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Ethics of Human Genetic Engineering

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Michael Zhou

Mr. MacKinlay


June 15 2015        

Ethics of Human Genetic Engineering

Humans, as a species, are obsessed with control. From a fundamentalist perspective, almost conscious decision made by a person serves the purpose of granting said person more direct control over their life. People work jobs to make money to use the money to control the variables in their life; the food they eat, the shelter they live in, the entertainment they enjoy. On a larger scale, countries are the manifestation of millions of people’s infatuation for control. The human fascination of control is so intense that people are willing to neglect the most basic and universal ethical principle, the value of human life. In the twentieth century alone, it is estimated that over a hundred million people perished as a result of war (White 203). Despite the record-setting death tolls of the past century, war is not the immediate thought to most people when the twentieth century is mentioned. Many people look back on the twentieth century and consider it the golden age of computing. Similarly, people will look back on the twenty-first century as the DNA age (Koeppsell).  Advancements in technology from the past century have allowed present-day geneticists to identify and manipulate specific parts of an organism’s genome. Genetic engineering is already used in the form of genetically modified foods, in produce and in farm animals. By selectively activating and deactivating certain genes, farmers can maximize agricultural efficiency. Giant chickens and mutant corn are widely accepted internationally, with Austria, Hungary, Greece, Bulgaria and Luxembourg being the only countries in the world to outright ban the cultivation and sale of genetically modified organisms (Bayer). Ignoring the ethical issues with GMOs, genetically modified food has shown many benefits without any downsides. GM food tastes better, lasts longer, is nutritionally healthier, and reduces the costs of agriculture, thereby reducing the cost to the consumer (UC Santa Cruz). The genetic modification of humans is a prospect that is within reach for modern science, but is being held back by legal and ethical issues, despite its potential to save people from severely debilitating genetic disorders (Koeppsell). In contrast to the legality of genetically modified foods, human genetic engineering has been deemed illegal by every country in the world, with exceptions being considered on a case-by-case basis (Appel). If it is ethical to go to war and take human lives in order to better the lives of others, why is it considered unethical for doctors to modify the DNA of a voluntary individual in order to cure them of their disease? We should determine the validity of such moral objections, both religious and secular, and compare the benefits and drawbacks to this biotechnology. Although there are many objections to human genetic modification, its benefits greatly outweigh the drawbacks; there are lives at stake. As with any up-and-coming technological revolution, there is fear, concern, and moral objections to the concept of human genetic engineering. The use of genetic engineering to cure or treat debilitating conditions should eventually be legalized internationally and should be understood as an extension of already accepted and established medical techniques.

Like war, the ethical controversy of human genetic modification stems from the moral principle of the value of human life. People innately understand that another person’s life is too valuable to take, but also too valuable to interfere with in a manner so directly as the modification of their genome, which would fundamentally change the way a person is, to the point that it may no longer be considered the same person (IEP). This uncomfortable feeling of interfering with nature is one of the primary criticisms of human genetic engineering (Stock). Although no religious text explicitly forbids or makes any mention of human gene modification, many religious leaders have stepped forward and claimed that the alteration of a sapient life form violates the will of a creator (Koeppsell). Like all moral doctrines based on the commands of a God, this argument can be instantly refuted by the lack of empirical evidence of a God, or his commands. Violating the will of God is actually violating someone’s interpretations of God’s will. If a creator does actually exist, and genetic modification truly is a moral sin, then why would the omnipotent being not make his will abundantly clear to everyone? In addition, the adjustment of nature’s course by mankind has already begun. Techniques such as artificial propagation, sperm donations, surrogacy, test tube babies, and selective breeding are already widespread and generally accepted. Direct modification of a human’s genome skews the process of natural selection just as much as the previously mentioned techniques. If one were to argue against the morality of gene modification, they would also have to contend against the morality of widely endorsed medical techniques. The entire culture of human civilization survives by our inventive ingenuity. From a theological perspective, the advent of technology is the ultimate expression of God-given free will. If God has not wished for humankind to divert itself from the natural order, he would not have granted us the intelligence and liberty to do so. Every technology, no matter how simple, distinguishes humans from animals, and interferes with the supposed natural order of evolution (IEP). Clothing, manual tools, education and agriculture have allowed mankind to completely derail itself from its physical limitations of life. It is because of technology that we are not restricted to living on one continent, in one climate, with the constant fear of predators. Newer technologies such as contraceptives, vaccines, and antibiotics obstruct natural selection even more directly than previous technologies (Stock). Modern medicine allows unfit people that are afflicted with debilitating conditions to survive. When these unfit people survive and pass on their unhealthy genes onto the next generation, natural selection has been defeated. It is because of modern medicine that natural selection in humans is no longer a game of survival of the fittest, but rather, survival of those fortunate enough to receive medical care. Of course, it is a general consensus that it is unethical to deny medical attention to someone in need, especially when we are in a position to help them (Pray). So, applying this universal principle, what differentiates the technique of genetic modification from the plethora of accepted modern medical practices? If one were to oppose genetic modification on the grounds of immorality, they must also oppose organ transplants, blood transfusions, and selective breeding for the same reasons. Genetic engineering is just as morally acceptable from a religious standpoint as vaccinations, antibiotics, and surgeries.



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