Arguing For and Against Genetic Engineering

by Chris Seck on June 8, 2007

Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel recently spoke at Stanford on the subject of his new book, The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering. He focused on the “ethical problems of using biomedical technologies to determine and choose from the genetic material of human embryos,” an issue that has inspired much debate.

Having followed Sandel’s writings on genetic enhancement for several years, I think that this issue deserves special thought. For many years, the specter of human genetic engineering has haunted conservatives and liberals alike. Generally, their main criticisms run thus:

First, genetic engineering limits children’s autonomy to shape their own destinies. Writer Dinesh D’Souza articulates this position in a 2001 National Review Online article: “If parents are able to remake a child’s genetic makeup, they are in a sense writing the genetic instructions that shape his entire life. If my parents give me blue eyes instead of brown eyes, if they make me tall instead of medium height, if they choose a passive over an aggressive personality, their choices will have a direct, lifelong effect on me.” In other words, genetic enhancement is immoral because it artificially molds people’s lives, often pointing their destinies in directions that they themselves would not freely choose. Therefore, it represents a fundamental violation of their rights as human beings.

Second, some fear that genetic engineering will lead to eugenics. In a 2006 column, writer Charles Colson laments: “British medical researchers recently announced plans to use cutting-edge science to eliminate a condition my family is familiar with: autism. Actually, they are not ‘curing’ autism or even making life better for autistic people. Their plan is to eliminate autism by eliminating autistic people. There is no in utero test for autism as there is for Down syndrome…[Prenatal] testing, combined with abortion-on-demand, has made people with Down syndrome an endangered population…This utilitarian view of life inevitably leads us exactly where the Nazis were creating a master race. Can’t we see it?” The logic behind this argument is that human genetic enhancement perpetuates discrimination against the disabled and the “genetically unfit,” and that this sort of discrimination is similar to the sort that inspired the eugenics of the Third Reich.

A third argument is that genetic engineering will lead to vast social inequalities. This idea is expressed in the 1997 cult film Gattaca, which portrays a society where the rich enjoy genetic enhancements—perfect eyesight, improved height, higher intelligence—that the poor cannot afford. Therefore, the main character Vincent, a man from a poor background who aspires to be an astronaut, finds it difficult to achieve his goal because he is short-sighted and has a “weak heart.” This discrepancy is exacerbated by the fact that his brother, who is genetically-engineered, enjoys perfect health and is better able to achieve his dreams. To many, Gattaca is a dystopia where vast gaps between the haves and have-nots will become intolerable, due to the existence of not just material, but also genetic inequalities.

The critics are right that a world with genetic engineering will contain inequalities. On the other hand, it is arguable that a world without genetic engineering, like this one, is even more unequal. In Gattaca, a genetically “fit” majority of people can aspire to be astronauts, but an unfortunate “unfit” minority cannot. In the real world, the situation is the other way round: the majority of people don’t have the genes to become astronauts, and only a small minority with perfect eyesight and perfect physical fitness—the Neil Armstrong types—would qualify.

The only difference is that in the real world, we try to be polite about the unpleasant realities of life by insisting that the Average Joe has, at least theoretically, a Rocky-esque chance of becoming an astronaut. In that sense, our covert discrimination is much more polite than the overt discrimination of the Gattaca variety. But it seems that our world, where genetic privilege exists naturally among a tiny minority, could conceivably be less equal (and less socially mobile) than a world with genetic engineering, where genetic enhancements would be potentially available to the majority of people, giving them a chance to create better futures for themselves. Supporters of human genetic engineering thus ask the fair question: Are natural genetic inequalities, doled out randomly and sometimes unfairly by nature, more just than engineered ones, which might be earned through good old fashioned American values like hard work, determination, and effort?

“But,” the critics ask, “wouldn’t genetic engineering lead us to eugenics?” The pro-genetic engineering crowd thinks not. They suggest that genetic engineering, if done on a purely decentralized basis by free individuals and couples, will not involve any form of coercion. Unlike the Nazi eugenics program of the 1930s, which involved the forced, widespread killing of “unfit” peoples and disabled babies, the de facto effect of genetic engineering is to cure disabilities, not kill the disabled. This is a key moral difference. As pointed out by biologist Robert Sinsheimer, genetic engineering would “permit in principle the conversion of all the ‘unfit’ to the highest genetic level.” Too often, women choose to abort babies because pre-natal testing shows that they have Down syndrome or some other ailment. If anything, genetic engineering should be welcomed by pro-life groups because by converting otherwise-disabled babies into normal, healthy ones, it would reduce the number of abortions.

