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Print This Page | Table of Contents What Price Designer Genes? The Genetic Revolution

Since the middle of the twentieth century, the field of molecular genetics has grown enormously, creating new ethical questions and urging the discussion of old ones. The identification of DNA as the genetic material in 1944, the discovery of the fundamental structure of DNA in 1953, and the development of molecular recombination in the 1970s stand out as the definitive events in what is often called the genetic revolution (Davis, 1). And while most of what genetic research has allowed, and will allow, us to do already occurs in nature, this new technology will give us unprecedented control over our environment and our bodies. So much control, in fact, that some people are at the same time overjoyed by the potential benefits and terrified by the potential dangers. However, the perceived benefits and risks of any developing technology may be unwarranted, and the genetic revolution seems to be at increased risk of being misunderstood in this respect. In fact, because of the nature of the genetic revolution and the context in which it is taking place, the ethical implications of the new technology should be pursued with no less effort than the laboratory research.

The dichotomous nature of molecular genetics is that it is at the same time so esoteric and so pervasive. With this in mind, the movement of genetic research from the expert's lab to the public must be carefully ushered by evaluation and discussion of all possible implications. In the words of Harold J. Laski, "Expertise consists in such an analytic comprehension of a special realm of facts that the power to see that realm in the perspective of totality is lost." Even something as major as the theory of relativity by and large avoids this difficulty because it doesn't really change much in everyday life. Most people are ignorant of Einstein's theory and are not the least bit troubled because of it.

However, genetics will not be content to stay out of our lives; the context in which the genetic revolution is taking place makes it an impossibility. We are now more dependent than ever on increasingly specialized science and technology. Most business is dependent on complex computer systems which require experts to install and repair; when we get sick we consult a doctor who knows how to treat more of our illnesses now than ever before; and where would most of us be without our car, and our car without our mechanic?
The genetic revolution will force us to consider how dependent we are, and are willing to become, on science. This new technology will reach into the fields of medicine, agriculture, even reproduction. As more diseases become curable, and preventable, we will go to the doctor more; as reproductive gene therapies develop, it may be considered irresponsible to have a baby without first "designing it"; in short, for any problems that arise from this new technology we will look to technology to help solve.

But what is so terrible about becoming so dependent on science? After all, as G. J. V. Nossal and Ross L. Coppel note, "Science and technology have been embraced by people all over the world for one simple reason: they work" (134). Indeed, many of our modern conveniences are the results of scientific research, so the question to be asked may be for whom and to what end is genetic technology going to work. The responsibility for scientific discovery and development lies with the scientists, but the responsibility for its application lies with all of us. Perhaps the danger of dependence is our unwillingness, or our inability, to accept this responsibility.

Perhaps then, we have ourselves to fear more than new genetic technology. But what we must never forget is that science is a human endeavor and as such, no matter how ambitious it may be, it can never usurp our humanity; while genetic technology will surely alter the circumstances under which we make decisions, it will not render us impotent with regard to those decisions.

A major concern with regard to genetic technology relates to control and accessibility. Ideally, everyone would have equal input into all genetic technologies affecting them, but this is simply impossible, and in today's world of large corporations and governments, the line between which is sometimes blurred, it is frightening to think of what factors will motivate the development and use of genetic technology. For most people, the prospects of eliminating devastating illnesses and of feeding the world's hungry are reasons enough to pursue genetic research, and indeed these are wonderful goals. However, even if genetic technology makes it possible to feed everyone in the world, I doubt it will happen. Already, some people eat too much and some eat none, while tons of food go to waste. The problem is not that there isn't enough food for everyone, it is that some people simply cannot get the food there is. I point this out because it seems unlikely that along with new food crops we will develop exceedingly generous patent holders who, despite spending millions of dollars developing new seeds, will be willing to feed the poor and hungry of the world without making a huge profit. The corporations funding the research will hold the patents and therefore control the food supply, perhaps even more easily than they do now. Similarly, medical advances in genetics will cost billions of dollars to develop. The overall health care costs in some cases will surely go down, as it will be less expensive to prevent disease before it starts than to treat it once it has surfaced. Arthur Caplan notes:

It is very resource intensive-and thus very expensive-to transplant a liver from a cadaver to a child whose own organ is failing because of a congenital disease. Pediatric liver transplants require skilled surgery, long hospitalizations, many transfusions of blood, perpetual suppression of the patient's immune system and extended counseling for the family and child. Identifying fetuses at risk for congenital liver disease during pregnancy and then repairing the disorder by gene therapy should prove considerably cheaper, particularly if such therapy could be given once, early in life (142).

