Genetic Engineering

Science has taken giant strides in the field of genetics.  It has been said the 20th century was the golden age of computing, and the 21st century is the age of DNA. In DNA discoveries, the very core of life has been penetrated, proving with finality that a unique individual human life is begun at fertilization, a life never to be repeated or replaced.  No genetic material is added after the moment of fertilization,

The hard-won facts of science, as in genetics, are morally neutral in themselves, but the applied uses of their knowledge, as in genetic engineering, inevitably have a moral component.

Genetic engineering is a process of altering an organism’s genome (genetic make-up) through various molecular biology techniques which either remove or introduce new or novel combinations of DNA. Through genetic engineering, intervention becomes possible on various levels: 1) Somatic gene therapy: cure or prevent the onset of a disease which affects the individual but will not affect succeeding generations; 2) Somatic genetic enhancement: genetic intervention to improve an individual human’s functioning; 3) Germline gene therapy: therapy aimed at preventing disease, but involving heritable genes; 4) Germline genetic enhancement: gene exchange or deletion to improve the functioning and characteristics of future generations.

Three areas of medical practice and scientific research intersect with the realm of genetic engineering and move beyond the ethically acceptable realm of curing or treating illness by either disrespecting human lives as research subjects or using it as a means to the end of creating an “enhanced” human being. These areas include: 1) In vitro fertilization prenatal genetic diagnosis that either destroys or attempts to manipulate embryos per a couple’s preferences; 2) Direct research on embryos or fetuses resulting in their destruction or the distortion of their attributes; 3) Genetic engineering that may be tested and eventually applied at prenatal and postnatal stages for non-therapeutic purposes.

A primary concern in all of these realms of genetic engineering is that human beings will be likely treated no different than an expendable laboratory animal, or worse, as simply “research material.” There is an undeniable “ends justify the means” philosophy which Right to Life of Michigan rejects as morally/ethically indefensible. In most instances, there is no means for these forms of research to advance without researchers being able or required to “discard” their “failed experiments.”

In each instance where the research creates a risk for, or even requires the destruction of a human embryo or fetus, that path of research must not be allowed.

Gene therapies used to correct genetic or acquired disorders are ethically valid so long as the therapy does not damage or destroy the donor, such as a human embryo. Manipulating the genetic material itself to bring about a cure can be a positive power.  Bacteria-produced human insulin is an example.   

Gene therapies used for non-therapeutic purposes, such as genetic enhancement to increase physical or mental capacities (injecting genes into embryos to produce, at the parents’ wishes, the kind of “designer persons” they desire), however, breach a new moral/ethical boundary by functionally turning the human person into a manufactured commodity.

As non-therapeutic interventions race towards actualities, we are obligated to raise concerns and objections from the myriad complexities genetic engineering presents, such as the following:

  • Are we allowing bio-technicians to have unwarranted to power to determine what it means to be human?
  • If children are produced from genes coming from multiple sources (persons, plants or animals), and not only from their natural parents, how can the children know who they are or where they come from?
  • What is to prevent the endless acceleration of genetic enhancement therapies?  Will this create a new kind of prejudice (“Geneism”) directed at those who have not been genetically “enhanced?”
  • Will not this new technology widen the already huge gap between rich and poor, as only the rich could afford the costs, thus pitting the rich “gene-trified” against the poor “natural” people?
  • “Reprogenetics” assigns to parents and scientists a kind of “godlike role,” giving them nearly complete control over their children’s characteristics, and to a certain extent their destinies.

Genetic engineering, if focused on cures and treatments, is a most worthy endeavor of science and medicine. When it becomes an intended power over nature and disregards the sanctity of each individual life affected, we have a collective societal obligation to put limits on such dehumanizing and immoral research.

(June 13, 2018)