Fifty years ago, the possibilities and potential benefits genetic engineering would have seemed straight out of science fiction. In the past 15 years, however, science has advanced significantly in the study and application of genetic engineering techniques for modifying many basic aspects of our lives, from the supply of food that we eat to our very lives. As Hayes writes in his argument on the benefits of genetic engineering, ???A hallmark of the human species is the-ability to intentionally manipulate objects of nature???. However, never has our ability to do so been so developed, nor have the implications been quite so significant and profound, involving not only biological and environmental concerns, but moral, legal, and ethical concerns over genetic manipultion and even less invasive medical processes that raise such questions about what lines to draw based on ethics, medical or otherwise, as well.
The possibilities and potential benefits of genetic engineering have the very real potential of ???destabiliz[ing] both the biological and the social foundations of the human world??? (Hayes 17). In order to comprehend the scope of the implications of, as well as the potential benefits of genetic engineering, it is important to understand what genetic engineering is, what scientific evidence supports and refutes its use and for what purposes, and how various stakeholders debate it as a construct. Ultimately, it will be proven that genetic engineering is not an area of scientific practice that should be advanced without further study. Until approximately 30 years ago, scientists specializing in genetics directed their attention towards cracking the code of human, animal, and plant life by analyzing the components of DNA and identifying the characteristics that correspond to each gene (Shand, Thomas, & Wetter 42).
As this process developed, the focus of genetic engineering began to shift, transitioning from ???reading to writing genetic code??? (Shand, Thomas, & Wetter 42; emphasis added). Shand, Thomas, and Wetter contend that the values shift that accompanied this practical shift in study reflected a ???scorn [for] nature??™s designs in favor of made-to-order life forms??? (42). One of the earliest examples of genetic manufacturing that was made public occurred ten years ago, when Scottish scientists announced that they had cloned a sheep successfully (Canadian Medical Association Journal 613), thus sparking not only this debate, but questions about the ethics of stem cell research in general. It was at this point that the argument about the benefits of genetic engineering were contested with those of a more ethereal ethical and even religious nature. According to the Canadian Medical Association Journal (613), Dolly??™s ???birth??? was the shot heard round the world for genetic science, and researchers began to imagine all of the applications that such new knowledge and skill could portend, both for human and animal life alike. The majority of the general public panicked about the possibility of cloning human life, and even the United Nations became involved in an effort to spearhead a ban on human cloning (Canadian Medical Association Journal 613).Since Dolly??™s arrival in the world the field of genetic engineering has become exponentially more complicated.
Genetic manufacturing and the drawbacks or benefits to genetic engineering is one of the most publicly discussed areas of science and argument outside the field itself, inspiring intense interest and equally passionate debate. One of the areas in which genetic engineering has been applied enthusiastically by scientists is in agricultural production and the manufacture of comestibles. At present, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not monitor or regulate genetically modified foods, although intense debate about the relative merits and dangers of this practice has compelled the FDA to examine the issue more closely (Hayes 10). The agency, which is charged with protecting the safety of Americans with respect to the food they eat and the medicines they take, just closed a public debate period in which it reviewed comments of the public on the subject of genetically engineered and modified food supplies (Hayes 10).
The FDA had already conducted its own review of the literature, and had determined that ???based on [its] analysis of ??¦studies on the health and food composition of clones and their offspring, the draft risk assessment has determined that meat and milk from clones and their offspring are as safe as food we eat every day??? (Hayes 10). As Hayes notes in his argument on the benefits of genetic engineering, ???Many agricultural companies are enthusiastic about the promise of cloning??? (12) and genetically altered and manufactured food, as it can introduce some stability into a notoriously unstable profession. Detractors of genetically altered food are doubtful, however, and question the FDA??™s conclusions, claiming that far more evidence is needed before the public can assume that non-natural food supplies are safe for human consumption (Hayes 10). These critics are not satisfied with the suggested intervention of labeling foods that have been modified genetically; they view such measures as an inadequate treatment of this subject (Hayes 10).
