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Is Genetic Engineering Ethically Right?

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Is genetic engineering ethically right?
Genetic engineering was first discovered in the 1970’s and since then ethical questions been raised regarding the process and results. Some people are excited by the possibilities of genetic engineering while others believe the process is unethical and should be banned as they claim scientists are ‘playing god’.
Ethics is the philosophical study of what is morally right or wrong. It is a system of moral principles. They affect how people make decisions and lead their lives. Philosophers tend to divide ethical theories into three areas; meta-ethics, normative ethics and applied ethics. This was first done by David Hume the philosopher who argued how we should look at ethical situations. “Meta-ethics looks at the meaning of language used in ethics, and raises questions about truth. Normative ethics tries to find practical moral standards that we can all live our lives by. These are also called ethical theories. Applied ethics is the application of theories about whether something is right or wrong in specific issues.” Distance Learning Centre, Ethics Pack, 2012.
In the 1960’s a professor, Joseph Fletcher founded the theory Situation Ethics. In Situation Ethics right and wrong depend on the situation. There are no universal moral rules or rights, each case is unique and deserves a unique solution. “Situation Ethics is all about agape or love. You should always do the most loving thing” Distance Learning Centre, Ethics Pack, 2012. There are four working principles that Fletcher makes before setting out the situational ethics theory. Pragmatism is the course of action must be practical and work. Relativism is when all decisions must be relative to agape and there are no fixed rules. Positivism is that a person freely choses to believe in agape and puts love first. A valued judgement must be made. Personalism is not centred on the laws of society. Morality is a personal thing. Research shows that there are many strengths and weaknesses in Situation Ethics. It’s personal and flexible; it is tailored to particular situations. It’s based on doing good things for others and the well-being of people. It is easy to understand and can be used in the modern world. However it is not always possible to determine the consequences of our actions. Situation ethics produces a lack of consistency from one situation to the next. It may also approve ‘evil’ acts. For example killing and lying are generally regarded as bad but if the outcome is good then Situation Ethics permits that person to carry out that act.
Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory. This theory means to provide the greatest good for the greatest number. It means that the ethically right choice in a given situation is one that produces the most happiness and the least unhappiness for the largest number of people. There are two Utilitarianism theories. Act Utilitarianism is flexible and takes into account any circumstances. There is no right or wrong as this depends on the circumstances. Rule Utilitarianism is rigid. Everyone must follow the same rules and laws. Rules take priority. Right and wrong is determined by the laws of where you live. The modern approach to Utilitarianism is Preference Utilitarianism. This asks people to think what would be in their own interest, what would they prefer in a particular situation and which outcome they would prefer. It makes people consider the preferences of others. Utilitarianism also has its strengths and weaknesses. It aims to create happiness for the majority, it can be related in real life situations and it encourages people to think beyond their own point of view. However it is hard to predict the future consequences of an act, it can encourage someone to do injustice even if their intentions are good. It is hard to measure and compare the goodness of consequences. Individuals are not considered as it is aimed for the ‘greater good’.
Genetic Engineering was first discovered in the 1970’s when scientists first moved pieces of genetic material from one species to another. Genetic engineering is a technique used to change the genes of an organism. Genes are made up of sections of DNA. DNA makes up the structural parts of an organism. This is the building blocks of life. Genetic engineering is the controlled manipulation of genes with the intent of making the organism better. Genetic engineering techniques have been applied in numerous fields including, agriculture, human embryo and stem cell research and medicine. Human embryo and stem cell research is also known as embryonic research. This is carried out to find cures to serious illnesses. Doctors have been transplanting adult blood stem cells, in the form of bone marrow transplants for decades, but stem cells from human embryos were only started in 1998. “Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) come from fertilized human embryos - pinhead-sized balls of cells called blastocysts - just a few days old” John Pickrell, 2006. Introduction: Stem Cells [online] Accessed 14 December 2012. Cells from an embryo are pluripotent which means they can form all the tissues of the human body. Therefore they are the ultimate cell for research. Removing stem cells from an embryo means that embryo is automatically killed. The embryos are usually left over from infertility treatments. In some countries women are now also donating eggs specifically for stem cells research. Stem cells can be used to promote advances in infertility treatment, help with the understanding of how genetic diseases develop, test new drugs in a lab rather than on people or animals, and help develop methods for detecting gene or chromosome abnormalities. The biggest hurdle of stem cells from embryos is immune rejection. The recipient’s body rejects the cells as they are foreign. The recipient will have to take anti-rejection drugs for the rest of their lives. Therapeutic cloning is a way round this. Therapeutic cloning is when embryonic stem cells are custom made using the patient’s own DNA and a donor egg.
‘Designer babies’ is a term used when talking about the selection of human genes. Embryos are created by IVF and one single cell is removed from each embryo for genetic testing. One embryo is selected for implantation and the others discarded. This technique allows doctors and the parents to reduce the chance that a child will be born with a genetic disorder. It is also done to create a ‘saviour sibling’ and to choose the sex of a child. In most countries sex selection is only permitted to avoid diseases that are linked to a certain sex. In Britain it is illegal to select the sex of a child just because the parents want either a boy or a girl. A ‘saviour sibling’ is an embryo selected specifically to save an existing child. Usually this ‘saviour sibling’ is needed for an organ or tissue donation.
Many people against genetic engineering argue the moral status of the embryo. Its moral status is based mainly on religious, personal and socio-ethical values. “The
Catholic Church sees the embryo as a form of human life with the moral status of a fully developed human.” Grant Jordan - The Embryonic Stem Cell Debate [online] Accessed 14 December 2012. Therefore people argue that it’s a human individual and it has the right to its own life and human beings begin at fertilisation. Many people are also against ‘saviour siblings’ and ‘designer babies’ even if they are produced to help another. Many embryos are created for ‘designer babies’ and ‘saviour siblings’ however not all embryos created will be compatible so therefore people question what will happen to the healthy embryos. In fact the healthy embryos are not implanted at a later date and given equal chance at continued life; they are discarded or destroyed by research. Research also looks at the rights of the genetically modified product; the ‘saviour sibling’. They don’t have the right to choose to be created for the purpose of benefiting another person. People argue that a child should be welcomed and loved unconditionally regardless of his or her instrumental value in helping someone else. That ‘saviour sibling’ now has the responsibilities of helping out another person to survive and as a child they do not necessarily have the rights to refuse.

