The Ethics of Gene Therapy/Cloning - Shoreline


Dec 11, 2012 (3 years and 10 months ago)


Ethics of Genetic Engineering | Introduction

In the mid
1970s, the public of the Western world was astonished to learn that scientists had recently
invented ways to move pieces of genetic material, the very blueprint of life, from one species to
Boosters claimed that this new technology of moving and changing genes, which came to be
called genetic engineering, would lead to more abundant food supplies, inexpensive medicines, and
cures for currently untreatable diseases. Naysayers, on the other han
d, feared that it would lead to
unstoppable plagues of disease or other environmental disasters.

Supporters and opponents of genetic engineering were just as divided about the basic ethics or morality
of the technology as they were about its practical imp
lications. Supporters said it was nothing more
than an extension of what breeders of plants and animals had been doing for thousands of years and,
indeed, what nature itself did through evolution and natural selection. Detractors claimed that it was
ural” and “playing God” and therefore should be banned on ethical as well as safety grounds.

This first wave of concern died down during the 1980s as genetically modified microorganisms were
released into the environment and no disasters occurred. Genetic

engineers, meanwhile, extended the
technology’s application from bacteria to plants, mammals, and, ultimately, human cells. Use of
transgenic living things

those containing genes from a species other than their own

became a small
but growing part of biote
chnology, or the use or alteration of other living things in the processes that
benefit humankind. For some companies it became very profitable, particularly after the U.S. Supreme
Court declared in 1980 that altered living things could legally be patented

As the twenty
first century begins, genetic engineering has taken over the biotechnology industry so
completely that many people now use the terms genetic engineering and biotechnology
interchangeably. Genetically altered crops, including food crops suc
h as soybeans and corn, cover tens
of millions of acres in the United States and a few other countries and are marketed around the world.
Scientists working for pharmaceutical companies regularly use altered genes to produce “designer”
drugs, and other res
earchers are experimentally treating certain inherited diseases by altering the genes
of individuals, a new form of medicine called gene therapy. For better or worse, the next hundred years
seem likely to be what longtime genetic engineering foe Jeremy Rif
kin calls “the biotech century.”

The fact that genetic engineering is so pervasive does not mean that the ethical questions surrounding it
have been settled, however. Opponents still question the basic ethics of modifying genes, both because
the process c
reates living things that would never exist in nature and because it threatens to make
humans view other life forms or even other human beings as mere manufactured commodities to be
changed and discarded at will. Defenders, on the other hand, admit that pa
rticular uses of genetic
engineering may raise ethical questions but see the process itself as no more unethical than any other
form of science or technology. Humans, they say, have always altered their environment to benefit

and genetic engine
ering, these supporters emphasize, holds the promise of very great
benefits indeed, including major new weapons against hunger and disease.

Altering human genes: “Designer babies”?

Ethical debates perhaps even more bitter than those over GM foods surround

the alteration of human
genes. Some of these debates are extensions of those that have raged for decades over abortion and
reproductive technologies such as in vitro (“test tube”) fertilization. Others are as new as human
genetic engineering itself.

ration of genes in an individual’s somatic (body) cells was used successfully to treat disease for the
first time in 1990. Changes in the genes of somatic cells are not passed on to a person’s offspring.
Although many questions remain about the safety and
effectiveness of gene therapy, which is still
primarily in the experimental stage, this type of human gene alteration raises the fewest ethical issues,
especially when it is used to treat or prevent an illness that is life threatening and otherwise incurab

Some critics, however, see gene therapy, however well intentioned, as the first step down a “slippery
slope” that could lead to the revival of eugenics, a pseudoscientific practice popular in the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Supporte
rs of eugenics believed that only people with
desirable characteristics (as the dominant groups in society defined “desirable”) should be allowed to
reproduce. Because of eugenic laws in a number of Western countries and states, including some parts
of the

United States, thousands of people who were developmentally disabled, mentally ill, convicted
of crimes, or otherwise classified as “unfit” were forcibly sterilized. In the late 1930s and early 1940s,
Nazi Germany took eugenics to its ultimate extreme by
not merely sterilizing but killing those it
deemed undesirable, which came to include entire ethnic groups. Because eugenics resulted in such
obvious ethical abuses, critics say, anything that might revive it, in whatever form, is ethically dubious.

among those who do not question the use of gene alteration to prevent or treat serious illness,
some say that in the future, if gene therapy (especially gene therapy administered to a developing fetus
before it is born) becomes common, defining “illnesses”

appropriate for such treatment may become
difficult. Genetic predispositions to conditions such as shortness, obesity, or below
intelligence, now considered normal inheritable characteristics, may become grounds for gene
alteration or abortion. Pa
rents able to afford such treatments, furthermore, may choose to have their
normal fetuses’ genes modified to increase intelligence, beauty, or other features that they find
desirable. Some people feel that gene alteration to prevent a minor handicap or to

enhance the
condition of a normal offspring would be unethical. Others feel it would be just as ethical as wealthy
parents’ purchasing first
class schooling or other advantages for their children.

Debate becomes even more severe when the question turns t
o alteration of germline genes

those in
sex cells (eggs and sperm), which are passed on to an individual’s offspring. Even many people who
find alteration of somatic genes ethically acceptable say that germline genes should never be changed.
Doing so could

have untoward effects, not merely on an individual, but ultimately on the whole of
humanity, perhaps even changing “what it means to be human.” Supporters of germline gene therapy,
however, are excited about the prospect of human beings controlling their
own evolution. Altering
germline genes, they say, could eradicate deadly inheritable diseases once and for all and make
thrilling improvements in human beings’ physical and mental health and powers.

