The Moral Issues Surrounding Genetic Enhancement Philosophy Essay

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Genetic enhancement refers to the use of genetic engineering to modify a person's human traits. In contrast, gene therapy involves using genetic engineering to alter defective genes or insert corrected genes into the body in order to treat a disease. When genetically modifying a human there are two approaches, Somatic and Germ Line enhancement. The Somatic Gene enhancement approach takes somatic cells such as bone-marrow, liver, and lung and genetically modifies them. Since the germ line is not affected, all effects of therapy end with the life of the patient. It is assumed most somatic therapies will probably require repeated applications, much like medication treatments used today. In Germ Line enhancement the DNA of germ cells are modified, the objective being to correct a genetic defect in all descendants of the recipient who will inherit the modified gene. Although germ line enhancement is far more speculative than somatic gene enhancement, it is widely discussed because it raises important and difficult moral issues.

The purpose of this essay is to show in what ways alterations to the genetic composition of present and future humans is morally wrong and if there are such wrongs, who are wronged. Arguments in favour of Genetic Enhancement will be discussed by philosophers such as David Resnik and Julian Savulescu. Furthermore, I will raise my own arguments and questions with the aim to diffuse the initial scepticism met with this topic. Additionally, I will discuss wether genetic enhancements present moral challenges that other enhancements such as prosthetics do not.

In what ways (if any) are alterations to the genetic composition of present and future humans morally wrong? If there are such wrongs, who are wronged?

Many people wonder if it's fair to bring children into a world fraught with so many difficulties and painful experiences. Just growing up and acquiring good habits of behaviour can be very demanding.  Parents often have an arduous time raising children or getting their children to do what they desire. The capabilities of Genetic Engineering allows us to imagine a world in which children would readily learn to share their toys, to wait their turn, to not have tantrums.  Genetic engineering could provide children with settled habits of honesty, fair play, diligence, perseverance, concern for others, and many other traits people generally agree are important for a civil society. Therefore, Gene enhancement in embryos raises moral issues involving both individuals and society. First, does selecting for particular traits pose health risks that would not have existed otherwise? One safety concern often raised involves the fact that most genes have more than one effect. For example, in the late 1990s, scientists discovered a gene that is linked to memory (Reference). Modifying this gene in mice greatly improved learning and memory, but it also caused increased sensitivity to pain (Reference), which is obviously not a desirable trait.

Beyond questions of safety, issues of individuality arise. For instance, should parents be allowed to manipulate the genes of their children to select for certain traits when the children themselves cannot give consent? Suppose a mother and father select an embryo based on its genetic predisposition to sport, but the child grows up to dislike sport. Will this alter the way the child feels about its parents, and vice versa, would this disfigure the relation between parent and child, and deprive the parent of the humility and sympathies that a spontaneous birth can create? Would this deprive the unborn child the rights to an open future and an unaffected germline? (Reference) Finally, in terms of society, it is not feasible for everyone to have access to this type of expensive technology. Thus, perhaps only the most privileged members of society will be able to have "designer children" that possess greater intelligence or physical attractiveness. This may lead to new forms of inequality.

David Resnik challenges the aforementioned concerns of the rights to informed consent of the unborn child by stating the above arguments make the morally controversial assumption that unborn children have rights. (Reference) Resnik does not go into detail in regards to the moral rights of unborn children but to give the reader a brief understanding, Utilitarians such as Peter Singer suggests that the right to life is intrinsically tied to a being's capacity to hold preferences, which in turn is intrinsically tied to a being's capacity to feel pain and pleasure. (Reference) In other words, the unborn child is not capable of holding preferences nor feeling pain and pleasure, thus it doesn't hold the same rights we attribute to human beings. However even if people believe that unborn children have rights, that doesn't suggest Genetic Enhancement or Therapy violates those rights of consent.

Genetic enhancement or therapy doesn't violate the unborn child's right to informed consent because this right can be exercised by a parent or caregiver acting in the child's best interests. In medicine and other aspects of society, parents and caregivers exercise informed consent on behalf of there child when a procedure or situation will greatly effect the welfare of the child. Resnik suggests that if it makes sense to use informed consent on behalf of a child in such situations, then it also makes sense to use informed consent on behalf of a child with regards to Gene Enhancement of Therapy, provided it is in the best interests of the unborn child. (Reference)

