The Morality of Genetic Engineering

Written by: Rado Serafimov

If you had the choice to make your children immune to a certain disease, would you? What if you could make them stronger, smarter, more talented? What if you could do this, but not everyone else? Would it be correct to do such a thing? Would it be fair not to? What about the risks involved in the process? These are the types of questions that bioethics aims to answer.

As our understanding of genetics has developed over the last 75 years, we have done great things with it. From genetically engineering insulin to stop its harvesting from animal pancreases to engineering our food to last longer on shelves or produce its own pesticides. Or even cloning endangered species and building living organisms from scratch. There is a wide range of uses for this process.

In 2012 a new technology called CRISPR was discovered. Two years later a second big discovery was made called gene drive. These new technologies allow us to carry out genetic engineering with incredible precision and potency. It is like the difference between trying to perform surgery with a rusty kitchen knife and a scalpel. Suddenly, our possibilities have expanded massively and they will only continue to grow.

These incredible new technologies have already been put to use. In 2019 two cloned girls were born in China, both immune to HIV, despite the questionable ethics of the experiment. Currently, research is being conducted on mosquitoes who have been engineered to be resistant to malaria and capable of transmitting that resistance to their offspring.

Whether we like it or not genetics has been playing a role in our lives in some capacity and it’s looking like it is about to make great leaps forward that could change everything.

Despite all of these amazing feats, some of us seem to harbour feelings of irrational disgust and fear when we think of genetic engineering. Feelings that cloud our judgement towards it. This stems from various places, including religion and media. Regardless of our religious beliefs, we tend to think of our bodies as something sacred and natural and perceive any form of genetic modification as intrusive. These beliefs are only exasperated by the media in search of more public interest.

Our view of genetic engineering is also heavily influenced by works of fiction such as “A Brave New World” and “Gattaca”, which portray the horrors that making designer babies hold, such as social discrimination, the lack of a sense of personal achievement & self and economic inequality all based on genetic disparity. These issues, both personal and societal, are something we must consider when thinking about how we can morally apply genetic engineering, as it is hard to excuse such things, regardless of the benefits.

We do also have to recognize however that genetics is a big and confusing field that is still a mystery to us in very many ways. As such, what those works of fiction portray is still far off in the future, if it is even possible, yet that does not diminish the importance of the discussion about the issues they raise. 

Most traits that we possess are a collection of multiple genes acting together in addition to environmental factors. For instance, there is no single gene that we can simply inject into a foetus to produce a musically talented child and even if there were, that child’s talents would never come to fruition if it did not engage with music and heavily practice from a young age. So, if we can’t quite achieve the things that science fiction predicts, but we also don’t know what is possible, where do we take genetic engineering next?

Though some would wish to ban genetic engineering as a whole due to our fears, others disagree, and propose instead that regulation and public discourse are the tools we need to use to handle this newfound scientific power. As China has already proven, whether or not a certain experiment is deemed ethical (or even legal), there will always be someone whose morals are silenced by their morbid curiosity and desire for fame. If we ban genetic engineering outright those willing to pursue it will simply move their talents to dark places with no legislation to hold them back and possibly create those nightmare worlds we all fear.

Additionally, we are faced with many terrifying problems in our modern world – from world hunger to antibiotic-resistant diseases and global warming. These are all issues that genetic engineering could help solve or at least alleviate. CRISPR has been used to develop possible solutions for different diseases such as malaria and even some types of cancers. True radicals in the field even propose someday modifying the human genome to make us metabolize better, or feel an aversion to red meat to help slow global warming and rampant industrial agriculture.

The possibilities of what we could achieve with genetic engineering are endless, so perhaps we have a moral obligation to all those coming after us to use this newfound power to help clothe, feed and cure them. Therefore, the focus of any ethical discussion concerning genetic engineering should centre around regulation, informing the public and upholding ethical scientific practices. All to ensure that whatever direction we decide to push this new technology in, it is one that will benefit us all.

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