With strong proponents on both sides, the ethics surrounding genetic engineering are a controversial topic. While genetic engineering of crops is mostly viewed in a positive light, opinions on human genetic engineering are far more varied. Some argue that the opportunity to significantly improve lives is too good to be missed, while others insist that this kind of genetic manipulation will lead humanity down a dark path. Given that it will likely be our generation that has to decide whether this complex toolkit is worth using, The Boar Science & Tech were interested to find out where students sat on the issue. With this in mind, Reece Goodall and Georga Chilton present their opposing views on the topic of genetic engineering.
Reece Goodall explains the dangers of manipulating our genetics
Scientists have been trying to manipulate life for many years, and the emergence of genetic engineering has provided them with a powerful toolkit. They understand the very building blocks of our existence, and there are obvious benefits to altering and improving our genetic makeup such as curing illnesses or helping people live longer. Yet, as technology gets ever better, the power of genetic engineering looks increasingly frightening. There are serious ethical questions about the ability of scientists to, as it’s often termed, play God.
If you have the power to make ‘perfect’ humans, why would you not?
Throughout history, people have tried to manipulate humanity and human breeding to assemble what they believed to be optimal, better humans. The famous Victorian scientist Francis Galton coined the term ‘eugenics’ in 1883: the idea that the human race could be improved through better breeding. He thought traits such as intelligence, criminality, alcoholism, and prostitution were all caused by defective genes – eugenicists would develop research programmes exploring all these conditions, as well as medical conditions such as deafness, blindness, and depression.
They lobbied for compulsory sterilisation and the incarceration of the genetically unfit to prevent them from contaminating the gene pool, and the ideas reached their horrendous logical endpoint in Nazi Germany in euthanasia programmes. I may sound extreme bringing up these examples, and I don’t imagine that scientists are in any way thinking like this, but it shows a rabbit hole into which genetic engineering advocates can fall. Once one imperfection has been ironed out, why not keep going? If you have the power to make ‘perfect’ humans, why would you not?
The impact on future generations is unknowable and potentially unimaginable
The idea of ‘designer babies’ is often floated – scientists manipulating genes in the womb, changing the colour of a baby’s hair or eyes or even their gender. And, of course, there comes the often-unstated ability to remove so-called ‘undesirable’ traits such as disabilities – what parents, knowing that their unborn child had a serious disability, wouldn’t have a good long think about asking scientists to tweak it away? It’s so wrong, and so sketchy – eliminating serious diseases such as sickle cell disease is one thing, but this is something else entirely. There’s a risk that prenatal screening programmes prejudge the value of our lives, and who gets to make that judgement? The parents? The scientists? God forbid, the government and health executives?
Our species isn’t some kind of IKEA assembly kit with an optimal construction, and we just don’t have the knowledge of what such alterations to genetic makeup would do – to the parents, and to the children (who cannot consent to be experimented on). The impact on future generations is unknowable and potentially unimaginable. There are possible advantages to genetic engineering, certainly, and it could improve our quality of life in limited doses. But its proponents are often keen to fling themselves far over this line, eager to play with dangerous tools to solve problems that may have other solutions anyway, and which would likely have dangerous political, legal, and ethical problems going forward. The value of science is always ultimately a question of balancing benefits against risks, and I don’t think genetic engineering currently lands on the right side of the scales.
Georga Chilton looks to the lives that could be saved by genetic engineering
Current advances in science, including the innovation of CRISPR gene editing, are providing humanity with a useful toolkit to be able to save the lives of millions and transform public health forever. Genetic engineering is heavily clouded with ethical controversy as thoughts of designer babies and a master race flash before people’s eyes, but the benefits this technology could bring are often disregarded.
The biological lottery is unfair, but genetic engineering could be used in a way to benefit those who are struck down by short life expectancies, disabilities, and debilitating illnesses. Surely, if there’s a chance of transforming someone’s life in such a way, why deprive them of that? Millions of lives could be saved, often by just editing a single defective gene to a functioning one, including for sickle cell anaemia, cystic fibrosis, and progeria. Genetic engineering could completely transform the lives of countless people, who would otherwise have a poor quality of life due to repeated hospitalisations, transfusions, pain, severe complications, or early death. The future of genetic engineering can be used to help the people who need it – those unlucky in the genetic lottery.
Genetically engineered pigs are set to be the future of organ transplantation
Not only is there a huge potential for genetic engineering to revolutionise medicine in the future, but without you realising, it’s already been able to have a profound impact on the lives of many. Although it is a relatively novel area of science, it has actually been over four decades since the first genetically modified organism was made by inserting bacterial resistance genes into E. coli. Since then, it has only progressed, yielding a whole host of advances, including the mass production of insulin, human growth hormones, albumin, monoclonal antibodies, antihemophilic factors, vaccines, and the creation of numerous drugs to treat cancer, diabetes, and MS.
It doesn’t have to be about endless life and designer babies
The current benefits of genetic engineering also extend to organ transplantations. Last year, the first kidneys from pigs were successfully transplanted into humans. These kidneys had been genetically modified to have human-like immune systems. Genetically engineered pigs are set to be the future of organ transplantation. The human organ donor pool is not currently able to keep up with the demand and as a result, patients die without receiving the life-saving transplants they need. Currently, seventeen people die each day waiting for an organ transplant. What if we can change this? Genetic engineering involving pigs removes the current challenges of organ shortages and long wait times, and can offer transplantation to all patients in need, including the elderly who are currently not accepted. Also, it has the potential to remove the inevitable ethical obstacles present today involving related and unrelated donors, and financial arrangements or coercion.
So, before you disregard genetic engineering and claim it to be unethical, consider how we can use this toolkit in a moderated way in medicine. It doesn’t have to be about endless life and designer babies; it can offer people a better quality of life.
In order to gain a wider perspective on the issue, The Boar Science & Tech collected anonymous student opinions on whether genetic engineering is unethical. A sample of the responses are shown below:
“If it can further the next generations of humans, or even help preserve and maintain other species on Earth, I don’t see why not. Genetic engineering is rather taboo for me personally because of issues surrounding consent, but ‘issues’ around playing God to me are arbitrary.”
“There are potential positive applications for genetic engineering, but I also think it could be taken advantage of.”
“There is also a sector of genetic engineering which is incredibly important, and this is the genetic engineering of plants.”
“Genetic engineering (GE) should be reserved for cases where it is necessary – designer babies should not be the end goal of GE, but the potential avoidance of disability, disease, or lifelong suffering is absolutely the right use of the technology.”
“How we choose to regulate genetic engineering will probably be one of the key decisions of this century. More public conversation should be taking place about how and when we want this technology to be used.”
“If social class and ableism no longer existed, genetic engineering could be a wonderful tool, but under our current circumstances it will not.”