In addition, the world of Gattaca, for all its faults, features a world that, far from being defined along Hitler-esque racial lines, has in fact transcended racism. Being blond-haired and blue-eyed loses its racially elitist undertones because such traits are easily available on the genetic supermarket. Hair color, skin color, and eye color become a subjective matter of choice, no more significant than the color of one’s clothes. If anything, genetic engineering will probably encourage, not discourage, racial harmony and diversity.

It is true that genetic engineering may limit children’s autonomy to shape their own destinies. But it is equally true that all people’s destinies are already limited by their natural genetic makeup, a makeup that they are born with and cannot change. A short person, for example, would be unlikely to join the basketball team because his height makes it difficult for him to compete with his tall peers. An ugly person would be unable to achieve her dream of becoming a famous actress because the lead roles are reserved for the beautiful. A myopic kid who wears glasses will find it difficult to become a pilot. A student with an IQ of 75 will be unlikely to get into Harvard however hard he tries. In some way or another, our destinies are limited by the genes we are born with.

In this sense, it is arguable that genetic engineering might help to level the playing field. Genetic engineering could give people greater innate capacity to fulfill their dreams and pursue their own happiness. Rather than allow peoples’ choices to be limited by their genetic makeup, why not give each person the capability of becoming whatever he or she wants to, and let his or her eventual success be determined by effort, willpower, and perseverance? America has long represented the idea that people can shape their own destinies. To paraphrase Dr. King, why not have a society where people are judged not by the genes they inherit, but by the content of their character?

Looking at both sides, the genetic engineering controversy does raise questions that should be answered, not shouted down. Like all major scientific advances, it probably has some negative effects, and steps must be taken to ameliorate these outcomes. For example, measures should also be taken to ensure that genetic engineering’s benefits are, at least to some extent, available to the poor. As ethicists Maxwell Mehlman and Jeffrey Botkin suggest in their book Access to the Genome: The Challenge to Equality, the rich could be taxed on genetic enhancements, and the revenue from these taxes could be used to help pay for the genetic enhancement of the poor. To some extent, this will help to ameliorate the unequal effects of genetic engineering, allowing its benefits to be more equitably distributed. In addition, caution must be taken in other areas, such as ensuring that the sanctity of human life is respected at all times. In this respect, pro-life groups like Focus on the Family can take a leading role in ensuring that scientific advances do not come at the expense of moral ethics.

At the same time, we should not allow our fear of change to prevent our society from exploring this promising new field of science, one that promises so many medical and social benefits. A strategy that defines itself against the core idea of scientific progress cannot succeed. Instead of attempting to bury our heads in the sand, we should seek to harness genetic engineering for its positive benefits, even as we take careful steps to ameliorate its potential downsides.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Konstantin January 24, 2012 at 6:38 am

Well, one needs to look at this in a different perspective. Concerning a parent making their child “perfect” is of their own accord. Now lets say that the child has blue eyes but wanted green. How can he/she tell her parents that. The same process works within natural reproduction. Ya get what ya get, that is the main point. Once you are able to predict what you get and physically make it, yes you are altering nature, BUT how can the child say anything. They can’t tell them “yea mom make me have black hair and blue eyes etc. The argument is in the respect of a human rights activist. Well, we live in a modern era and everything is changing. We can choose what we want our child to look like. Isn’t a parent’s dream to have a perfect child? How is it immoral if the child is of the same genetic background as the parents? it simply makes no sense to argue that it is immoral and unethical. If a parent wants a child with an above average IQ, they are entitled to having one. If they have the money, why not? Why to fanatical Christians and human rights activists protest the family or chastise them for their choice. That in itself is immoral since now you condemn someone for wanting a perfect child. Then condemn me for wanting a kid who plays sports, piano and is a fantastic artist. The ethical concern is void and is a concern we shouldn’t have. It is utterly pointless to say such things when a majority of the people want a perfect child, regardless of the method they obtain him or her.

2 Kayla Lynn February 16, 2012 at 7:38 am

These arrguments have been of great use for me thank you so much we nare discussing this topic in my biology class.

