Why Play With Nature?

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Courtesy of Mandeep Singh. Used with permission
.












Why Play With Nature?


STS.011

December 1, 2004











Answering the question: Do the costs of genetic engineering outweigh the potential benefits of producing the perfect
human?

With technolo
gy developed during the twentieth century and with research currently
underway, scientifically manufacturing the “perfect” human is closer than ever. In the
future, prospective parents can give an embryo to scientists, tell them what they want their
child
to look like, and what type of personality they want it to have, and the scientist
delivers a genetically altered embryo which will grow into their perfect child. However, the
scientists would not only change the embryo’s physical and personality traits. I
n addition,
the scientist would check the embryo’s DNA for any genetic diseases and change those
genes that are predisposed to chronic illness, so the child would not be seriously ill or
disabled during its lifetime. Although the technology sounds worthwhi
le and useful, there
are many issues that need to be resolved before it becomes a mainstream practice. For
instance, who decides what is “perfect” and who is liable for the genetically altered child’s
actions? How do we genetically alter human beings witho
ut causing discrimination against
them or against those humans who do not have changed DNA? Overall, we must ask
ourselves: why is there such a problem with the current lottery for genes that we find it
necessary to play with nature by forcing our children

to look and to act in a certain way? As
the technology develops, it is becoming clear that the costs of genetic engineering far
outweigh any potential benefits which would arise from making the “perfect” human.

First, let us discuss the meaning of the wo
rd “perfect.” According to the dictionary,
perfect means “being entirely without fault or defect; flawless.”
1

However, what
characteristics make a human “flawless”? Is a perfect person someone who does not have
any genetic disease or is a person’s perfecti
on determined by his outward appearance: being
thin, with blonde hair, blue eyes, 20
-
20 eyesight, and sparkling white teeth? In today’s
world, one full of cosmetic enhancements and plastic surgeries, most people probably view
the perfect person as one that

walked straight out of a magazine advertisement, because
those models are perfect, aren’t they?




1

Merriam
-
Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 10
th
ed. Springfield: Merriam
-
Webster, Inc., 2001. pp 860

In a world where altering the genes of an embryo is commonplace, parents of genetically
engineered children feel like they choose their offsprings’ “perfect” q
ualities. However,
society ultimately determines what is considered perfect. Most of society would agree that
preventing a genetic disease such as Down syndrome or Huntington’s disease with genetic
engineering would make a person more “perfect.” However, i
f these diseases can be
prevented by genetic engineering, “why not proceed to other less serious “disorders” such
as myopia, color blindness, dyslexia, obesity, left
-
handedness?”
2

Indeed, where does
society stop? Once genetic engineering of unborn fetuses
becomes a mainstream practice,
parents will not have children unless they are born “perfectly” free of disease and
guaranteed to have a J
-
Lo booty by age fifteen. Isn’t this a problem?

By producing “perfect” humans out of every embryo, genetic diversity d
ecreases quite
rapidly. Although a utopian society sounds intriguing, it is impossible to obtain and would
be dangerous to try to achieve. Today, blights of genetically altered crops reveal how
difficult it is to become “perfect.” Transgenic plants, which
grow much faster, have a
greater yield than non
-
transgenic plants, and are resistant to particular insects or weeds, are
being planted all around the world.
3

However, insects and weeds are mutating in order to
attack these plants again, forming “continued
waves of ever more resistant weeds, insects,
viruses, and the like.”
4

By reducing crop diversity, there is a much greater chance that crops
will be vulnerable to destruction.
5

The vulnerability of plants to attack has been seen in the
past during the 1840
Irish potato blight and the 1970s corn attack in the southern United
States.
6

By making genetically “perfect” humans, we set ourselves up for destruction.
Although we may prevent humans from getting Down

syndrome or Huntington’s disease,
society as a whole

becomes more vulnerable to a mass epidemic caused by an unknown



2

Rifkin,

Jeremy. The Biotech Century. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1998. pp 140
3

3

Ibid., pp 111
-
113
4

4

Ibid., pp 113
5

5

Ibid., pp 108
6
Ibid., pp 108

6

Ibid., pp 108

virus. A large population of humans could be eliminated very quickly, just like the potatoes
in Ireland. Genetic engineering reduces the diversity of the human population as it saves
some peo
ple from rare genetic illnesses. Which is preferable: a small population with illness
or no illness (or humans) at all?

