Tailoring Humans: The Ethics of Genetic Engineering

Tailoring Humans: The Ethics of Genetic Engineering

Alexandra Huidu
Copyright: © 2019 |Pages: 19
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-6310-5.ch014
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What began as an attempt to eradicate serious illnesses seems to have become, in some cases, under the impetus of human imagination and technological evolution, an exercise by which scientists come to compete with the attributes of divinity: augmenting human beings at a basic level that affects the identity of the species. Genetic engineering for medical purposes has created the premises for the existence of technologies that can be used for other agendas, without medical purpose, in order to bioenhance the characteristics of the human individual. The genetic inheritance we leave to future generations is now under our control, because we are able to manipulate our germinal line. Hybrid embryos and chimeric embryos, although still in the experimental stage, can become a reality in relatively short time. But just because we can, do we have the right to do it? Do we need all of this and, if so, to what extent? What are the limits and who or what sets the standards? These are the questions that this chapter addresses from an ethical perspective.
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The advances in the Human Genome Project and the separation of the embryo from the mother’s body, made possible by in vitro fertilization, opened up large possibilities for applying a series of techniques to human embryos, techniques that can lead to the improvement of human beings, for medical or non-medical purposes. Some of these techniques (such as the creation of hybrid or chimeric embryos) are still at the stage of early research and experiments, others (germline genetic modification, non-medical genetic engineering) are at an advanced stage of experimentation for certain applications or can already be put into safe practice, in some instances (e.g., sex selection).

Therefore, society has begun to expect that ethicists not only argue and counter-argue and only feed an ethical debate that seems to generate new and new lines of discussion with every step forward in the development of medical technology, but also to reach conclusions. Even if some techniques are still far from being applicable, ethical debates must come before medical successes, because once a technique becomes accessible, it will be more difficult to balance interests and responses (economic, medical and, why not, emotional) in society, unless some guidelines are drawn earlier (Frankel & Chapman, 2000).

The final question is whether these techniques should be banned from the start or there are a number of variables that decisively influence the balance in one direction or another inside the ethical debates. Apparently, there are no reasons to operate with absolute prohibitions, as long as the tensions and concerns are satisfied, wether arising from the nature of the technology (in terms of safety and effectiveness), or from its impact on the individual (who may have both medical and non-medical interests), and then on society (with its values, principles and desiderata, depending on how these techniques are used, respectively for therapeutic or bio-amelioration purposes).

This chapter aims to synthesize the pros and cons for genetic engineering (with reference to some of its specific forms: germline modification, hybrid embryos, chimeric embryos, non-medical genetic engineering and child sex selection) and analyze them according to the four fundamental principles of bioethics: beneficence, non-maleficience, autonomy and justice.

We will base our analysis on the rigors of these principles, as defined by Mir and Morgan (2013: 19-20). Beneficence involves treating and improving the health of the sufferering, whenever possible. Non-maleficence requires that any therapy has a quantifiable benefit, generally translated by the phrase “do not harm”. Autonomy is the right to self-determination, which includes freedom and the possibility to decide your own future. Justice (in the form of distributive justice) implies that the risks and benefits are distributed equally among the population.

By applying the above, the bioethics literature (Frankel & Chapman, 2000: 4) underlined the idea that it is vital to apply genetic engineering to humans according to whether or not we can positively answer the question of whether humanity has the wisdom, the ethical dedication and the public policies needed to use these technologies in a fair, just and respectful way for human dignity.

The problem can not be solved simply by general discussion, since every technique that involves manipulating the human genome has its own purpose, its own benefits, and it also raises distinct ethical dilemmas, as we will see in the following sections of this chapter.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Eugenics: A science or a set of beliefs and practices that aims at improving the quality of a human population by controlled breeding, selecting the most desirable individuals, enhancing their natural capabilities or altering their genome, in order to make those individuals more adapted, economically effective or morally suitable, or in order to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics.

Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis: A technique that enables genetic screening and mapping of an embryo’s genome in order to assess if that embryo has any genetic diseases and also in order to determine the other non-medical characteristics of that embryo; the technique is used in order to identify the genes that need to be altered, eliminated, or replaced for the purpose of undergoing genetic engineering procedures.

Germ Line: A certain type or series of cells, fully developed and differentiated, that have genetic traits which are passed on to the progeny of the individual during the process of reproduction.

Ethics of Technology: A sub-field of ethics that encompasses a set of moral principles that govern the moral aspects of pursuing new technologies and of scientific research in certain novel and controversial fields of knowledgewhile also trying to establish the extent of need and the appropriateness of usage of such technologies by humans.

Social Justice: A system of rules and principles governing how resources are shared in a community, how to ensure equal access to these resources and social cohesion in terms of the voluntary sharing of resources among the members of the society (helping others), in order to discourage major differences between different social groups, while respecting their right to economic diversity.

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