3 Christina April 9, 2012 at 6:43 pm

I would just like to point out that Konstantin is narrowminded. You need to look at the big picture. What is perfect in one persons mind is different in another. That child will grow up with a complex. People are not supposed to be chosen and bought out a catalogue. How can anyone say that that child is theirs when they have picked and chosen THEIR desired traits. No one has the right to choose what someone else looks like. Scientists dont fully comprehend the impact that GE would have on the gene pool. It would shrink it because everyone will have ‘Perfect children.’ Only the rich would get the benefits (which there are none in the long run) of this scheme. Therefore, the scientists are creating segregation from the people who are genetically enhanced from the people who are natural. We have spent centuries trying to break down the barrier of race and colour. Now people want to errect one for people who are geneticall enhanced! If your dont see your child as perfect- even with the diseases or flaws or whatever then you dont deserve it. A child is perfect in its own way. A parent has no right to choose what is perfect. Its immoral, wrong and COMPLETELY ungrateful of what other people cannot have- which is children.

4 Ryan May 12, 2012 at 3:28 pm

@Christina I’d like to point out that you and I are just as narrowminded because thats what humans are, just saying. Now I don’t see why you’d think a child would grow up with any sort of complex when this hasn’t yet happened and you have no sort of evidence to backup this assertion. As for people being designed from catalogues, why not? who said people werent supposed to? why do you assume that anything is “supposed” to be a certain way? The next thing you said is great because I have a great bit of science to counter it with. People have ALWAYS chosen their children’s traits, even before they were human! All animals (at least most) do this. What do you think animals look for in a mate? The answer is qualities that evolution has programmed us to subconsciously want that aid in survival and reproduction. Granted people have always had to pass their own genes on to an offspring but they’ve also chosen mates that can add the best complimentary set of genes. Scientists do actually understand the effects Human GE would have on the gene pool, and you’re right, it would shrink it, but the reason they support it nonetheless is because they don’t view it as bad. For example, the gene foxo gene has been shown to have dramatic impact on the rate at which you age, not to be confused with how long you live, which is what modern medicine extends. Foxo can be the difference between death at the age of 70 or still being able to go outside on a hike by yourself in your 80s. so it would be no suprise that the short-life version of this gene would quickly shrink from its current position as the more common varient in the gene pool to almost non-existent in GE populations. But tell me why this is bad? if an older person can avoid the diseases that plague elders while simulataneously being self-sufficient instead of being a leech on society like most old people. If you could perhaps point out some genes that are good that no one would want for some reason, please do. You say only the rich would benefit despite the fact that you don’t know how much this would cost nor do you know if there would be any sort of givernemnt program to provide people with said money in the event they dont have it. It’s certainly a concern but it’s rather ridiculous to run around making the claim that it will certainly happen without a doubt. You also mentioned (paradoxically in the same sentence) that there are no benefits, as if people who can go to college on a grant because theyre so smart when both their parents are unintelligent aren’t benefitting. Even the people who choose to opt for the traditional method of child raising will benefit from the rapidly advancing technology that will come some 30 years or so after GE humans becomes mainstream, albeit theyll have a harder time finding jobs, which is a valid concern. You talked quite a bit about some kind of genetic discrimination, which quite like the comment about only rich people being privelaged with it, lacks any evidence. However if it does happen, which it may, don’t blame the scientists who brought about this technology, just like Oppenheimer didn’t bomb japan, any negative results will come about purely out of human shortcomings, not of the technology itself. As for the nonsense about every child being perfect I won’t even dignify this with a response as i consider it a bunch of hippie-talk, but how dare simply decide that parents don’t have the RIGHT to make a decision regarding THEIR children, not yours.

5 Jerome September 1, 2012 at 6:31 am

Creating a genetically engineered race will of course cause racism towards both the natural born and the genetically “enhanced”. However, when has any one race been immune to racism? It will start out with fear and hatred, and eventually lead to general acceptance, most likely being seen as normal as someone with tattoos or colored contacts. Another argument here against genetic engineering is based on the idea that by giving the child artificial talents, you are sealing their destiny. This is completely false. People will do what they want to do, whether they are good at it or not. A weird quote to bring up, but “Kumar: Yeeeah, just cause you’re hung like a moose doesn’t mean you gotta do porn”. One problem I see with genetic engineering is using it when it is not fully perfected. Using the trial and error method will cause an enormous amount of discarded fetuses/babies. Ensuring that there are laws in place to prevent this from happening would be a good solution (unfortunately,anti-abortion laws are rather unpopular). Laws that would need to be put in place would be
1. Stringent regulations on who can perform the genetic modification,and how they can perform it.
2. Constitutional amendment preventing any power(Government or commercial) from outlawing or preventing any modifications.(You dont want laws in place that make anything but blonde hair,blue eyes illegal)
3. Equal opportunity laws for both genetically engineered and natural born people.
4. Complete outlaw of abortion(except in life threatening cases,such as eptopic pregnancies) to prevent abortions due to modification errors.

