English author Mary Shelley’s 1818 horror novel Frankenstein, about a scientist who succeeds in bringing a creature to life, expressed anxiety about the possibility of human control over the basic mysteries of existence. The novel’s continuing popularity and the many films and other works based on it attest to deep-seated feelings that unrestrained science may violate essential principles of nature and religion and that human powers may grow to exceed human wisdom. With the rise of genetic engineering in the 1970’s, many serious philosophers and social critics feared that the Frankenstein story was moving from the realm of science fiction into reality.
The basic blueprint of all living beings was found in 1953, when Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the structure of DNA. A little less than two decades later, in 1970, it became possible to conceive of redesigning this blueprint when Hamilton Smith and Daniel Nathans of The Johns Hopkins University discovered a class of “restriction” enzymes that could be used as scissors to cut DNA strands at specific locations. In 1973, two researchers in California, Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer, spliced recombinant DNA strands into bacteria that reproduced copies of the foreign DNA. This meant that it would be possible to combine genetic characteristics of different organisms. In 1976, Genentech in San Francisco, California,...
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According to a Harris Poll survey conducted for the U.S. Office of Technology in the fall of 1968, a majority of Americans were not opposed to using recombinant DNA techniques to produce hybrid agricultural plants. Some social critics, such as Jeremy Rifkin, have argued that such ready acceptance of the genetic engineering of plants is shortsighted. These critics question the wisdom of intervening in the ecological balance of nature. More specifically, they maintain that manipulating the genetic structure of plants tends to lead to a reduction in the diversity of plant life, making plants less resistant to disease. It could also lead to the spread of diseases from one plant species to another, as genes of one species are implanted in another. Furthermore, new varieties of food plants could have unforeseen health risks for human beings.
Since genetic engineering is a highly technical procedure, those who control technology have great power over the food supply. Thus, both corporate power over consumers and the power of more technologically advanced nations over less technologically advanced nations could be increased as GM foods fill the marketplace.
Many of the concerns about the genetic engineering of animals are similar to those about the engineering of plants. Loss of biodiversity, vulnerability to disease, and business control over livestock are all frequently mentioned objections to the genetic...
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Some of the greatest ethical and social problems with genetic engineering involve its use on humans. Gene therapy seeks to cure inherited diseases by altering the defective genes that cause them. Those who favor gene therapy maintain that it can be a powerful tool to overcome human misery. Those who oppose this type of medical procedure usually focus on three major ethical issues. First, critics maintain that this technology raises the problem of ownership of human life. In the early 1990’s, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) began filing for patents on human genes, meaning that elements of the blueprints for human life could actually be owned. Because all human DNA comes from human tissue, the question arises of whether participants in genetic experiments own the extracted DNA or if it belongs to the researchers who have extracted it.
The second problem involves eugenic implications. Eugenics is the practice of trying to improve the traits of the human “stock” through direct or indirect manipulation of reproduction in human populations. If scientists will one day routinely alter genes to yield individual humans with certain desirable health characteristics, then it is also likely that scientists will have the ability to alter genes to produce humans with “enhancements,” desirable non-therapeutic alterations to change traits such as eye color or sex. In this way, genetic engineering poses the risk of...
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Concerns about the social and ethical implications of genetic engineering have led to a number of attempts to limit or control the technology. The environmental group Greenpeace has campaigned against GM agricultural products and called for the clear labeling of all foods produced by genetic manipulation. In September, 1997, Greenpeace filed a legal petition against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), objecting to the EPA’s approval of GM plants.
Activist Jeremy Rifkin became one of the most outspoken opponents of all forms of genetic engineering. Rifkin and his associates called on the U.S. NIH to stop government-funded transgenic animal research. A number of organizations, such as the Boston-based Council for Responsible Genetics (CRG), lobbied to increase the legal regulation of genetic engineering. In 1990, in response to pressure from critics of genetic engineering, the Federal Republic of Germany enacted a genetics law to govern the use of biotechnology. In the United States, the federal government and many state governments considered laws regarding genetic manipulation. A 1995 Oregon law, for example, granted ownership of human tissue and genetic information taken from human tissue to the person from whom the tissue was taken. Since 2004, critics of gene patenting in the European Union and the United States have been mounting legislative and judicial challenges to Myriad Genetics’ patents on...
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Boylan, Michael, and Kevin E. Brown. Genetic Engineering: Science and Ethics on the New Frontier. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2001. Written by a biologist and a philosopher, this text includes discussions on the professional and practical principles of conduct, the biology of genetic therapy, the limits of science, somatic gene therapy, enhancement, cloning, and germ-line therapy. Illustrated.
Evans, John Hyde. Playing God? Human Genetic Engineering and the Rationalization of Public Bioethical Debate. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. Chapters include “Framework for Understanding the Thinning of a Public Debate,” “The Eugenicists and the Challenge from the Theologians,” “Gene Therapy, Advisory Commissions, and the Birth of the Bioethics Profession,” and “The President’s Commission: The ’Neutral’ Triumph of Formal Rationality.”
Gonder, Janet C., Ernest D. Prentice, and Lilly-Marlene Russow, eds. Genetic Engineering and Animal Welfare: Preparing for the Twenty-first Century. Greenbelt, Md.: Scientists Center for Animal Welfare, 1999. Covers ethics and the well-being of animals used in genetic engineering and xenotransplantation. Illustrated.
Green, R. M. Babies by Design. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007. Discusses the bioethics of germ-line genetic engineering, with the ultimate intent of defending both strictly...
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American Medical Association. http://ama-assn.org. The AMA has posted its guidelines on the ethics of genetic engineering.
Council for Responsible Genetics. http://www.gene-watch.org. An organization that encourages debate on issues concerning genetic technologies.
National Information Resource on Ethics and Human Genetics. http://www.georgetown .edu/research/nrcbl/nirehg.. Site supports links to databases, annotated bibliographies, and articles about the ethics of genetic engineering and human genetics.
Union of Concerned Scientists: Food and Agriculture. http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/. This site is run by a coalition of scientists advocating responsible use of science and technology; it includes a wide variety of educational materials on plant and animal biotechnology.
The President’s Council on Bioethics. http://www.bioethics.gov/. This is the official site of the U.S. president’s advisory committee on biomedical ethics; it provides detailed ethical discussion of a wide variety of topics related to genetic engineering.
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