In the mid-1970s, the public of the Western world was astonished to learn that scientists had recently invented ways to move pieces of genetic material, the very blueprint of life, from one species to another. Boosters claimed that this new technology of moving and changing genes, which came to be called genetic engineering, would lead to more abundant food supplies, inexpensive medicines, and cures for currently untreatable diseases. Naysayers, on the other hand, feared that it would lead to unstoppable plagues of disease or other environmental disasters.
Supporters and opponents of genetic engineering were just as divided about the basic ethics or morality of the technology as they were about its practical implications. Supporters said it was nothing more than an extension of what breeders of plants and animals had been doing for thousands of years and, indeed, what nature itself did through evolution and natural selection. Detractors claimed that it was “unnatural” and “playing God” and therefore should be banned on ethical as well as safety grounds.
This first wave of concern died down during the 1980s as genetically modified microorganisms were released into the environment and no disasters occurred. Genetic engineers, meanwhile, extended the technology’s application from bacteria to plants, mammals, and, ultimately, human cells. Use of transgenic living things—those containing genes from a species other than their own—became a small but growing part of biotechnology, or the use or alteration of other living things in the processes that benefit humankind. For some companies it became very profitable, particularly after the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 1980 that altered living things could legally be patented.
As the twenty-first century begins, genetic engineering has taken over the biotechnology industry so completely that many people now use the terms genetic engineering and biotechnology interchangeably. Genetically altered crops, including food crops such as soybeans and corn, cover tens of millions of acres in the United States and a few other countries and are marketed around the world. Scientists working for pharmaceutical companies regularly use altered genes to produce “designer” drugs, and other researchers are experimentally treating certain inherited diseases by altering the genes of individuals, a new form of medicine called gene therapy. For better or worse, the next hundred years seem likely to be what longtime genetic engineering foe Jeremy Rifkin calls “the biotech century.”
The fact that genetic engineering is so pervasive does not mean that the ethical questions surrounding it have been settled, however. Opponents still question the basic ethics of modifying genes, both because the process creates living things that would never exist in nature and because it threatens to make humans view other life forms or even other human beings as mere manufactured commodities to be changed and discarded at will. Defenders, on the other hand, admit that particular uses of genetic engineering may raise ethical questions but see the process itself as no more unethical than any other form of science or technology. Humans, they say, have always altered their environment to benefit themselves— and genetic engineering, these supporters emphasize, holds the promise of very great benefits indeed, including major new weapons against hunger and disease.
Genetically engineered crops: “Frankenfoods”?
Two particular areas of genetic engineering excite controversy at the dawn of the new century. One is agricultural biotechnology, the production of genetically modified (GM) crops. Criticism has been particularly strong regarding crops used as human food. Protesters in Europe, where many citizens oppose these crops, have dubbed them “Frankenfoods,” recalling nineteenth-century English novelist Mary Shelley’s prideful scientist and his manufactured monster.
Critics say that creating and growing genetically engineered crops is unethical because the crops threaten the environment. Crops provided with bacterial genes that allow them to make their own pesticides, for example, may result in the death of harmless insects such as monarch butterflies. Genetically engineered food crops, furthermore, may cause unexpected allergic reactions or other harm to human health. These opponents believe that genetically engineered crops should be banned or, at very least, that foods containing GM material should be labeled as such. Supporters of GM crops, however, claim that these threats are unproven or exaggerated and that foods containing GM products do not need to be labeled because they are not different in any important way from their natural counterparts.
A second ethical issue in agricultural biotechnology concerns attempts to encourage poor farmers in developing countries to grow GM crops. Giant corporations such as Monsanto and Novartis own patents on these altered plants. These companies, opponents argue, demand that the farmers buy new seeds each year at premium prices rather than reusing seeds from the previous year’s crop as they have traditionally done. The opposition claims that pushing these crops into the developing world will enrich multinational companies at farmers’ expense and will not really address the poverty and inequality that are the real roots of world hunger. Biotechnology proponents say that, on the contrary, GM crops offer the world’s best chance to end or greatly reduce hunger and malnutrition. They point, for example, to “golden rice,” genetically engineered to provide extra vitamin A and therefore prevent a form of blindness, caused by a deficiency of this vitamin, that is widespread among the poor in developing countries.