Another issue which arises from genetically changing the DNA of our children is
liability and “the right to choose.” Many anti
-
abortion

groups today proclaim that the child
does not have the ability to choose whether to live or to die, so neither should the parents. In
the genetic engineering case, should the parents have the right to decide what their child
looks like, what its personali
ty should be, or whether it has a genetic disease? Or does the
environment also play a role in determining the child’s appearance and behavior?
Surprisingly, many sociobiologists today believe that the key to a person’s personality and
behavior lies within

the person’s genes.
7

Therefore, when parents pick their child’s genes,
they are ultimately deciding what the child’s behavior will be. Then, are the parents liable
for the child’s actions? Let’s illustrate this issue with an example. A couple is planning
to
have a child. They have a test done on the fetus which reveals that the child has a gene
which could make the child act violently at times. The parents decide not to have any
genetic engineering performed on the unborn fetus and the child, later in life
, becomes
violent and murders someone. Who is liable for the victim’s death: the child or the parents?
Is the child innocent because the parents had the ability to change his behavioral traits, but
they chose not to? Or is the child innocent because he can

not choose his genes and his
genes caused him to become angry and to commit murder? Or is he guilty because he
committed murder, even though his genes caused his violent behavior? Similar issues arise
with genetic engineering of embryos due to disease
. Fo
r example, a pregnant woman

discovers that her




7

Ibid., pp 153

unborn child will develop a rare genetic disease and will die at a young age, but the woman
decides not to have any genetic change made to the child’s DNA.
8

Is the woman liable for
the child’s death because sh
e chose not to alter any of the child’s genes?
9

In strikingly
similar situations today, women have “been held liable for having given birth to crack
cocaine
-
addicted babies and babies with fetal alcohol syndrome.”
10

When we genetically
engineer our children
, who is liable for how they act in the future or for their deaths due to
rare genetic disease? It is not far
-
fetched to say that deaths due to genetic disease will
decrease because rare genetic diseases will cease to exist (as widespread epidemics
increas
e). However, as we will see, once genetic engineering becomes commonplace,
parents will be forced to scientifically manufacture their children.

Another issue with this new science is that it will never disappear once it proves itself
successful. It may be

surprising to hear that genetic engineering is not just another form of
technology, which can easily be replaced with something else (for instance, the record to
the 8track to the cassette to the CD to the MP3). In a world of genetically engineered
childr
en, parents will not choose to have their child’s DNA altered, but they will be forced
to participate in this practice. Why? Genetic discrimination. This discrimination already
occurs today, when insurance companies discriminate against people who have a f
amily
history of a specific disease, regardless of whether the policy holders have the disease
themselves.
11
These people are either denied coverage or are forced to hold a “high risk”
policy, costing them more money to have insurance
12
. In a world of genetic
ally engineered
citizens, much more discrimination will take place. Employers will discriminate against
those with a particular gene that makes them prone to





8

Ibid., pp 137
-
138

9

Ibid., pp 137
-
138

10

Ibid., pp 138

11

Ibid., pp 161


12

Ibid., pp 162

illness or a certain type of cancer. For example, people could be dismissed from their jobs
for h
aving DNA containing the Huntington’s disease gene, since Huntington’s disease
strikes in mid
-
life and is almost always fatal.
13

Because parents want the best for their
children, we can conclude that once there is widespread genetic engineering performed on

human DNA, every unborn child’s genetic makeup will be altered to prevent the child from
having a rare disease. Therefore, the number of rare diseases decreases, but because of
shrinking diversity, the number of epidemics increases. In addition to discrim
ination against
the children with the genetic diseases, there will also be discrimination within prospective
parents. If a man has a gene which could cause a genetic disorder, women may opt not to
marry him because their children may inherit this disease a
nd be less employable.
14

This
type of discrimination also occurs today in certain parts of the world. For instance, 23
percent of the population of Greece was found to have a gene which causes sickle
-
cell
anemia.
15

As a result, “many of the carriers conceale
d their test results, believing that
public exposure would seriously jeopardize their marriage prospects.”
16

If genetic
engineering causes more discrimination between people due to their genotype, which
previously could not be altered, is this new science a

benefit to society? I think not.

