The Ethics of Genetic Engineering and "Designer Babies"

Essay by judomilkshakeCollege, UndergraduateA-, April 2006

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In the last century, there has been a veritable explosion of new revelations, discoveries and understandings that dwarf the accomplishments of the great scientists of the past and peers deeply into a new universe that they could only postulate about. The study of life on earth has made particularly amazing progress, with the exploration of infinitesimally small worlds like the inner workings of the human genome. It is when science approaches the very building blocks of life that it comes dangerously near crossing a line into the unethical. As medical technology advances and opens new windows into bioengineering the genes of developing human embryos, governments across the world must strive to create and protect good legislation that protects, defines, and ensures human health and progress while protecting free will, the rights of parents and children to be born.

Genetic engineering and "designer babies"--embryos which are genetically altered so that they are born with or without certain characteristics--are issues surrounded by controversy.

Religious right-wingers have suggested that bioengineering is

playing God, and many people have even gone so far as to say that genetic screening of

embryos 'takes away the gift of life'. Most world religions believe that childbirth is a sacred thing or holy event. They argue that the creation of a unique individual is the job of nobody but the divine Creator, whichever Creator they choose to believe in. These arguments, however, are against a shortsighted definition of "designer babies" and an incorrect assumption about prenatal genetic engineering.

In 2002 in the United States alone, 10,687 infants died due to birth defects--the number one cause of infant mortality in that country. (CDC) Indeed, genetic engineering is the beginning of the end of many horrible birth defects that mutilate or kill hundreds of thousands of infants each year.

When debating the ethics of genetic engineering, it is crucial to consider the multitude of procedures that are already available that can accomplish things that were once impossible, and how much suffering these procedures can and already have eliminated. Scientists can screen for healthy embryos so that genetic defects that may be crippling or fatal to the newborn infant can be detected early and, in some cases, ensure the child will be free of genetic diseases such as Huntingdon's disease and cystic fibrosis. Many of these procedures are performed with few or no problems for both mother and embryo. Parents today can use prenatal screening to diagnose disease before birth, when there may still be time to correct the problem, and doctors can gain valuable insight that will eventually lead to in-depth knowledge of genetic birth defects, as well as how and why they occur and how to prevent them. (Laurie 102) To consider the ethical ramifications of these new technologies, one must consider what ethicists call potential suffering, or the amount of suffering that each person threatened by a certain outcome. Since it is safe to assume that there will be hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of children who will be afflicted with birth defects, it is safe to assume that genetic engineering has the potential to alleviate an immense amount of suffering, even if the suffering is not yet occurring. Taking that into consideration, we must weigh it against the suffering caused by genetically engineering embryos to be healthy ones.

Unfortunately, suffering is a notoriously difficult thing to measure, and the suffering of beings that cannot convey any suffering in a clear manner and may not even be sentient yet seems like an impossible thing to quantify. Therefore, until we know more about the suffering of embryos, we must make our decisions based on procedures that have already been deemed harmless. Many pregnant women have blood tests and ultrasounds preformed to detect afflictions such as Down's syndrome or spina bifida. ( Genetic screening would just be an addition to these routine checks for healthy children. Many people feel these screenings are an effort to rid society of disabled people and oppose the thought of it entirely, but others argue it should be the right of every parent to deny or embrace the potential suffering and burden of raising a very disabled child. When all of the suffering that prenatal genetic treatment can alleviate, an argument based on 'invading the realm of God' seems almost illegitimate, especially when nobody can give a good reason why their God creates infants that die in their mothers' wombs or are born horribly disfigured, only to live a short life of pain and die before they can experience anything that life has to offer.

Legislating of genetic engineering is a difficult task. Governments must

ensure that the window for market and social prejudice driven science does not turn into a vacuum that takes society down an ugly road to a plastic future. Genetic research should be fueled by genuine need with aims to cure disease and better life. The practice of screening for children that would fit a social image, such as only allowing children with blonde hair and blue eyes to be born, would be a genetic holocaust and should be a human rights violation. This practice, even on the scale of individual parents requesting a

child that fits the profile of their pinnacle image, is still grotesque. It would be the practice of depriving unborn children from their genetic independence and destroying an original identity. This practice must be approached as a mean to ensure human health and welfare, not a means to turn natural endowments into socially controlled endowments. Legislation should reflect this mentality in regards to research into genetic engineering for cosmetic purposes and this practice should not be government funded and probably illegal. The potential for cures to some of the most tragic diseases humans as a species face today needs to be analyzed by lawmakers in any government which supports genetic research, and this research needs to be protected from religiously-motivated lobby groups. It is man's right to use his best natural defense--his ingenuity--to improve his chances for survival, and medicinal research is one very important way of doing so. To allow an interest group to infringe on this basic right would be a failure on the part of any government. In general laws concerning genetic engineering, particularly prenatal addition and repair of genetic material, are very restrictive at the moment. However, these laws are evolving with new discoveries being made all the time. (Avise 32) It is safe to predict that the more liberal governments of the world will soon begin to debate reforming genetic engineering research, and undoubtedly the issue of prenatal genetic engineering will need to be dealt with.

Regardless of religious background, everyone can agree that life is a gift. It is the duty of society and government to protect and respect this gift. I personally believe that my genetic independence, natural assets and abilities are what enable me to feel pride as an individual and optimism in my identity.

Some might argue that widespread genetic engineering could eventually offer a global genetic uniformity and equal opportunity for all and lead us towards a more perfect world but that is an argument best posed at a book burning. Great power brings great responsibility and my hopes for genetic engineering are that it is used to better the earth by curing disease while not compromising an individuals' right to his natural assets with politically promoted interference. Hopefully legislators all around the globe will realize the potential for medical breakthroughs that prenatal genetic engineering research will bring forth and loosen the current restrictive laws in enough countries for some productive research to get done. Medical research should be one of the top priorities of developed countries, and legislation. If there is even a possibility to end the suffering caused by prenatal birth defects, not only by the child itself but by the parents bearing the heavy burden of a severely disabled child, it should be explored. I think the problem with legislation today, particularly in the United States, is that religious interest groups still have serious political clout. The problem with this is the majority of religious groups are squeamish when science approaches things that were previously thought impossible. Still, just because we have recently discovered that something is possible, it is important to realize that it is not necessarily the right thing to do. It is also important to realize that the ethical debate over genetic engineering is not a black and white issue. There are so many uses for genetic engineering in the womb that to say the entire field is ethical or unethical would quite simply be an uninformed opinion.

Works Cited:

Avise, John C. The Hope, Hype & Reality of Genetic Engineering. London: Oxford UP, 2004. 32.

Fletcher, Agnes. "It's A Sin? Genetics and Disabled People." 14 June 2000. 09 Oct. 2005 .

Laurie, Graeme. Genetic Privacy: A Challenge to Medico-Legal Norms. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. 102.

United States of America. Center for Disease Control (CDC). Birth Defects / Congenital Anomalies. 17 June 2002. 9 Oct. 2005 .