As mentioned earlier, a concern surrounding Genetic Enhancement is it violates the unborn child's right to an unaffected germ line and potentially an open future by predisposing it with talents and traits chosen by the parents. Parents already impose their own choices, values and life plans on their children by enrolling them in expensive schools, hiring private tutors, sending them to tennis camp, providing them with music lessons, dance lessons, and so on. If it is permissible and even admirable for parents to help their children in these ways, why isn't it equally admirable for parents to use whatever genetic technologies may emerge to enhance their children's traits and qualities? (Reference) While some uses if genetic engineering could be considered an overbearing imposition of parental values on children, it is not much different than the way parents influence their children demonstrated above. For example, parents could use Genetic Enhancement to enhance their child's immune system, which would help fight of various diseases, this would not be violating the child's rights, but enhancing its opportunities to an open future. However, using Genetic Enhancement to create a child 6 foot tall and predisposed to athletic sports is violating the child's rights to an open future. (Reference) The problem of fairness arises from the last example. A system of Genetic Enhancement could promote various types of athletic prowess or musical or scientific genius, or great beauty.  Would sporting and beauty contests have rules to prohibit some or all genetically enhanced contestants?  If so, this would be unfair to people who had worked their way towards these goals, because it was not their choice to be enhanced and the choice made for them cannot now be undone.  We want to believe that success, in sports and in life, is something we earn, not something we inherit. (Reference)

As shown, under some circumstances, Genetic Enhancement has the potential to violate the child's rights to an open future, but under the right conditions it can vastly improve the child's chances. But the problem remains, when does this concern for a child's future violate the child's right to choose its own path in life? As Resnik suggests, this is not an easy question to answer, but at the very least it doesn't show that genetic enhancement is inherently wrong. It may be wrong in some circumstances but not in others. (Reference)

Finally, a moral issue with Genetic enhancement that I mentioned earlier is its potential of eugenics. Eugenics is the improving of the human population by controlled breeding to increase desirable characteristics. (Reference) It is not feasible for everyone to have access to this type of expensive technology. Therefore, possibly only the most privileged members of society will be able to have designer children that possess greater intelligence or physical attractiveness. This may lead to new forms of inequality.

There are positive and negative eugenics. Positive eugenics increases the number of desirable genes in the human gene pool, while negative eugenics attempts to reduce the number of undesirable genes such as genes that cause diseases. (Reference) Additionally, there are two types of eugenic programs, State-sponsored which are run by the government and parental eugenics. A state-sponsored eugenics program is the idea that the government, with the purpose of promoting general welfare, might require that a genetically approved modification be given to all expectant mothers, to make certain traits uniform in the society.  A well intended government might use eugenics to make society uniform, so as to make everyone truly equal and eliminate class distinctions.  Genetic engineering could result in a utopian society in which there is no crime, everyone is trustworthy and kind.  We know that political rulers have in the past attempted to shape the composition of the human race one way or another. However, past experience has shown that the government may not always use there technology ethically. Most people would find state-sponsored eugenic programs morally wrong due to the shadow the Nazi eugenic program has casted on eugenics.

Parental eugenics occurs on a subconscious level every time people select partners or on a conscious level when selecting sperm and egg donors. Most parents do not make their reproductive choices with the aim of controlling the human gene pool and any effects these choices make are purely coincidental. Furthermore, most people would agree that this form of eugenics is morally acceptable, and somewhat unavoidable. Therefore, if we accept that parents should be allowed to make some choices to the human gene pool, then parental eugenics is not inherently wrong. (Reference)

This essay has detailed the concerns surrounding Genetic enhancement, the last question to ask is wether genetic enhancements present moral challenges that other enhancements or prosthetics do not. While Somatic Gene enhancement has the potential to be used as a treatment for diseases, it also has the potential to be abused in the same way athletes use human growth hormones to increase there athletic ability beyond their natural capabilities. Although the technology isn't within our grasp just yet, it has the potential to cure many ailments that we currently use other medicine and prosthetics. If the way we abuse medicine today is anything to go by, the moral arguments surrounding genetic enhancement holds strong ethical value.


I am split in my opinion on gene therapy. If it is strictly monitored and regulated, I believe that somatic cell gene therapy as a treatment for terminal disorders would be a very valuable option. I feel that once the techniques involved in somatic cell therapy are refined to the point that the benefits outweigh the potential problems, there is no reason to treat this procedure any differently than other medical procedures. I would even support more widespread use of somatic cell gene therapy after the techniques had been perfected in more serious disorders.

On the other hand, I am not comfortable with the use of germ line gene therapy for a couple of reasons. The persistent nature of germ line therapy could be devastating if abused. It seems like science fiction, but if used carelessly a super human could be produced. This technique has the potential to allow disorders to be eliminated, but it also could allow for choice rather than chance in other traits. A second concern is that by removing deleterious genes potential problems may arise

As a whole, gene therapy appears to be very promising; however, there are many challenges still facing this fledgling technology. I feel one of the largest challenges will be the public debate surrounding the use of genetically engineered material in human subjects.