It recently used to seem like science fiction as it emerged, but genetic engineering is now within human possibility. For some, the term portrays the illusion of hope for a futuristic therapy and a fantastic human enhancement, for others, it generates the fear of a world where eugenics is a commonpace and the human genome is corrupted (Habermas, 2003).
Often at times, the reality of genetic engineering is eclipsed by the media with some storm and wild expectations. However, there is a dilemma as to what science can actually allow us to do today and the what it could realistically achieve in the future. What are the true potential benefits and risks of this powerful technology and is it something that should be pursued at all?
This study is aimed at discussing the ethical concerns surrounding the social implications associated with genetic engineering. The study will focus on the to specific techniques that are mitochondrial DNA transfer and the use of somatic cell nuclear transfer in the creation of embryonic stem cells. Mitochondrial DNA has been promoted as a way for people with mitochondrial disease to have healthy children with their own nuclear DNA. On the other hand, SCNT produced stem cells have been referred to as a method that could lead the innovation of therapies that have the ability to treat various diseases and injuries (Hockemeyer et al, 2011). The two techniques are in the research and development phase at the moment and are therefore particularly ripe for evaluation as they raise some of the most important concerns that will need to be addressed before any decision can be made on whether they should be pursued in a more thorough manner. It is vital however, to engage the public and transparent discussion and debate on the potential benefits and risks of these genetic engineering techniques now, before the first attempted application.
Before considering the need to pursue genetic engineering, it is important to understand what it entails. Mitochondrial DNA transfer is a technique designed for the purpose of eliminating mitochondrial disease. Mitochondria – organelles within the cell structure that produce metabolic pathways are vital elements of a normal cell. They are crucial to the cell’s ability to forming new cells with DNA and RNA molecules and their primary function is in the provision of energy that to a normal functioning human body. This mitochondrial DNA is usually passed on from the mother to the offspring. It is important to note that the father’s mitochondria play no role in the process. As such, if any harm was to be effected against the mitochondria in a manner that would damage it, the individual would encounter devastating and most often, fatal consequences.
Also, to note is the concept of mitochondrial diseases – these are genetic disorders that can result in a number of malfunctions throughout a normal functioning body. examples of such malfunctions are inclusive of stunted growth, diabetes, an increased risk of infection, disease of the heart, liver, and kidneys, deficits in the visual and auditory aspects of the body and loss of coordination and muscle weakness, seizures and various neurological problems and so on. Most symptoms affect children before the age of 10, though mitochondrial malfunctions can play a role in age-related diseases as well, such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. Approximately 1 in every 10,000 people suffer from some form of mitochondrial disease in the present day, and as many as 1 in 200 are carriers of damaged mitochondria (Kathiresan and Srivastava, 2012).
For as long as the world has been in existence, there is no known cure for mitochondrial disease. once it takes pace, there is no turning back, so if a woman is identified to be a sufferer or carrier of mitochondrial disease, she must currently refrain from having children with her own eggs. in this case, the woman is left with two courses of action if she wishes to have children: she has the option to adopt or use a donated egg. The woman may not give her genetic material to her offspring without passing on the disease as well. Once the woman has a child that displays mitochondrial disease, there is nearly a 100% chance that any future children may be affected by the same disorder if not realized in time (Coeckelbergh, 2011).
The development of mitochondrial DNA transfer was aimed at offering a woman suffering from mitochondrial disease the option of having her won healthy children. Through the use of this technique, the nuclear DNA from a donor is extracted, leaving only the donor mitochondrial DNA. The fertilized nuclear DNA from the mother’s egg is then extracted and replace with the donor egg. The end result is a donor egg, contacting the DNA of the donor’s mitochondria and the nuclear DNA of the intended parents. According to scientists, the child produced would express the genes of the intended parents but possess the mitochondria of the donor.
With the new technological advancements, arises new ethical questions. In the field of genetic engineering is a particularly rise with ethical concerns as much of it involves tampering with some off the most basic mechanisms involved in human biology. There are a number of significant ethical issues that are associated with the mitochondrial DNA transfer and the technology and the practice that is associated with genetic engineering as concept.
A number of biologists have increased beliefs about the benefits no mitochondrial transfer. As such critics, have also voiced their concern in regard to the ethics of the technology and its conception such ethical issues tend to fall into different classes, for instance, Yang and his colleagues state that the concerns of the safety of the technology and concerns around the side effects that follow its success (Yang et al, 2010).
Perhaps one of the most common concern that is followed in the nature of the mitochondrial DNA is the transfer in technology. Though a number of trials have been conducted in animal subjects, with the prime elements being monkeys, human biology is distinctly different and is a bit impossible to understand the effect of the procedure on a human body. Scientists such as Kathiresan and Srivastava (2012) and other ethicists fear that unexpected problems could be introduced. The authors claim that there is no way of predicting the end result of the technology on human beings, in short, mitochondrial DNA transfer would be in effect considered as using human babies as lab experiments. Critics have argued that since there are unknown risks that could be potentially great in magnitude, it is unethical to proceed, particularly with the existing safe alternatives such as egg donation and adoption. According to the critics, the parents wish for children with their own genes should not be adamant of the potential harm that could affect the children in future.
Another similar concern that is associated with the potential for any health issue introduced by the donor mitochondrial to be passed down in future generations. The mitochondrial DNA passed from the maternal parent to the offspring, therefore, if the child resulting from the mitochondrial DNA transfer procedure is female, she will give her donated mitochondrial DNA to her own future children. Despite the fact that some people can accept genetic engineering when it affects only the current individual, it is often viewed as unethical to make modifications to genetic material that will be passed on to future generations.
