Genetic engineering is the concept of taking genes and segments of DNA from one individual or species (e.g., a spider) and inserting them into another individual or species (e.g., a goat). The biotechnology of genetic engineering has created a broad spectrum of ethical issues, ranging from genetically modified organisms, as in crops, to animal and human cloning, genetic screening for diseases, prenatal and preimplantation diagnosis of human embryos, xenotransplantation, and gene replacement therapy.
Genetic engineering presents an exciting range of possibilities. For example, genetic engineering can give plants and crops desirable traits, such as drought resistance and additional nutrients. Such promises are not without their potential perils; some environmental groups raise concerns that the creation and use of these genetically engineered plants amounts to “genetic pollution” and that they should not be released into the environment until there is a full scientific understanding of their long-term impact on the environment and human health.
The stakes rise even higher when applying genetic engineering to animals or humans or animal-human combinations. For example, by inserting a spider’s gene into a goat embryo, a biotech firm created Biosteel, a unique high-performance spider fiber, prized for its toughness, strength, lightness, and biodegradability. Possible applications include the medical, military, and industrial performance fiber markets. However, bioethicists raise concerns about crossing species boundaries and question whether or not we are creating long-term effects on the environment, inflicting harm on these creatures that we create, and whether or not we should place some ethical, social, and legal controls or reviews on such research.
The engineering or combination of animal and human genes (also referred to as “transgenics”) represents a booming aspect of biotechnology. For example, genetically engineered pigs provide potential organs for transplantation (known as “xenotransplantation”). Researchers are also exploring the use of cell transplantation therapy for patients with spinal cord injury or Parkinson’s disease. However, several drawbacks to xenotransplantation exist, for example, the small but significant risk of the transmission of usually fatal zoonotic diseases, such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (also known as “mad cow disease”). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has banned xenotransplantation trials using nonhuman primates until adequate demonstrations that the procedure is safe and sufficient public discussion of the ethical issues take place.
Some groups advocate the use of genetic engineering for the enhancement of the human species, but this raises the specter of eugenics, once used as an excuse for genocide and the creation of the “perfect race.” Others call for a ban on species-altering technology enforced by an international tribunal. Part of the rationale for a ban is the concern that such technology could create a slave race, that is, a race of exploited subhumans. In April 1998, activist scientists opposed to genetic engineering applied for a patent for a “humanzee,” part human and part chimpanzee, to fuel debate on this issue and to draw attention to potential abuses. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office denied the patent on the grounds that it violated the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits slavery. These activists appealed the decision, but the appeal has not yet reached a court, and it may never do so, because the appeal may be dismissed on other technical grounds.
A question for the future is how the ethical, legal, and social implications of genetic engineering will challenge traditional notions of personhood.
- Baylis, Francoise and Jason Scott Roberts. 2006. Primer on Ethics and Crossing Species Boundaries. Washington, DC: American Institute of Biological Sciences. Retrieved March 29, 2017 (http://www.actionbioscience.org/biotechnology/baylis_robert.html).
- Glenn, Linda MacDonald. 2004. Ethical Issues in Genetic Engineering and Transgenics. Washington, DC: American Institute of Biological Sciences. Retrieved March 29, 2017 (http://www.actionbioscience.org/biotechnology/glenn.html).
- Rasko, John, Gabrielle O’Sullivan, and Rachel A. Ankeny, eds. 2006. The Ethics of Inheritable Genetic Modification: A Dividing Line? Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
- Rollins, Bernard E. 1995. The Frankenstein Syndrome: Ethical and Social Issues in the Genetic Engineering of Animals. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
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