Referring to the Utilitarianism theory in this situation, is creating a ‘saviour sibling’ or a ‘designer baby’ the greatest good for the greatest number? If the ‘designer baby’ was created to screen the embryos of serious illnesses then yes Utilitarian would be in favour. This is because embryos with serious illness may live a life of extreme suffering and will also affect the lives of the family. Even though the embryos screened to have the illness will be destroyed the healthy embryo will be implanted and that child will live a healthy normal life whereas a child with serious illness would need constant care and supervision of the family and carers. Therefore this is the greatest good for the greatest number. In regards to saviour siblings a Utilitarian would also be in favour. Even though the child created to help a sibling may not be happy with having to donate and may suffer in the process, it will help the sick child fully recover and will also help the family from pain and suffering of knowing their child will die without help of a donor.

Situation ethics mainly focuses on the outcome of a situation so in regards to ‘designer babies’ a situationist would look at the end result. Situationists are happy to throw away their principles and do the right thing as long as the end result is the most loving thing to do. So therefore destroying embryos that may have a potentially life threatening genetic disease is the most loving thing to do as the one embryo that is healthy will be implanted to grow into a healthy baby. The rules in situation ethics are only guidelines and the right course of action is relative to the particular circumstances. Agape is the only absolute. Situation ethics may look at ‘saviour siblings’ in two ways. By creating an embryo to save another child sounds like the most loving thing to do however many embryos will be killed the in process and then the ‘saviour sibling’ may have to go through pain and distress of a bone marrow transplant to save their sibling. That is not the most loving thing to do. It all depends on the situation, if a ‘saviour sibling’ was created purely for stem cell harvesting from the umbilical cord at birth then it is harmless so is the most loving thing. Situation ethics would be against embryos being made purely for research purposes as it’s not the most loving thing to do however embryo research is the most loving thing to do with spare embryos left over from infertility treatment, when the alternative is simply throwing them away.

There are many ethical issues surrounding genetic engineering whether it is religious views or moral views and many questions are raised to whether genetic engineering is ethically right. The debate continues every day. People question how far scientists will go with genetic engineering? In the future will it be possible for anyone to pay and choose the sex, height, skin, hair and eye colour and intelligence of their baby? This is what critics worry about. This possibility was recently discussed by Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, “the time may soon arrive when pre-implantation screening will be used to pick desirable traits even in the absence of particular genetic disorders.” Designer Babies: One Step Closer [online] Accessed 2 January 2013. Creating a life for it to possibly be rejected and destroyed for the simple reason that it did not meet the parent’s requests, is something that should always be condemned. Children should be brought into this world to be loved no matter what their intelligence is or what their appearance may be. However arguing this point is Professor Julian Savulescu “surely trying to ensure that your children have the best, or a good enough, opportunity for a great life is responsible parenting?” Telegraph [online] Accessed 2 January 2013. We are already screening embryos for genetic diseases and there is little complaint regarding this and that pre-implantation screening for traits is just a natural extension of this. He believes by creating ‘designer babies’ with better traits will benefit society in the future as there will be less crime and violence.

There are many views and debates on whether genetic engineering is ethically right. There is no right or wrong answer and it depends on the circumstance and the individual. Many people want genetic engineering completely banned but then how would we help the already sick children? If we can prevent more children being born with diseases and prevent a life of pain and suffering then surely continuing the research is the right thing to do?

These are very important questions that many people have to deal with. Typical responses to these questions have drawn on a number of ethical principles, including respect for embryo rights, or parental obligations. Many kinds of parental decisions may limit a child's options. It is difficult to draw the line between parenting that maximizes children's opportunities and parenting that imposes burdens on them.

To achieve a balance between the controversial debate, the research should continue but under strongly enforced guidelines and the guidelines strictly adhered to. Genetic engineering is ethically right but only when it’s benefitting people from disease and when the research is done on embryos that are left over from infertility treatments.

Word count: 2199

Reference List and Bibliography
Distance Learning Centre, Ethics Pack, 2012.
John Pickrell, 2006. Introduction: Stem Cells [online]
Grant Jordan - The Embryonic Stem Cell Debate [online] Accessed 14 December 2012
Designer Babies: One Step Closer [online] Accessed 2 January 2013
Telegraph [online] Accessed 2 January 2013
BBC News ‘Designer Baby’ ethics fear [online]
BBC ‘Life Blood’ Horizon [video online]
The Embryonic Stem Cell Debate: A Brief Review. Belfast: Queens University of Belfast [online]
The Ethics of Genetic Engineering [online]
Joseph Serna January 8 2013 Stem cell fight was based on self-interest, not science [online],0,4351797.story
Vivienne Parry 27 April 2008 Can we create life? Guardian [online]

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