Furthermore, would it not be easier for someone to deal with the fact that their genes were altered before they were born in order to save their life than it would be to deal with congenital liver disease?

However, the new genetic technology will probably be very expensive at first, although it will surely become less so over time. Many critics cite this as a negative because few people will be able to access genetic technology. And with health care costs so high that few people can afford them without insurance, genetic engineering will force a total reevaluation of the health insurance system. For if insurance companies begin to require genetic screening for applicants, coverage may be denied on the basis of a predisposition for a disease that cannot be easily treated. Although it is impossible to precisely foretell what will happen to the health insurance industry as genetic technology develops, it is safe to say that genetic screening will be available long before treatment. The Human Genome Project is now mapping the genetic location of many diseases, but it will be many years before these diseases can be genetically treated. Therefore, insurance companies will be put in a very difficult position. To use technology that will put them at such a huge advantage over the consumer may seem good for business; on the other hand if, as has been predicted, everyone carries a few deadly diseases in their genes, who will get insured?

Consequently, socialized medicine may become more attractive, even necessary, as private insurance is compromised. Indeed, governments may have to intervene more often, as the U.S. government did in the summer of 1996 when it passed a law prohibiting the denial of coverage to someone because of a predisposition for a disease. Will future governments, who have funded so much of genetic research, be the ones to ration it out?

Perhaps I am conservative, but I really don't think most, if any, of the changes to either medicine or agriculture will be perceived as catastrophic. It is too early to tell whether genetic technology will be able to cure poverty, which is the cause of most starvation and lack of medical care. Perhaps it will make things more affordable for everyone, but I am skeptical. The problems, in my opinion, are much larger than biotechnology; they have a lot to do with the kind of people we are, and although my genome makes me human, it does not make me a person.

The prospect of being able to choose our children's characteristics before they are even born is perhaps the most staggering of all. Germ-cell gene manipulation is repulsive to some people simply because it degrades the miraculousness of child birth, but this is just a reaction to a shattered illusion. The selection of characteristics is simply a part of reproduction; the real problems may come from our inability to properly manage the enormous conscious control we will have over what our children will be like.

A legitimate fear is that of the selection of polygenic traits, or those determined by many genes, such as talents and intelligence. "Who will decide," Arthur Caplan asks, "whether characteristics such as short stature, baldness, albinism, deafness, hyperactivity or aggressiveness are classified as diseases rather than merely differences?" (142).

However, no matter what their classification, I think most people have already decided whether such traits are desirable. Whose rights do they violate if a couple chooses to have a smart, tall, tanned child? None of us had any input into what we would be like, and it is ridiculous to confer rights to non-existent things, so it can't be the child's rights that are violated. It may seem cruel to admit that we would not choose certain traits in the presence of people with those traits, but no one is perfect, and no matter how much we manipulate a person's genome, no one will ever be.

My point is that we cannot give our genes as much credit as we often do; we cannot agree with James Watson's statement: "Really to understand ourselves, we're going to have to understand our DNA" (242). Are we really willing to admit that we are nothing more than pre-programmed robots? This debate goes beyond the nature/nurture issue, for whatever good and bad comes from genetic technology, and I think there will be plenty of both, we must never lose sight of the fact that what is valuable and beautiful in people is not found in the nuclei of their cells; it is found interpersonally. The real danger of designing our children's genes is the fundamental change in perspective that it will precipitate. Will parents who selected an athletic child be disappointed when that child chooses to play the violin instead of football? I think they will, and we can anticipate a lot of lawsuits in such cases. The real danger has nothing to do with labs and mutant strains, it has to do with how we view ourselves and each other, views which, if we're not careful, will ignore the differences that aren't based on genes but on circumstances and experiences. Each one of us does wonderful things in our life, but they will seem much less so when scrutinized against the backdrop of our genetic blueprint.

Therefore, the genetic revolution is neither to be feared nor avoided. We should pursue all possibilities simply because they are possible, and with our choice intact we will come out of this revolution on top. For the scientific knowledge we acquire will be amoral; we need to concern ourselves with how that knowledge will affect how we act with regard to each other.

For me, the genetic revolution does not degrade me as a person, rather it reaffirms what it is to be a person: my sense of self, my choice, in short, the indeterminability of personhood.

Works Cited
Caplan, Arthur, "An Improved Future?" Scientific American (Sept., 1995), 142-143.
Laski, Harold J., "The Limitations of the Expert," The Intellectuals: A Controversial Portrait, ed. George B. deHuszar (Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1960), 167-175.
Nossal G. J. V. and Ross L. Coppal, Reshaping Life: Key Issues in Genetic Engineering (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
Spallone, Pat, Generation Games: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Our Lives (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992).