A final ethical issue in human genetic engineering cente
rs on cloning, or creating a new individual that
has exactly the same genes as an existing one. Human cloning became a real possibility in 1997, when
scientists working at the Roslin Institute in Scotland announced that they had cloned a sheep, which
named Dolly, from the mature cell of an adult ewe. Those who oppose human cloning on ethical
grounds say that allowing adults to clone themselves would produce confusion about family
relationships and encourage parents to regard cloned offspring as product
s rather than independent
human beings. Supporters of cloning say that it would help infertile couples have children that they
could produce in no other way and that clones would be no more “subhuman” than identical twins,
which are natural clones of each

Ethical as well as practical questions about genetic engineering are sure to become more pressing as
the technology continues to spread and develop during the upcoming “biotech century.” These
questions can be discussed intelligently only if people

are willing to educate themselves about the
science involved and listen to one another’s points of view calmly, without being blinded by emotion
or misconceptions. This anthology, At Issue: The Ethics of Genetic Engineering, provides a variety of
ts about the most controversial ethical aspects of this hotly debated technology.

Ethics of Human Cloning | Introduction

To clone a living thing is to make an exact genetic copy of that organism. Individual genes

biochemical building blocks that gove
rn the structure and function of all living creatures

can be
cloned, as can whole cells. Both gene and cell cloning are common research tools in current genetic
and biomedical research.

Entire organisms can also be cloned. For example, humans have cloned
plants for centuries by use of
small cuttings

a process called vegetative propagation. Some invertebrate animals

starfish and
earthworms, for example,

grow into two identical organisms when split apart, but most animals differ
from plants in that they cann
ot be cloned so readily.

In the 1980s scientists began researching methods of cloning higherorder animals

mammals in
particular. The accelerating success of their experiments has led to widespread discussion over the
possibility of human cloning. This dis
cussion has revealed widespread disagreement, both within the
scientific community and the general public, over whether human cloning research should be allowed.

Ethical questions

The ethical questions people have raised about human cloning exist on sever
al levels. Some objections
concern the safety of human cloning experiments. Cloning is far from being an infallible process. It
took 277 attempts to create Dolly

the other fused egg cells failed to develop or had abnormalities that
proved fatal during gest
ation. The prospect of a similar failure/success ratio involving humans is
grounds enough to ban cloning research, some argue. In addition, questions linger as to the long
physical health and possible premature aging of clones such as Dolly the sheep.

NBAC concluded in
its June 1997 report that such safety questions warranted a moratorium on human cloning reproduction

The safety and premature aging concerns surrounding cloning are technical barriers that may or may
not fall as the science

of cloning advances. However, many people have raised ethical objections to
cloning that go beyond questions of safety. For some, cloning violates fundamental religious beliefs on
how human reproduction should occur. Others worry that cloning could blur t
raditional family
relationships. A clone could be seen as both a person’s daughter and twin sister, for instance.

Other ethical questions focus on motives for human cloning and whether some reasons are more
acceptable than others. For instance, people mig
ht deem it ethical for a couple at risk of bearing
children with a genetic disorder to clone one of the clearly healthy parents. But would it be ethical for a
couple to clone a child simply because the father desired a genetic replica of himself? Would it
ethical for parents to take cells from a child who had died suddenly in an accident and clone a
“replacement,” since that second child could be subject to unfair expectations? Moreover, some people
question whether society has any right to intrude on th
e reproductive decisions of couples and
individuals by imposing any restrictions on cloning.

A principle that forms the basis for many human cloning arguments is the assertion by the German
philosopher Immanuel Kant that humans must be treated as ends in
themselves, not as means to an
end. Perhaps the starkest application of such reasoning is the possibility that humans might be cloned
in order to provide organs that could be transplanted into the genetic donor without fear of rejection.
The use of cloned
embryos and fetuses for such purposes is defended by some cloning advocates and
dismissed by others as a far
fetched scenario that would never really happen. But many would agree
that creating a clone of a person simply as a source of “spare parts” is a gr
oss violation of Kant’s

Some people go further and argue that cloning for any purpose violates Kant’s principle on some level
because a “manufactured” clone would be burdened by specific expectations on what kind of person he
or she would becom
e. “There is a profound ethical difference,” argued the late Catholic archbishop
John O’Connor, “between ‘having a child’ and ‘making a child.’ A child begotten can always be seen
as a gift, whereas a child made or manufactured can always be seen as a thin

a product for use not
to be respected for what he/she is, but priced for what it can do.” But others reject the argument that
just because a person is a clone, he or she would not be treated and loved as any other human would
be. “Why suppose that cloned

persons wouldn’t share the same rights and dignity as the rest of us?”
asks bioethics professor Ruth Macklin.

Supporters of human cloning argue that the initial negative reaction is simply a common human
response to something new and unknown, and compare

cloning to other assisted reproductive
techniques such as in vitro fertilization. When the idea of taking a woman’s egg out of the body,
fertilizing it in the laboratory, and implanting it back in the womb was first attempted in the 1970s,
many people fou
nd the procedure disturbing and unnatural, and wondered how “test
tube” babies
would fare socially and psychologically. But today in vitro fertilization is accepted by most people as
an acceptable way for infertile couples to have their own children. Cloni
ng advocates argue that
attitudes toward cloning will undergo a similar evolution and the procedure will come to be seen as an
acceptable alternative for infertile people who want to have children.

Whether or not human cloning will eventually be as common

and accepted

as in vitro fertilization
remains to be seen, but it is clear that the ethical debate over human cloning will not soon die down.
The authors of At Issue: The Ethics of Human Cloning present a variety of perspectives on the issues
raised by th
e as yet unrealized prospect of human cloning.

Article excerpts from