires to plant seeds of success into their children and watch them mature into glorious accomplishments.
An article entitled The Egg Market indicates that in the United States "egg market," what determines the prices of a woman's eggs are based on her SAT scores. Although humans are far from understanding the true complexity of human genetic engineering, market forces have made their ways into the hearts and wallets of consumers. In essence, wealthier families are able to purchase smarter children. (Saleton, 2010). From the Georgia Institute of Technology, Professor Aaron Levine conducted a study of advertisements for egg donors. The applicants were required to submit their SAT scores as well as a precise description of all their features. (Saleton, 2010). Couples are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to purchase an egg from a woman with a superior appearance and specific ethnicity. Furthermore, SAT scores contribute to the value of the egg as well. Couples are also willing to pay up to $5780 per 100 SAT points. (Saleton, 2010). Consequently, not only will the wealthy have the best traits, they will also take narcissism to another level. Once this is possible, there will be constant pushes for further enhancements, to the extent where the gap between the wealthy and poor become significantly large. This moreover raises the question of whether the parents should be allowed to customize their child with perfect characteristics.
A prevalent issue in America is obesity. Regardless of age, obese Americans suffer from constant discrimination from many aspects of life including relationships, employment, and education. In fact, weight appears to be a more persuasive form of discrimination, even more than other appearance-related factors such as age, race, or gender. (The Situationist staff, 2007). With derogatory implications with the appearance of obese individuals, other characteristics such as intelligence and compassion are often overlooked. Obesity has been paired with negative stereotypes such as "dirty," "lazy," "ugly" or "stupid" by children in nursery schools. In a survey conducted, it is stated that 16% of adult Americans would abort a baby with untreatable obesity. (The Situationist staff, 2007). Furthermore, in 1988, another study conducted demonstrated that students would rather marry an embezzler, a drug addict, a shoplifter, or a blind person than someone who was obese. (The Situationist staff, 2007).
Some of the prominent non-ethical branches of artificial reproduction that humans have began to take interest into are genetic engineering, cloning, embryonic development, and eugenics. Although a genetic utopia may be perceived as a solution to this world full of genetically "impure" individuals, it is rather contributing to the emerging problems of this troubled world. Due to the limited knowledge of eugenics and genetic engineering, the smallest inaccuracy or misunderstanding of detail could result in horrendous consequences. Through her novel, Frankenstein, Mary Shelly attempts to alert the public to the consequences of tampering with life and death, where there are strong effects seen when toying with life. Fate is not something that humans decide on. She furthermore presents a highly relevant caution against the dangers of the hubris that accompanies scientific knowledge. Scientists today are on the verge of becoming 'Frankensteins'; relentless in their work and ignorant of the sanctity of creation.
One of the many greatly feared outcomes of genetic engineering is the outlook of cloning. Cloning could eventually lead to the creation of a utopia race while at the same time, it could also lead to the ultimate annihilation of individuality. While it is common nowadays to clone vegetation, cloning humans are completely different. The mixing and matching of components and proteins has yet to be mastered, thus until further knowledge is obtained, genetic engineering on humans is visibly risky and unsafe. On July 5th, 1996, Dolly the sheep was the first mammal to be cloned. Being of the Finn Dorset breed, although she had a lifespan of 11-12 years, Dolly suffered some unusual diseases which led her to live a life out of the ordinary and die at the age of six. If humans were to be cloned, would the results correspond to the fate of Dolly? The flaws of cloning suggest that there is simply not enough information and knowledge to perfect this type of genetic engineering. In addition, Dolly was created from an ewe's egg and a cell from another ewe's body. Throughout this process, no semen of ram was utilized. If that were ever to be applied to human beings, it would greatly affect the morals and values of males in Asiatic countries. Males would no longer be necessary for reproducing and eventually the population imbalance would increase even more than presently.
In the late 1990s, Dr. Hwang Woo-Suk from the Seoul National University conducted various cloning experiments, including the successes in cloning a cow, and dog, and an attempt at cloning human somatic cells. Despite knowing of the complexity of the DNA of a primate, Dr. Hwang continued to pursue his vision of cloning a human being. Eventually, he claimed to have successfully cloned human somatic cells, but was instantly shunned when there was clear evidence of fabricated data in his journals. As a result, he was charged with many accounts of fraud and embezzlement, throwing his entire career down the drain. In the long run, his allure to be the first scientist to break through with revolutionary discoveries eventually hindered his success. His desire for the top spot in the world of science eventually led to his dishonest actions which in turn led to his downfall as a scientist and a well respected person in general. Being able to clone Dolly, the first sheep, was a landmark. It is not uncommon that Dr. Hwang would want to continue that enormous prestige, but sometimes the pressure of competition leads to actions that one would never think of undertaking. Morally, it is ultimately not beneficial to the human race as well as the scientific world. Similar to Dr. Hwang, many scientists are willing to risk their futures in an "all or nothing" gamble for the highest position. Scientists as such have defeated the overall purpose; they have failed to realize that the entire reason why scientists originally supported human genetic engineering was to improve and upgrade the lives of humans, rather than a fight for a prestigious position in the world of science for self fulfillment. Human genetic engineering has always been a dangerous experiment to tamper with, but with the increases of selfishness, it is becoming not only technologically dangerous, but also morally hazardous to our society.