Putting aside the diversity, liability, and discrimination issues, does genetic
engineering improve the lives of the parents and the children? To answer this question, we
must first examine the genetic screening itself. W
hat should a genetic test screen the DNA
for: only genetic diseases which can be cured with a genotype alteration, or also those
diseases which can not be removed easily from the code? The most current genetic
screening checks for over 150 disorders.
17





13

Ibid,. pp 163
-
164

14

Ibid., pp 135
-
136

15

Ibid., pp 136

16

Ibid., pp 136

17

Ibid., pp 133

How
ever, less than fifteen percent of these disorders can actually be treated.
18

What do
parents do if their unborn child was found to have one of the untreatable disorders? Do they
abort the child or bring it to term? If there was a genotype alteration which
could be
performed on the embryo, but which has a finite probability of injuring or killing the fetus,
do the parents choose this option? Although these issues are difficult to deal with when put
in the situation, it does not mean that genetic screening of

unborn fetuses is unethical nor
should it be stopped. All tests possible should be performed on an unborn child to alert the
parents of any possible diseases the child could have. Then, the parents must decide
whether or not to allow the child to live. Ho
wever, tests that reveal what the child will look
like or what the child’s personality will be are unnecessary. Once we begin testing for
physical or personality traits, unborn children will be aborted because the parents did not
like the child that they w
ere going to have. Although abortions of this nature sound strange,
when sex screening became commonplace in the 1970s, women aborted fetuses of the
“wrong” gender in order to balance the gender of the children in their families.
19

If
screening of physical
and personality traits is performed on unborn children, there is no
doubt that lives will be taken if the parents do not like the way the child will look or act.
Therefore, genetic screening solely for diseases and disorders should continue to take place
o
n unborn children. However, if the genetic screening finds a disorder, scientists should not
change the child’s genotype to remove or to mask the disease. Once genetic changes are
made, the liability, discrimination, and diversity issues come back into pla
y, obviously
causing problems to all of society instead of to a small number of people.

So, if this genetic engineering causes more problems than it solves, should scientists
continue researching links between DNA and diseases, personal appearance, and
pe
rsonality




18

Ibid., pp 133

19

Ibid., pp 140

traits? The answer is a mixed bag. Most people would agree that researching genetic links to
deadly diseases is worthwhile and should be pursued. If a link is found between a gene and
a disease, parents could find out if their child will be healt
hy in the future. However,
research to find links between DNA and physical or personality traits is unnecessary. Yes, it
is interesting to find that a specific gene caused one person to be tall and another person to
be short. It is also intriguing to find
another gene that causes one person to be obese and
another person to be thin. However, since obesity is also linked to a greater risk of heart
attacks and strokes, should scientists investigate a genetic alteration to make a child less
prone to obesity? T
he answer is no. Obesity is not a chronic illness. It can be cured with diet
and exercise or with changes in the child’s environment. For example, if a child with an
obesity gene is around less fatty foods and has more nutritious options during its lifetim
e,
the chances of becoming obese decrease significantly. The same case applies to genetic
links with personalities and behaviors. Three decades ago, scientists believed that they
found a link between men with an extra Y chromosome and aggressive behavior.
20

It was
found that many criminals in prison had this extra chromosome, which probably caused
some women to abort their fetuses if the unborn children contained the extra “criminal”
gene.
21

However, Rifkin explains that “a large number of men in the general
population also
have the extra Y chromosome and carry on normal lives,”
22

proving that solely the extra
gene does not contribute to a person’s personality. Because our looks and personalities do
not directly determine our health and because our appearance a
nd behavior can change with
our environment, it is not necessary to discover links between DNA and physical or
personality traits.






20

Ibid., pp 134

21

Ibid., pp 134

22

Ibid., pp 134

As scientists today develop new ways to change the genetic makeup of humans, we
must ask ourselves whether this engineering

will benefit society. Making the “perfect”
human by altering human DNA causes the diversity of the world to decrease while
discrimination against those who are not genetically changed increases. In addition, genetic
engineering of personality traits cause
s parents to be liable for their child’s actions and puts
pressure on future parents to abort their unborn children if a disorder in its genotype can not
be altered. What do we do? The answer is simple: continue research between diseases and
DNA, but stop
any action which would further the advancement of genetic alterations of
unborn children. The future of the world is in our hands. Today should be the beginning of
the end of genetic engineering.

















Works Cited


1. Merriam
-
Webster’s Collegiat
e Dictionary. 10
th
ed. Springfield: Merriam
-
Webster, Inc., 2001.


2. Rifkin, Jeremy. The Biotech Century. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1998.