Altering human genes: “Designer babies”?
Ethical debates perhaps even more bitter than those over GM foods surround the alteration of human genes. Some of these debates are extensions of those that have raged for decades over abortion and reproductive technologies such as in vitro (“test tube”) fertilization. Others are as new as human genetic engineering itself.
Alteration of genes in an individual’s somatic (body) cells was used successfully to treat disease for the first time in 1990. Changes in the genes of somatic cells are not passed on to a person’s offspring. Although many questions remain about the safety and effectiveness of gene therapy, which is still primarily in the experimental stage, this type of human gene alteration raises the fewest ethical issues, especially when it is used to treat or prevent an illness that is life threatening and otherwise incurable.
Some critics, however, see gene therapy, however well intentioned, as the first step down a “slippery slope” that could lead to the revival of eugenics, a pseudoscientific practice popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Supporters of eugenics believed that only people with desirable characteristics (as the dominant groups in society defined “desirable”) should be allowed to reproduce. Because of eugenic laws in a number of Western countries and states, including some parts of the United States, thousands of people who were developmentally disabled, mentally ill, convicted of crimes, or otherwise classified as “unfit” were forcibly sterilized. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Nazi Germany took eugenics to its ultimate extreme by not merely sterilizing but killing those it deemed undesirable, which came to include entire ethnic groups. Because eugenics resulted in such obvious ethical abuses, critics say, anything that might revive it, in whatever form, is ethically dubious.
Even among those who do not question the use of gene alteration to prevent or treat serious illness, some say that in the future, if gene therapy (especially gene therapy administered to a developing fetus before it is born) becomes common, defining “illnesses” appropriate for such treatment may become difficult. Genetic predispositions to conditions such as shortness, obesity, or below-average intelligence, now considered normal inheritable characteristics, may become grounds for gene alteration or abortion. Parents able to afford such treatments, furthermore, may choose to have their normal fetuses’ genes modified to increase intelligence, beauty, or other features that they find desirable. Some people feel that gene alteration to prevent a minor handicap or to enhance the condition of a normal offspring would be unethical. Others feel it would be just as ethical as wealthy parents’ purchasing first-class schooling or other advantages for their children.
Debate becomes even more severe when the question turns to alteration of germline genes—those in sex cells (eggs and sperm), which are passed on to an individual’s offspring. Even many people who find alteration of somatic genes ethically acceptable say that germline genes should never be changed. Doing so could have untoward effects, not merely on an individual, but ultimately on the whole of humanity, perhaps even changing “what it means to be human.” Supporters of germline gene therapy, however, are excited about the prospect of human beings controlling their own evolution. Altering germline genes, they say, could eradicate deadly inheritable diseases once and for all and make thrilling improvements in human beings’ physical and mental health and powers.
A final ethical issue in human genetic engineering centers on cloning, or creating a new individual that has exactly the same genes as an existing one. Human cloning became a real possibility in 1997, when scientists working at the Roslin Institute in Scotland announced that they had cloned a sheep, which they named Dolly, from the mature cell of an adult ewe. Those who oppose human cloning on ethical grounds say that allowing adults to clone themselves would produce confusion about family relationships and encourage parents to regard cloned offspring as products rather than independent human beings. Supporters of cloning say that it would help infertile couples have children that they could produce in no other way and that clones would be no more “subhuman” than identical twins, which are natural clones of each other.
Ethical as well as practical questions about genetic engineering are sure to become more pressing as the technology continues to spread and develop during the upcoming “biotech century.” These questions can be discussed intelligently only if people are willing to educate themselves about the science involved and listen to one another’s points of view calmly, without being blinded by emotion or misconceptions. This anthology, At Issue: The Ethics of Genetic Engineering, provides a variety of viewpoints about the most controversial ethical aspects of this hotly debated technology.