Any problems would be outweighed by the benefits. Enhanced immune systems would make disease a thing of the past. People would be able to live longer, healthier lives.

Lastly, no matter how much we change our child’s features, once they become a teenager, they are going to rebel and try to change everything about themselves anyways, so you are not really dooming them to a set look or way of life with genetic engineering.

6 Sarah September 25, 2012 at 11:03 am

We live in a world which is governed by, let’s face it, inequality. And whether we care to admit it or not, we like it that way. We enjoy having leaders or being leaders. What else fuels our desire to succeed, than competition, knowing you have some kind of worth in the world? It’s been human nature since the beginnings of civilization to prefer social structure, which can only be founded on a basis of inequality and specialization. Without inequality, societies will cease to function properly. In eliminating inequality, we will eliminate any kind of stability we have ever had. After all, isn’t “leveling the playing field” what we’ve been doing to get us into the mess we’re in today?

7 Emily Rodríguez November 13, 2012 at 6:06 am

I don’t consider myself an expert on this issue or even completely solidified on a stance concerning this subject, but I think that, regardless of both the positive and negative effects of GE, the biggest risk is lack of precedent; no established example or universal ethical code to determine what to do should something go wrong. How can we, from our current perspective, determine how far the human race as a whole take this concept? There is honestly no way of telling whether the widespread introduction of GE into common practice would end in eugenics (which is completely possible under certain circumstances) or improvement in quality of life (also completely possible)? The only way to find out is to try. The argument then becomes a question of risks. However, I think I agree with Jerome’s suggestions. Law which would both anticipate and prevent unwanted discrimination/ ethical dilemma that are susceptible to change by the State in light of any unforeseen circumstances seem like the most effective way to approach GE should it be popularized.

8 Anonymous February 19, 2013 at 1:24 pm

some say the ufo’s are flown by genetically engineered humans from the future…makes ya wonder if maybe folks are actually seeing the result what you are debating right now

9 Daisy April 12, 2013 at 4:19 pm

To be quite honest, we already face inequality between the rich and the poor in the field of medicine. A poor woman with cancer will probably not be able to afford treatment that may save her life, while a rich woman would have the funds to back her recovery. If an autistic child is born into a poor family, he/she would face more hardship compared to one that is born into a wealthy family. People argues that genetically modifying humans would give the rich an advantage. Well, too late. Wake up and smell the coffee, people.

Freedom is a totally seperate issue. “What if a child is unhappy with the color eyes he/she has?” Well, tough luck. We don’t get to pick now. So what if your parents pick blue and you wanted green? You don’t get to choose now, so it wouldn’t be such a big deal, I would think.

If given the chance to explore this field with more freedom, we may be able to find the cure to all sorts of life-threatening diseases that we face today, such as Huntington’s or Sickle Cell. The idea of having hundreds, possibly thousands, suffer while we test for the right answer disgusts people. They call it inhumane. However, what if these people volunteer? What can they say about that then? If 10,000 people had to die in order for 10,000,000 people to live, would you deny them that?

10 Aleris Celt April 29, 2013 at 11:34 am

@Emily: That’s arguing for nonmaleficence, an ethical principle that I personally don’t wholly agree with. See, like Ryan said, any drawbacks or implication would be due to human shortcomings and not the technology itself. But why should we not go ahead with this just because of the possibility of the potential damage that GE could do (I don’t know, many circuses would start manipulating and combining the genes of humans and animals)? I believe that laws will be strictly enforced for GE. Furthermore, there can be in progress in science without risks and I think that here, the means can be justified by the ends.

