Implications of Genetic Technology
Genetic technology is implicated in some extremely controversial scientific developments. These include cloning, stem cell research, and genetic engineering of animals, agricultural products, and humans. The next apple one eats may in fact have been genetically engineered to resist disease and/or pesticides. Scientists can now clone animals. Researchers have mapped the human genome. These new and constantly emerging technologies are changing our world and the way we live in it. The question we must ask is, What are the implications of all these new technologies? Will they improve our lives, or will they introduce unpredicted risks that could cause widespread devastation instead? Is it ethical to clone a human being, or is that going too far? Genetics can isolate genes that cause chronic and life-threatening diseases such as cancer and multiple sclerosis. In addition to isolating the genes responsible, scientists are developing gene therapy which may prove to be a proactive treatment for disease. Genetic technology has the potential to enhance our world in many ways, but dangers along the way must be seriously considered.
Keywords Bioethics; Biotechnology; Cloning; Disability; Embodiment; Genomic Sequencing; Human Genome; Impairment; Medical Model; Social Model
Implications of Genetic Technology
New technologies are constantly emerging. Some of them come with greater concerns than others. With respect to genetic technology, one of the difficulties in understanding and weighing its consequences and implications is that they are not easy to understand to begin with. These are complicated ideas that are the domain of genetic scientists whose work exists almost solely in the laboratory. However, the fruits of their labor affect our lives every day, sometimes in unexpected ways. The food we buy at the grocery store is almost surely made of genetically modified food, unless it's organic. The foods we eat are just one thing that genetic research touches. It also affects such wide-ranging issues as prenatal screening, gene therapy, cloning, and genetic pharmacopeias. The fact is, genetic technology is so much a part of our lives that it's impossible to reverse the process. Farmers have transformed their crops and the way they grow food. Doctors have been trained to use certain therapies and tests, and prospective parents want to know if their future baby is going to be completely healthy. The more we introduce these technologies, the more people want them. Many people wonder if we have come too far too quickly without knowing the exact consequences of introducing mutated genes into our bodies and our ecosystem.
The act of food shopping isn't something we normally pay that much attention to, other than whether or not the prices go up or down. We pick out the produce, put it in the cart, and move on. However, that tomato, apple, or ear of corn may no longer be the same as they were a generation ago. One genetic technology that is beginning to receive a fair bit of attention is that of genetically modified foods. Some would suggest that creating new kinds of produce that can resist disease and pesticides is one of the benefits of this new technology. The other side of the debate suggests that when we begin to genetically redesign what nature can produce, we may be introducing factors into our lives that could eventually get out of control. Genetically modified food was in fact taking place for some time before it received any international attention or scrutiny. In the mid-1990s, countries and scientific bodies began to state some concern over the possible effects of genetically modified crops on the soil, animals, and humans. As Pusztai explains, "In the environment there are always other things which will also be affected. In this world nothing stands in isolation; when one changes something, there are also consequences for other things around" (2002, p. 71).
There are two distinctly opposing views regarding genetically modified food: some see it as a way to alleviate and perhaps even end world hunger, while the opposite side of the spectrum fears it has the potential to destroy human civilization. One of the more difficult questions is what, if any, harm can genetically modifying foods do to the world's ecosystem? One possibility is the effect of genetic pollen. Every plant releases pollen, and genetically modified plants will release modified pollen. "The pollen produced by these plants, carrying new genes, cannot be contained. As a result, genetic pollution of natural crop varieties and of wild plant relatives may occur" (Jefferson, 2006, p. 34).
Some of the other inherent problems with genetically modified foods include regulation of the technology used to develop them, ownership and control over the food chain, and corporate responsibility (Kearnes et al., 2006). Some researchers believe that agricultural biotechnology has the potential to resolve some very difficult problems. Glasner and Rothman (2001) describe the benefits of such technology:
“The future is likely to include the use of transgenic plants to aid the reclamation of contaminated soils, to provide the basis for the factory production of vaccines, and to target the specific treatments for plant diseases — a plant equivalent of pharmacogenomics. It may well be that a significant proportion of the world's needs for fuel, fiber, food and some medicines will develop from agricultural biotechnology.” (Glasner & Rothman, 2001, p. 254)
The mere mention of genetics and the human body nowadays conjures up notions of 'designer children' — couples sitting down with a scientist and literally creating the child of their dreams. The use of genetics was largely humanitarian in its origins — mapping the human body in order to understand our DNA and the sources of disease, and the development of gene therapy. Researchers who delve into the intricacies of genetic technology note that it is important not to think of it as a science that exists in isolation, but rather in cooperation with other technologies. Unlike other technologies, however, genetics has the capacity to make changes for generations to come. It will "make changes that are transmissible into succeeding generations, and may even alter in advance specific future individuals through direct 'germ-line' or embryonic interventions… [and it] may be able, through so-called genetic enhancement, to create new human capacities" (Kass, 2000, p. 77).
Along with these new possible enhancements, however, comes the inevitable discussion about the nature of the human body and what it means to be human. The notion of identifying the gene for predisposition to Alzheimer's sounds like a simple issue — at first. Since it is unlikely that expecting parents would want their future child to have this condition, they might want to eliminate those genes. But, this leads to an inherent dilemma in how much we should change the human body. Some disability rights activists claim that these new technologies will eventually weed out anyone who has any kind of impairment and thus the notion of disability as a subculture would no longer exist.
The lives of people with impairments have been ruled by the medical model for centuries. Their bodies were for the most part considered "aberrations" or "abnormal." Terms used to describe them evolved from "crippled" to "handicapped" to "people with disabilities." The latter suggests that the person has an impairment, but that the perception of disability is a social construct. This is the social model — the opposite of the medical model, which seeks to "cure" people with disabilities of their afflictions. As Scully (2003) explains,
“The social models' most fundamental criticisms of the medical model is that it wrongly locates 'the problem' of disability in the individual and neglects the social and structural. By contrast, a social model sees social, economic and environmental factors as at least as important as biological ones in the construction of disability.” (Scully, 2003, p. 267)
Disability may become a thing of the past as a result of the Human Genome Project. The implication for the lives of people with disabilities is potentially enormous. This project "introduces the idea that there is a single normal human genome, and that once we know what it is, it will define for us what is normal for human corporeality"...
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