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The Ethics of Genetic Engineering

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

In this lesson, you're going to learn about the ethics of genetic engineering. We will review two hotly debated examples, GMO crops and 'designer' babies, and their potential benefits and dangers to society.

Why Consider Ethics in Genetic Engineering?

If you had the ability to make yourself stronger, would you? Maybe you would do this so that you could fight off an attacker and thus save yourself and maybe your family. And you'd do this by working out a lot.

Well, in science, we also want to make things stronger, and there's another way we can do it without running miles and hitting the gym every day. Scientists can use genetic engineering to alter the basic genetic material of an organism, by inserting genes (functional agents of heredity) from one organism into the genetic code for another. Scientists can use genetic engineering to make plants or animals grow faster and stronger, but they can also do things like clone animals or create glow-in-the-dark cats.

There's a big ethical dilemma as to whether we should be doing genetic engineering, now or in the future. By ethics, I mean a branch of philosophy that deals with human conduct and how right or wrong an action or the motives behind an action may be. Let's see how this ties in with genetic engineering by exploring two examples and differing viewpoints.

Genetic Engineering in Plants

One of the most prominent applications of genetic engineering is in agriculture, and in the past few years we have been inundated with news on the controversy over genetically modified crops. Scientists and companies are saying genetically engineered crops are safe, sound, and ethically important because they may save lives. But how? Critics say they may cause more harm than good and thus they are unethical. But how?

Let's start at the basics. We manipulate the basic genetic material of plants, like corn, for a purpose, like increased resistance to disease, increased resistance to environmental stressors, and increased yield.

Why is this good? Let's think about this. Pretend you are living in an environment that's susceptible to a lot of drought. You need to feed your family. You don't want to see your kids starve to death. Wouldn't you want to plant only the best possible crop for your environmental conditions? A crop that is resistant to drought? Of course!

Similarly, you'd want that crop to be resistant to pests or diseases so that it doesn't get wiped out. And when the crops grow, you'd want them to be big so you could not only feed your spouse, kids, and aging parents, but also your impoverished neighbors who are begging for food.

That's the obvious upside to genetic engineering, but of course, there are always two sides to a coin. Though we still need more studies, there are claims that genetically modified foods have been linked to an increase in the development of allergies in children. Is it ethically correct to develop foods that save lives of some people but make others sick?

In another instance, science has proven that a genetically modified soybean strain had lower levels of beneficial nutrients that may help protect against heart disease and cancer. This is obviously an ethical issue because if we are increasing yield but decreasing nutritional value at the same time, we may actually end up hurting people in the long run even if we save them in the short term by giving them something to eat.

However, impoverished farmers and communities are not all happily accepting these genetically modified crops, stating concerns ranging from their safety to environmental biodiversity to the long-term effects on local farmers (corporations own the genetically modified seeds, farmers can't save seeds, their livelihood is affected, etc). In fact, people have trampled and destroyed crops like rice, sugar beets, potatoes, and even grapes all over the world when they heard it was a new genetically engineered strain that was being grown there. One instance occurred in the Philippines, when an experimental field of Golden Rice was ravaged.

Genetic Engineering in Humans

Now let's turn to another area of genetic engineering research, that of babies. Now there are several reasons one might alter a baby's genes, from getting rid of a heritable disease before the child is born, to favoring genes for strength or intelligence, or even selecting a preferential feature like blue eyes. There are several issues that are raised here. Some involve personal ethics and others involve species-wide ethics.

So let's start with the personal ethics. If you had the power to play God, as some claim, in order to literally choose the baby you want, would you do it? Would you build a baby using genetic engineering or would you let Mother Nature take its course? Some people view genetic engineering as unethical because it is going against natural laws and divine creation.

Transitioning into another perspective, genetically engineering babies would be cost-prohibitive. Only the wealthiest people would be able to produce 'super-babies', for lack of a better term. This may lead to a further widening of the gap between the 'haves' and 'have nots', where the 'haves' will have children who may be genetically modified to be superior in fitness and intelligence while the 'have nots' will not and may fall further behind. Therefore, genetic engineering in humans may be unethical from a socioeconomic perspective.

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