Another area of genetic engineering that has provoked passionate debate is the application of this technology in the potential cure and treatment of diseases. This possible benefit of genetic engineering has been one of the advantages held up by modification advocates as a compelling reason to support genetic engineering initiatives, offering promise to combat a range of debilitating conditions and terminal illnesses. Scientific evidence in terms of the medical benefits of genetic engineering, however, offers some mixed reports with respect to the efficacy of initial efforts directed towards this particular application of genetic technology. Manufactured human skin, for instance, which was imagined to be a boon to the treatment of people with severe burns and people requiring surgery, has proven to be far from effective in early clinical trials (Singer 25). The fake skin is prone to bacterial infections, creating more problems than it might solve (Singer 25). While continued research may correct this problem, the early findings point to the fact that enthusiasm must be tempered by restraint and the need to support hope with solid empirical evidence that can substantiate efficacy.
One of the most controversial areas of genetic engineering, however, involves the manufacturing and unnatural selection of human life. As genetic engineering technology has made it possible for expectant parents to know virtually everything about the traits of their child before it has even developed fully in the womb, more parents are opting to use the technology to select or change characteristics of their future child (Christianity Today 29). In an editorial published by the magazine Christianity Today, which is clearly not neutral on the subject of genetic engineering, the practice of ???designing??? babies through the practice of embryo banking??”which essentially involves selecting from a catalogue of desired traits??”is ???not morally neutral, [and represents] another step down the slippery slope toward the clear evil of eugenics??? (29). We need not look so far back into human history to see how such kinds of preferencing have deleterious social consequences, and the problem with such practices is that the limits that need to be set on such practices are not entirely clear, morally, ethically, or legally speaking.
Genetic engineering is used with increasing frequency for the purpose of terminating a pregnancy when the characteristics of the fetus are unsavory to the expectant parents. According to Leroi, studies estimate that 30% of 6,150 fetuses determined to have Down Syndrome are aborted by mothers in the U.S. each year; this number skyrockets to 80% in Paris and Taiwan (36). At least 11 other congenital disorders can be detected during pregnancy, resulting in a termination rate of at least 40% among women whose fetuses are detected as having a defect (Leroi 36). Leroi speculates that it may not be far in the future when doctors and scientists can determine all potential illnesses, and not just those that are apparent at birth (36). Genetic technology is likely to evolve to the point that it can analyze a fetus and predict the possibility of various chronic disorders that the person may experience over the entire lifespan. Even more importantly, the same questioned set of scientific techniques can lead to the use of stem cells to correct these issues, further pointing to another of the medical benefits of genetic engineering. Leroi hints at but does not ask the question implied by this possibility, namely: Does any adult really like the idea that his or her parent could have chosen to terminate life based on knowledge about what might happen when the child becomes an adult
While the intention to manufacture life and perfect it may have been positive, the potential scope of its negative consequences has become apparent within a brief period of time. Although there are some potential positive uses of genetic engineering, such as the cure of diseases, the potential drawbacks of genetic manipulation far outweigh possible benefits (Hayes 17). Analyzing the balance between benefits and consequences is a necessary part of any inventive process. Society must agree that the potential risks, which always exist, do not exceed the potential benefits. In the case of genetic engineering, this balance cannot be established with certainty. The potential abuses of genetic engineering have already become evident with ???designer babies???; it is likely that there are many other dangerous applications of genetic engineering that we have not yet considered.
???Our quest for mastery and domination over life??? is what makes genetic engineering such a fascinating subject, writes Sandel (1). This quest, however, endangers the long-held belief that human life is a gift that can only bestowed by a higher power and which does not??”and should not??”be tampered with by humans themselves (Sandel 1). Sixty-one percent of Americans ???believe it is morally wrong to clone??¦and 66%…are uncomfortable??? with the idea (Hayes 13). If the overwhelming majority of our population finds this practice problematic, then it clearly bears more study. The ???idea of scientists trying to bestow [or alter] life??? is disturbing (Hayes 15). If everyone is perfect, how will our attitudes and expectations about ourselves and one another change As Hayes writes, genetic engineering eliminates the ???natural range of diversity??? that defines who we are as human beings (Hayes 17). Any positive outcomes are clearly outweighed by the moral, legal, and ethical dangers of genetic engineering.