Ethics of ‘playing God’
By Taveesh Edussuriya
Ceylon Today Features
Genome editing is a type of genetic engineering in which DNA can be inserted, deleted and/or replaced in the genome of a living organism. This is an exciting concept. Once mastered, the potential it displays is enormous. We will be able to erase disease, remove mutations and even reverse aging. But have we opened a door to eugenics we are not ready to open?
The prospect of gene therapy is a boon to many. The ability to eradicate diseases such as Huntington's, where patients die slowly of nerve deterioration in the brain and cystic fibrosis which occurs in one gene will save many unborn babies.
In April, Chinese researchers announced they had used CRISPR to modify human embryos in order to cure a fatal blood disorder known as Beta Thalassemia. The embryos were not viable, meaning they could not survive to birth, but it could be a preview of what›s to come.
Eugenics is a set of beliefs and practices that aim at improving the genetic quality of the human population. This doesn't sound too bad does it? However this concept, after being twisted and misrepresented, played a key role in Hitler's Nazi ideology.
The master race is a concept in Nazi and Neo-Nazi ideology in which the Nordic or Aryan races, that predominate among Germans and other northern European peoples, are deemed the highest in racial hierarchy.
The great Greek philosopher Plato too once suggested that the concept of selective breeding should be used in human reproduction. Selective breeding is where males and females possessing attributes which are deemed 'favourable' reproduce to create a generation of genetically favourable kids.
There are several arguments against human germ line editing. One of them is that genetic modification can be risky, and it is currently untested. Editing one gene may have adverse effects on how it may be expressed in future. The deletion or replacement of a gene may have unforeseen effects on the recipient of the gene therapy.
The changes we make to our genetic material are hereditary. If there are adverse effects from gene therapy, they will pass on to the progeny of the edited person. It is also possible for the adverse effects to skip generations and manifest in the progeny of the recipients, and not the recipients themselves. Tampering with genetic material has highly unpredictable results. Thus the consequences are very far reaching.
Another aspect to consider is the possibility of "Human Enhancement." Genetic engineering is a double edged sword. In addition to curing diseases, it can also be used to delete characteristics seen as "Unfavourable' by society and replace them with favourable characteristics. The concept of "Designer Babies" who are created with a higher propensity to have favourable characteristics is worrying. Misuse of genetic engineering could result in either a race of genetically enhanced "super" humans who have little to no unfavorable attributes. This can result in division of the species and may lead to widespread ethnic and genetic cleansing.
Genetic engineering of humans has brought to light one of the less known intellectual movements of our time known as Transhumanism. This movement seeks the use of technology and scientific principles to enhance the human condition by improving the human race physically and intellectually. This is a concept which is endearing when viewed on a surface basis, but the underlying issue is that technology is never widespread and freely available. The concept may easily lead to the rich becoming physically and intellectually superior whilst the poor remain unmodified and unenhanced. This can lead to class wars and a wide division in human society which will prove more detrimental than actually beneficial to the human condition.
"Eugenics refers to both the selection of positive traits (positive eugenics) and the removal of diseases or traits viewed negatively (negative eugenics). Eugenics in either form is concerning because it could be used to reinforce prejudice and narrow definitions of normalcy in our societies."
States the American Society for Human Genetics.
"This is particularly true when there is the potential for 'enhancement' that goes beyond the treatment of medical disorders," they added.
The issue here is to find out where to draw the line. With genome technology it is possible for expecting mothers to abort fetuses that carry fatal genetic diseases or flaws which will not allow them to survive. However this can be carried on to the stage where expecting mothers can abort fetuses which they deem "Genetically Inferior." Thus this may create an expectation that parents should not only give the best for their children but also have the best possible child while aborting genetically inferior fetuses.
Genome editing has created a platform for discussion. There are many aspects of this particular technology, ranging from the ethical dilemmas that arise, to religious issues and fears of genetic cleansing. The future of the human race as we know it will be decided within a few years as gene technology progresses in leaps and bounds. The final decision is that while human genome editing is a gift to the scientific world, it should be used to save lives. However much like nuclear energy, in the hands of the wrong people, it can be a weapon of mass destruction. Our species must prosper from our own technology. But to prevent catastrophe, it must be carefully regulated, lest Hitler's dreams come true.
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