To diminish the dependency on petroleum-based plastics in plants, scientists have genetically engineered some plants that contain plastic within the plants' structures. Once again, there are more disadvantages that outweigh the single benefit of being biodegradable in six months. Plants as such can potentially disrupt a food chain. If such plants present poison within them, it may severely affect many food chains. There is a pattern between plants and animals or humans that certain decisions will not only affect the future generations, but it might also affect others surrounding the individual.
This is exemplified through genetically engineered fish. As a transgenic animal, genetically engineered fish tend to raise problems when they interbreed with other fish that haven't been genetically altered. If the process continues, it can potentially change the characteristic of wild fish in the most undesirable ways.
To put the practice of genetic engineering into play is not a process that everyone can afford. In the foreseeable future, gene therapy will be a very expensive procedure. As a result, only the wealthier families will be able to afford it. Perhaps individuals may be genetically engineered to produce a group of warriors susceptible to diseases. On the other hand, scientists have learned from experience that progressive technology generates pressures for its use. Consequently, if genetic engineering were permitted, it is highly possible that the technology would be utilized inappropriately, employed even if exercising a less risky method could establish a comparable outcome. There are also much justified concerns that genetic engineering activists will overemphasize the benefits while understating the risks of the overall procedure. If every scientist and capitalist involved in applying and promoting genetic engineering were more careful and thoughtful, there would be fewer reasons to prohibit the development and application of such. However, because of the insufficient knowledge in the field of eugenics and frequent risks, there is insufficient justification to authorize human genetic engineering. Until this day, the potential risks to all future descendants of the individual outweigh the advantages to a small number of individuals. Scientists have failed to acknowledge that risks are not imaginary and that benefits of genetic engineering certainly do not outweigh the disadvantages, as they are researchers constantly competing to be first. Discoveries and stabilizations of such practices can result in international recognition, awards, grants, and other measures of wealth, status, and power. These are all compelling incentives to overstate benefits, take objectionable risks, and dismiss valid objections.
Technology cannot be justified if it merely provides benefits to a minority of the population, even if the benefits are remarkable. Under circumstances where there is no prevention of vast harmfulness and where a large number of people are put at considerable risk, it is obligatory to be cautious. When genetically engineered organisms live among society, they put everyone at risk, not only their creators. It is also necessary to delay the processes of human genetic engineering, at least until the technology has developed sufficiently to enable scientists to repair a gene, rather than destroy it. Likewise, it would have been better if nuclear plants had practically no chance of a nuclear explosion due to more advanced technologies.
Today's society is a society of fear, apprehension, anxiety, and overwhelming possibilities. The numerous options presented with genetic engineering could alter every form of life in an inexplicable manner. This field of study is not bounded by solely our imagination, but also by our morals and values. Short sighted pursuits for short term benefits are what define this generation. The cons clearly outweigh the pros for the benefits claimed for genetic engineering; thus, it appears to have too much of a price to pay. Evidently, there are visions of new scientific miracles that could transform the world through the pursuit of genetic engineering, but as experienced with previous technologies such as nuclear power, the promises of short term benefits is plagued by long term misfortunes. In other forms of technology, mistakes and modifications are acceptable. However, genetic engineering leaves no room for errors, as the tiniest flaw in the processes can trigger unthinkable fatal consequences that will affect the present as well as the future.
Nobel Prize winning biologist and Harvard Professor, George Wald, once wrote,
"Recombinant DNA technology faces our society with problems unprecedented not only in the history of science, but of life on the Earth. It places in human hands the capacity to redesign living organisms, the products of some three billion years of evolution.... It presents probably the largest ethical problem that science has ever had to face. Our morality up to now has been to go ahead without restriction to learn all that we can about nature. Restructuring nature was not part of the bargain.... For going ahead in this direction may be not only unwise but dangerous. Potentially, it could breed new animal and plant diseases, new sources of cancer, novel epidemics." (Epstein, 1999)
In order to cope with the next century, we will have to alter and distort life of the planet, to the extent where the definition of being human is lost. Due to our lack of knowledge, it is necessary that the government is able to distinguish the advantages and disadvantages of genetic engineering in humans for legal purposes. By doing so, people can be better informed, and most importantly, able to differentiate between facts and fiction.