It is definitely not perfect though– as several people have mentioned, the poorer citizens of the globe will never get access to such a luxury and there will just be widening inequalities and stratification. I remember someone mentioning that it’s unfair to “choose your child’s destiny” but aren’t (asian) parents all doing it anyway? Hothousing is commonplace in many nations, and children are made to go for all sorts of talent development classes even before they go to kindergarten. What’s wrong with giving them a headstart? Of course it’s because some children will be able to achieve excellent results without even trying while others try so hard and fail. But that happens regularly too. And then there will be the issue of how if everyone has a headstart then we’re back to square one— but look. We’re back to square one on a higher level now, with higher capabilities, and everyone has to try hard to succeed.

Some might say, “what is beauty if everyone is beautiful?” I often think so too– I do find it unfair that people are given such advantageous traits randomly now, but I dismiss it as jealousy. A world of beautiful people with similar traits (big eyes, small waist, slim etc.) sounds scary though. Beauty loses its meaning. But then think about cosmetic surgery… There are many things that we can only appreciate in its natural state and as humans we are drawn to them (that’s why we all love rainforests and mountains lol). And I don’t know how to explain this, but it’s the uniqueness of the person that shapes her. Before eagerly joining in the beauty craze, maybe we should consider the underlying reasons for beauty. Do we seek superficial attention (to make you ‘feel good’)? Has the media made us believe that only the beautiful can lead successful and happy lives?

Haha I think i’ve gone out of point but yes I support GE when it’s used to cure diseases because diseases are inherently unwanted plagues that cause nothing but harm. The usages of GE on humans must be strictly monitored to ensure that the technology doesn’t get commercialized or used for other reasons. I think it’s good if IQ/EQ can be increased too, but it’s not fair to those without excess to GE.

I’ve got an exam coming up with this as a topic, and i’m screwed. So hard to find evidence for this when the technology hasn’t even fully developed yet :3

11 Alex April 30, 2013 at 11:28 am

I only have two fears regarding GE. Firstly, the creation of sentient genetic “inferiors” would result in great moral dilemma’s, and since we are human, it will often tip towards cheap labour’s side. Secondly, the narrowed gene pool would effectively weaken human resistance, since all it would take is a genetically modified bioweapon and humanity would be in trouble. You would have to balance “perfection” with a broad gene pool.

12 john May 7, 2013 at 9:43 am

Genetic engineering suicks!

13 john May 7, 2013 at 9:50 am

*sucks

14 Shane August 9, 2013 at 10:59 pm

Human genetic engineering is the alteration of an individual’s genotype with the aim of choosing the phenotype of a newborn or changing the existing phenotype of a child or adult. I believe that human genetic engineering should be allowed but there should be rules, guidelines, and limits to follow.
We have no idea what these changed could do in later life. If we over dose our children now it could have extreme effect on them in the future.

15 Elias Azar October 30, 2013 at 11:18 am

Anyone who apposes this new technology is narrow minded. This technology can help children that are going to be born with illnesses that they cannot live as normal life. the genes that cause these illnesses can be removed and replaced with healthier genes that will allow them to grow up normal and not be at a disadvantage. everyone talks about how this will create more social issues of discrimination but these people fail to realize that the children that are disabled or have some type of medical condition are looked at differently and put in a class of their own which is wrong. those people to should be equal but society sees it the other way around. They should control this technology and use it for medical purposes only and not just for choosing how you want your child to look. This technology is a break through in genetics and science in general and can help cure or save thousands if not millions of unborn babies that will grow up with debilitating diseases.

16 Portas May 1, 2014 at 11:15 am

I would argue that it is unethical NOT to promote genetic engineering. With regard to altering a human’s life in a way they cannot choose, this argument involves somebody determining what all humans should be. This says that all humans are supposed to be as they are born, disease ridden and frail. But GE is not much different than any other effect one can have on their own child, for example when a mother chooses to eat healthily or drink alcohol. In the former case, that mother is artificially choosing to ingest such nutrients as to produce a more viable offspring, and in the latter case that mother is taking in poison that invariably alters the offspring. In both cases, it is the mother’s choice to take any action that alters her offspring, and nobody would refute that mother’s have that right.
And now, when mankind finally has the technology to guide alteration of the unborn in an even more specific, more desired, and more efficient way, people say it is unethical. What seems unethical to me is denying mankind the chance to avoid the hardships and pain of human suffering, to object to technology that will, if allowed to flourish, inevitably lead to a “better” mankind, one in which we have more choices and less suffering.

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