Even if mitochondrial transfer can be proven to be safe, critics have voiced apprehensions concerning the ideology of modifying the whole genetic lines of human beings. They say that future individuals have the right to an unmodified human genome and to use mitochondrial DNA transfer technology. Furthermore, since the technology is new and untested, it would be most prudent for the resulting children to participate in follow-up studies years after the conception and possibly, the entirety of their lives both to monitor their own health and to provide information about the technique that can be used to ensure that the greater safety of users in the future. Since participation would be clearly voluntary, there is no guarantee that follow-up studies would be successful and that would add to the danger of the procedure.
One of the most important and related issue is the fact that the unborn child has no representation in whether he or she wishes to participate in the experimental procedure with the accompanying complications. Theses complications are inclusive of the obligation to participate in research studies and any abnormalities that may occur as a result of the mitochondrial DNA transfer and any other societal implications that may result. This implies that someone else must make the decision for the child without the need to consent, a problematic issue.
There are a number of people that state that the changes in the identity of the child is altered. There is an argument that the simple fact that the child is not ill will change their very identity. Making such a change in the genome of the child and self, the argument goes that it is a violation of the child’s right to an open future. The child will know that he or she is uniquely different and that there might be some unforeseen consequences that could affect him or her or the future decedents. The individual will realize that she is essentially a test subject – a fact that might be disturbing. To me, this knowledge might be disturbing, to others, this might be knowledge that will become a part of the individual’s identity and that is unethical to place in such a burden on him or her.
In addition to this, some of the scientists argue that there is evidence to support that mitochondria do influence important qualities that participate in the identity of a person as well as the nuclear DNA that is traditionally thought to be the source. They are therefore concerned about altering the DNA, as they say it could lead to unforeseen changes in the identity of the child’s entity without his or her permission.
Even if mitochondrial transfer can be proven as a safe procedure, critics have aired their view concerning the apprehension of the idea that making modifications to the entire genetic lines of human beings. They say that the future individuals have the right to an unmodified human genome and to use the mitochondrial DNA transfer technology without consent. Furthermore, as the technology would be so new and untested, it would be most prudent for resulting children to participate in follow-up studies immediately after their conception and possibly for their entire life, in monitoring their own health and in providing information about the technique that can be used in ensuring the safety of future users. Since their participation would have to be voluntary, there is no guarantee that such follow-up studies would be unsuccessful and would danger of the procedure.
Another line of criticism is the fact that genetic engineering techniques such as mitochondrial DNA transfer will lead to genetic engineering for enhancement purposes rather than purely medical ones acting as a gateway that could lead to eugenic applications (Sparrow, 2011). According to critics interfering with “powerful acts” such as mitochondrial DNA would be acting as God. The fear is that once we take the initial step into modifying the genome, it will be the first step that will influence the decisions of the parents in determining the traits of the children such as, height, intelligence and hair colors. Despite all this, it is important to note that in most cases, genomic science has not developed to a point where scientists are able to identify the components of the genome responsible for particular traits due to the biological systems too interconnected and the mechanisms are as of yet unknown (Taylor, 2010).
There are also other issues associated with the other method of somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). The most common concern is that the same technology is related to cloning. Since the technique is similar to the technology that scientists used to famously clone Dolly, the sheep in 1996 (Coeckelbergh, 2011). There is a current fear that this same procedure could be used to clone human beings as well. Scientists claim that technology could not be easily used to create viable cloned human’s embryo in the current state, scientists have attempted to do so with animals and the technique failed every time.
This study looks into ethical concerns revolving around genetic engineering technologies, and the powerful social implications associated. It is important to take into consideration the effect on the society and the individuals they influence within the social context. For instance, people’s opinion on a child’s parentage may differ. One family may believe that the biological parents have contributed most of the child’s DNA on the other hand, another person might think that the donor should be involved in the life of the child. Would this lead to disagreement or rather confusion? Would there be need for legal agreements to be put in place between all the involved parties, or would it be granted as a universal law? And most importantly, does the child getting in the matter have a say? The answers to this questions could have a lot of impact within the social context. Even so, there is still concern that the procedure may be employed for human cloning purposes in the future. Others believe that its accomplishment is by all means directly equivalent to human cloning – a religious taboo in the scientific community as well as the general public. The main reason behind this view is that the cloning procedure is highly considered as unsafe (Serra et al, 2012). Many people such as Baylis (2013) believe that it is unethical to create embryos and then destroy them in order to harvest the stem cells.
The philosophical differences arise between those that believe embryos are living entities on their own and have the full moral right of an individual and those that view embryos as human beings and as such, have the moral right of the individual and those that consider embryos as something that is not yet human. For those that believe that embryos are humans, the ideology of decoying them for medical research purposes is increasingly disturbing.
Some hold an opposing view concerning the ethical views of gene modification, the belief is that there is a wealth of medical potential behind SCNT technology that could be argued out as leading to therapy that would relieve significant amounts of suffering (Joy, 2011). To pursue this kind of therapy, this view would be a very moral understanding.
This study looks at the fear that people may become used to the idea of genetic engineering that will make it easier for more dangerous technology to become accepted in the future. For those that share this view point, taking the first step towards genetic modification is a mistake and thus it should be refrained from to avoid crossing to a point of no return.
Genetic engineering is on the forefront of technological advancement. Before any approval can be made, the techniques must be proven to be safe. But equally, there is a need for a significant public and transparent legal and policy discussions and debates concerning the science of human beings and the ethical guidelines that should be observed in doing so. The time for such discussions us up to each and every individual in this present day. Therefore, the pursuit of genetic engineering should deeply be taken into consideration in light of its trends. In my opinion, I would vote not.