Genetic Engineering and Ethics: Are We Ready?

Advancements in science and technology have enabled the possibility of human genetic cloning and engineering. In contemporary society, these biological technologies are controversial. Many governmental, scientific, and religious organizations are fervently opposing genetic engineering due to controversy in the context of safety and moral outcomes. Nevertheless, advocates and supporters argue that these technologies are fundamental to providing remedies via regenerative medicine through genetically identical human cells, organs, or tissues. Other health areas such as cosmetic and reconstructive surgeries, infertility, burn treatments, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes can benefit from the new technologies available through gene therapies. Gene therapy can help millions suffering from disease and disorders. Biomedical researchers are working on effective solutions regarding some major genetic disorders such as sickle-cell and hemophilia, but there are always risks. 

Genetic engineering certainly has its dilemmas, but it also has a moral and ethical value in contemporary society, therefore,  a new branch of ethics is born: bioethics. Bioethics refers to the application of medical and biological sciences in appropriate, humane, and responsible ways. Supporters see genetic engineering and cloning as a viable way to duplicate organs and tissues for patients who otherwise would not be able to find transplants and could escape lifetimes of medications with undesirable side effects. Yet, some are concerned that if done incorrectly, genetic engineering could actually introduce new disorders that would subsequently circulate in the population and thus become a permanent aspect of the world’s population. 

The majority of biomedical researchers view genetic engineering as a crucial tool for medicine, especially in the provision of solutions for diverse terminal health issues. Consider these daunting statistics from the average wait time for a needed kidney is three to five years, and some patients cannot wait that long. According to another source, Donate Life America, 8,000 people die every year waiting for an organ, 80% of which are kidneys. However, in a world where slavery, human organ harvesting, and black markets continue to be a problem, genetic engineering and cloning could provide even darker opportunities for these human rights crimes. A realistic approach in the context of humanity’s place in the world and a code of ethics to form the foundation of human genetic engineering practices is needed.

Religious factions are by no means the only moral compass of society, but they tend to be the loudest sounding alarms of anything that is morally questionable. While their objections sometimes (but not always) deviate from science and can frustrate progressive efforts, they provide a necessary role in a symbiotic system of checks and balances within the scientific communities they oppose. It is constructively beneficial that science should always be questioned and forced to prove itself before diving headfirst into the deep waters of the latest and greatest technological discoveries.

Embryonic engineering and cloning in particular draws criticism from people of various faiths who argue that the creation of embryos for the purposes of research does not respect life. A number of religious faiths assert that embryos should be assigned personhood. This particular characterization disarms objectification practices that are currently in place regarding human embryos. During the process of embryonic research, excess embryos are created and destined for destruction, which is another challenge for bioethics. However, this is nothing new, as the process of IVF does similarly for couples who struggle with infertility. Matters of human wastefulness always arise in these waters. Even with natural pregnancies, research shows that half of the embryos fail to implant or are lost. While embryonic loss does occur in natural pregnancies, most people do not equate laboratory embryonic loss with infant mortality, which implies they have a different moral value to most of society. Does regarding human embryos as mere objects that can be used in any desirable way make them lack the nascent aspect of human life and significance? Whatever side one falls on the argument, it is vital to encourage the cultivation of a society that views life as having great intrinsic value. This understanding and respect for life creates the difference between barbarism and civilization.

There are yet other faiths who place great spiritual importance on what goes inside their bodies. This can apply both to what is in their food as well as medical treatments. For these groups, there could be a moral dilemma posed by significant genetic modification of food and medicine. For example, various genes are being injected into peppers and tomatoes to make them grow faster and more hearty. Animal and human cells are also used in the production of some vaccines. This raises the question of how many human and animal genes can be present in vegetables or medicine without it being considered unsuitable for vegans or the millions of religious adherents who abstain from certain animal and human by-products, such as with Islam, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Judaism. While these unique groups of people are ultimately responsible for their own decisions, sensitivity to diverse belief systems must be a consideration of the scientific community as well.

Despite all the current ethical concerns regarding genetic engineering and human cloning, the practice still has tremendous potential in light of more conclusive scientific research studies on this particular subject. However, the challenges experienced in past genetic experiments should be a major factor in discouraging a rushed start of biogenetics. More research should be developed to review the ethical and moral considerations in genetic engineering practices. A full understanding of what we are doing and its consequences needs some time to catch up with the technology. Most important is the conviction and cultivation of a society that protects and enhances life in all of its scientific endeavors.

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