Genetics is the study of the patterns of inheritance of specific traits (Poretto). This knowledge could be used to alter the course of a future human life. This knowledge could even be used to stop a potentially painful life before it starts. Genetic engineering, like any other science, is a tool. Like any other tool Genetic Engineering is neither inherently positive nor inherently negative. Genetic engineerings benefits outweigh the potential negatives, and in spite of some people fearing that it is immoral; genetics needs to be continually developed. The first step in eliminating superstition about a topic is to understand that topic.
The origins of genetic history lay in the ancient techniques of selective breeding to yield desired characteristics in offspring. This is a form of genetic manipulation by “employing appropriate selection for physical and behavioral traits” (Gert 2). The work of an Austrian monk by the name of Gregor Mendel established the quantitative discipline of genetics using garden peas. Mendel’s work explained the inheritance of traits can be stated by factors passed from one generation to the next; in other words, genes. The complete set of genes for an organism is called its genome (Congress 3). Traits are inherited through single or multiple genes.
The development of these traits can be explained by environment variables (Congress 3). Mendel also correctly surmised that two copies of every factor exist and that one factor of inheritance could be dominant over another (Murphy). The next major step in genetics was deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA. DNA, as a part of genes, was discovered to be a double helix that encodes the blueprints for all living things (Congress 3). DNA is made of nucleotide chains made of four bases. Any ordered pair of bases makes a sequence. These sequences are the instructions that produce molecules and proteins for cellular structure and biochemical functions.
DNA is packed into chromosomes, of which 23 pairs exist in each cell of the human body. One chromosome of each pair is donated from each parent. Any location on a chromosome where inheritance can be identified and tracked is a marker (Murphy). Markers can be expressed areas of genes (DNA) or some segment of DNA with no known coding function but an inheritance can still be traced (Murphy). Genetic mapping requires the use of these markers. Genetic mapping can be used to determine specific traits, such as potential disease, hair color, eye color, and many other traits passed on from generation to generation.
Today genetic testing helps forewarn of potential medical problems. However, the ramifications are not clear. The guidelines and knowledge about genetics effect on disease is ever-rapidly increasing. Medical geneticists recommend that an informed decision be made before deciding whether or not to get tested. The decision should be based on possible risk, ideally with the assistance of a genetic counselor (Leslie). Even more controversial is the use of genetics before a person is born. An unborn child can be tested for hundreds of genetic diseases.
Some would argue that this is unfair to the unborn child; that it might lead to an immoral termination of the pregnancy. However, testing might allow for early treatment, or even allow the parents to prepare for a potential difficult childhood. In some cases it might me better for the fetus to be terminated. The key is that the decision is for the parents. Science and religion should not be used to create law removing parents right to choose. Another controverisal use is Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD). This allows for screening of genetic traits before artificial insemination.
Michael Feinman described it best in his article, Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD). Many ethical questions surround PGD. Some people see the beginning of eugenics the striving towards some hypothetical genetic perfection, along with intolerance of those who are less than perfect. At the present time, we are far away from this. As discussed above, there are definite limits to what can be tested for in the embryo. As the technology advances, the medical community, and society at large, will need to define the boundaries of how PGD should be used.
If it becomes possible, do we want parents to be able to select for traits like eye color and height? Since it is already possible to select for sex, should couples be allowed to do this when a sex-linked genetic disorder is not involved? If the couple needs to undergo IVF for infertility, should they be denied this option? Another concern expressed towards genetic medicine is that by attempting to eliminate individuals with genetic conditions, we could create a society intolerant of people with congenital disorders.
If there exists a method to prevent these individuals from being conceived would society discriminate against parents for choosing to allow conception and delivery of these babies? Clearly, this potential problem has existed for over two decades because parents have the choice of terminating pregnancies due to chromosomal or genetic problems that are discovered with amniocentesis. For the most part, society has integrated this technology without stigmatizing parents or their children for being born with an inherited disease. There is no reason to believe that society will expect couples to undergo PGD, unless the couple desires it. (Feinman)
Conjecture has largely ruled the debate on the future uses of genetic knowledge. However, the next known logical step is cloning. Cloning first caught the public’s attention when Dr. Ian Wilmut announced the birth of the first cloned mammal, Dolly, a sheep. But while cloning a sheep may not sound disturbing, fear of this new science led Congress to pass laws against use involving humans. Congress went so far as to even ban the use of federal funding for experimenting using human cells (Kassirer and Rosenthal 1). Cloning has great potential in medical science. For example, heart disease is the number one killer in the United States.
Scientists predict that they will be able to clone healthy heart cells and inject them into damaged areas (Seed 1). The possibility also exists for doctors to take healthy cells and tissue from a patient’s body and use them to make organs. One benefit of replicating organs is that the chance the patient would reject the organ is drastically reduced, if not eliminated (Stencel 414). This could also eliminate the need for a waiting list to get organs for transplants. Yet another line of continued research in cloning procedures could lead scientists to find a cure for cancer by learning how to switch cells on and off (Seed 2).
Human cloning offers many potential benefits to society. Since there are many views on when life is life, this is another topic filled with controversy. One use for human cloning could be infertility. Current procedures for infertility treatment are less than ten percent successful (Seed 1). Certainly the process would not be much different then a normal pregnancy. Each human clone must be carried in a womb for nine months just like any other child; and once born, it would have full human rights. The resulting child would be genetically identical to the mother, just as identical twins are genetically the same.
Identical twins only have a seventy percent correlation of intelligence and a fifty percent correlation of personality traits. This means that a clone could have a completely different personality than the original. So would it be morally wrong to clone an infertile mother to create a baby? Again this is not a question for science to answer. Fear is a powerful motivator, and a powerful deterrent. What is done today will greatly affect tomorrow. Genetic research is the present and future of medical science. Fear should not be allowed to stop the development of genetic research.