Do the Dangers of Genetic Engineering as Applied to Humans Outweigh Its Benefits? Term Paper

Pages: 6 (2006 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 0  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Genetics

Genetic engineering (GE) has been presented to the public as a way to improve the quality of our lives, enhance agriculture and advance our ability to fight genetic illnesses. The possibilities seem endless, but raise worries as well as optimism (Fricker, 2002). The Human Genome Project, conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Department of Health and Human Services, undertook the task of mapping all human genes their chromosomes (Morse, 1998). This project contributed greatly to the potential for GE in humans, but in fact GE has already been used in agriculture. However, some biologists point out that we call "genetic engineering" has been accomplished for centuries via cross-breeding, and that GE is just a new way of accomplishing something already done in the past (Fricker, 2002). The risk with GE is that genes can be combined in ways never before possible, and with possibly unpredictable results. For a decade we have had the capability to insert alien genes into target cells, thus changing the organism. This can be done with cells taken from a patient. After altering, they can be returned to the patient to achieve some medical goal (Anderson, 1990).

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The concern with GE is that it can have both anticipated and unanticipated effects (Fricker, 2002). Because of this, we should proceed cautiously and carefully, with many safeguards in place. Genetic engineering is largely uncharted territory and only hubris would allow us to assume that we can see all possible pitfalls. As Potera (2004) points out, gene manipulation is "like driving a car" -- safe driving relies as much on braking as on accelerating." However, it is noted that many view the benefit as outweighing the risks involved, while others argue that we can't always know all the risks.


Term Paper on Do the Dangers of Genetic Engineering as Applied to Humans Outweigh Its Benefits? Assignment

One argument in favor of GE points out that science often benefits society. We have many examples of this. The material developed to make heat tiles for the space shuttles is also sold as "Corning Ware," ceramic cookware that can handles extremes of hot and cold. In the past, science turned into technology clearly beneficial to society. It led to such advances as public transportation, efficient energy supplies, and good water and sewer systems (Fricker, 2002). However, in Western society, where GE is most likely to be used, basic human needs have been met. Some argue that further scientific advances are likely to result in technology serving personal needs (Fricker, 2002). Rawls talks about the "human lottery, (Resnick, 1997), with different people receiving different strengths and weaknesses that make individuals inherently unequal. Proponents of GE see GE as a possible way to level the playing field just a bit by eliminating such diseases as cystic fibrosis and Huntington's Chorea (Fricker, 2002). The concern is that interest in these personal benefits will expand to more trivial differences, such as using GE with cloning in order to produce more intelligent, or tall, or more musical, or more athletic offspring (Roberson, 1994).

A second argument in favor of GE points to the number of people who face famine and starvation on this planet. They argue that through GE, plants can be produced that grow more vigorously, produce more food, and are more resistant to insects and other crop-reducing problems. This last point is used to point out that such crops would require fewer pesticides, making them more environmentally friendly (Kneen, 2002). However, critics point out some flaws with this reasoning. They argue that people are not starving because the planet does not grow enough food. This is demonstrated by the fact that agencies often bring in food to starving peoples. Critics argue that the problem is not one of not growing enough food. Rather, the problem is poor distribution that does not get food where it is needed. In fact, one author reports that the planet grows more than 50% more food than we need to feed everyone adequately (Fricker, 2002).

A third argument in favor of GE, and possibly the most compelling one, is that we can benefit medically from its use (Resnick, 1997). At one extreme of this view, DNA is viewed as the "master molecule" (Morse, 1998) that controls everything involving a person's health. The potential for GE in health is so large that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) committed $200 million in the year 1998 to look for medical applications. Private companies had also raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the same purpose (Morse, 1998). Carried too far, however, critics remember Hitler's attempts at eugenics and fictional accounts of GE run amok, either through excessive control Alduous Huxley's Brave New World) or failure to predict problems (Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park) (Resnick, 1997). Both works of fiction raise serious questions about the abuse of Genetic engineering.


In 1980, a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine set out ethical standards for GE as used in medical treatment. A fundamental principle of those standards were that the likely benefits must outweigh the likely risks (Anderson, 1990). So far, medical practice has stuck to that principal. The first application of gene therapy, as GE is called in medical use, involved a process called "retroviral-mediated gene transfer," as approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in early 1989 but only after rigorous and multiple levels of testing. The procedure was evaluated fifteen times by seven different agencies, and in fact went through a more intensive review process than any procedure ever before approved by the FDA (Anderson, 1990). Some writers believe that the extensive review process required reflects the concerns of the general public as well as the medical community that GE be done carefully and that professionals maintain significant concerns about its use (Anderson, 1990).

Other concerns involve the role genes play in who we are. While some believe that all of human health, illness and even behavior are driven by genes, others recognize that the external environment in which the human resides affects gene actions, including whether they switch on or switch off certain proteins. Those actions affect how the gene affects the body. Nature and nurture often work together, even when genetics play a strong role in a medical problem (Morse, 1998). Some sociologists are calling for a new sub-discipline of medical sociology, which they would call "genetic sociology," to monitor and evaluate the effects of GE on society (Fredericks et. al., 2004). This might be a good idea for all uses of GE, and not just for medical uses. It would be hubris to assume that we can predict all possible outcomes from gene manipulation.

Annotated Bibliography

Anderson, W. French. 1990. "Genetics and Human Malleability." The Hastings Center Report 20.

Anderson's article proposes a way to make ethical decisions regarding genetic engineering in human beings, arguing that it should be used to cure or treat serious disease but not timply to enhance what some might view as more desirable personal qualities. This older article attempted to predict what could, and should, be done in the future. He argues strongly against eugenics and warns about using people's genetic traits in discriminatory ways.

Boone, C. Keith. 1998. "Bad Axioms in Genetic Engineering." The Hastings Center Report, Vol. 18.

Boone talks about genetic engineering in more emotional terms than, for instance, resnik, implying that using genetic engineering is playing God, suggesting that we can control the destinies of our children and the environment as well as ourselves. This is greatly exaggerated and suggests that Boon is not a good source for unbiased information. In other places Boon acknowledges the complex nature of genetic engineering, but use of emotional phrases such as the "Frankenstein Factor" makes his article look like one of lesser reliability.

Fredericks, Janet; Fredericks, Marcel: Miller, Steven I.; and Odiet, Jeff A. 2004. "Toward an Understanding of "Genetic Sociology" and Its Relationships to Medical Sociology and Medical Genetics in the Educational Enterprise." Education 125.

The authors argue that the prospect of genetic manipulation in humans presents a major development in society, and one that should have a significant amount of study so that all its implications and possibiltiies for change can be evaluated and debated. They would call this field "genetic sociology." As all of these articles do, the authors look at the ethical implications of genetic engineering in a detailed but unbiased way. The article is written for other sociologists and uses terms those in biological science might not be fully familiar with.

Fricker, Alan. 2002. "The Conscious Purpose of Science Is Control of Nature; Its Unconscious Effect Is Disruption and Chaos." Futures 34.

As his title suggests, Fricker sees a bit of hubris in our attempts to control nature and warns about unexpected consequences from the actions we take, particularly with genetic engineering. He proposes a way to minimize unexpected results. He warns that without careful controls, genetic engineering can become a dangerous force on the world. The article is balanced, considering the benefits as well as the risks involved.

Kneen, Brewster. 2002. "Caring for Life: Genetic Engineering… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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