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A Brief Analysis of Modern Genetic Engineering

Medical student at Western University of Health Sciences with a Master's in biomedical sciences.


IMPORTANT: This article discusses several key contemporary pieces which discuss the moral and technological implications of genetic engineering. I highly advise that a reader be exposed to the following before engaging with what I have to say:

  1. Dan Brock's "Genetic Engineering"
  2. Walter Glannon's "Genetic Enhancement"
  3. Jonathan Glover's "What Sort of People Should There Be?"
  4. William French Anderson's "Genetics and Human Malleability"
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Why I'm in Favor of Genetic Engineering

Generally speaking, we should be most eager to provide those genetic therapies which target serious diseases. After all, it is clear we have an innate value for life, and any action that promotes life while its absence hastens death would likely get a societal stamp of approval. Anderson was keen to point this out. And as good medical practice warrants, we should be seeking and providing treatments where the probable benefits do indeed outweigh the probable risks. That’s just good healthcare. Otherwise, Anderson’s argument dances around the idea that genetic enhancements would make us feel dehumanized and unnatural—we would be undermining the “dignity of man” in both a theological and secular manner.

And Glannon too articulates several significant fears. The idea that discrimination may occur, that some attributes and resultantly specific types of people may dominate, and that money will dictate the recipients of the benefits which arise from enhancement are all probable if a system of genetic enhancement is left unchecked. And, of course, what if we make a bodily change so detrimental that we lose our capacity to achieve happiness?

But frankly, similar things were also said of the Manhattan Project, particle accelerators, secularism, GMOs, and ‘unconventional’ sexuality. While genetic engineering is, admittedly, a different kind of beast, and the above worries are indeed legitimate, there is, in my mind, absolutely no way to stop a societal transformer with such high prospects from making its way into the world. People are too curious. If the US bans genetic enhancement, then China will do it. If China bans enhancement, then somebody else will develop the technology. In the last few years—even in the last few months—CRISPR has become a world wide research project. And it may very well lead scientists to discovering a cheap and reliable way to alter both embryonic and adult somatic cells in vivo. Just this last week, scientists in the US (at OHSU, in fact) completed the first genetically engineered embryonic stem cell as a preventative measure of disease. The point should be clear. I don’t think our problem is whether or not to allow genetic engineering, but to rather proceed with substantial, thoughtful, and innovative caution. Because of this, I find Glover’s analysis to be most compelling. Rather than avoid the technology, we should spearhead its development in order to control the manner in which enhancement is controlled and viewed.

As far as the debate about changing what it means to be human, I cannot help but approach this from a purely secular manner. From this, I could easily see how the characterization of human beings would change, though rather than suggest that we become something other than human, we would more likely change the definition of what it means to be human—and we change the understanding of dignity. Within our discussion of involuntary euthanasia for children, we acknowledged that we had to account for the perception of the infant. We could not judge the quality of a genetically defective life by standards of our own otherwise healthy lives. And now we are discussing enhancements, which if we are careful, may very well have an elevated quality by our current standards. Is that not something we should either prefer or, at the very least, choose not to judge, as different standards should continue to go un-compared?

Someone might still argue that the quality of one’s life could be impinged beyond measure—so much so as to live in misery—or that modernity would be plagued by genetic uniformity or gender disproportionalities. Perhaps we could find a way to abstain from gender alterations? Perhaps our genetic enhancements could lead us to overcome whatever societal sexism we currently deal with, and there will be no desire to pursue one sex over the other. Perhaps we will be able to reverse any change that we make with a technology like CRISPR. And perhaps we can keep the technology from being fully privatized, and instead choose to create a “mixed” system of governance over genetic engineering as Glover suggested. It’s obviously an uncertain future, because that is the nature of futures and technologies we are afraid to approach. But to this, I would only further stress the necessity for appropriate early control and adequate investigation. Establish the careful research now to prevent someone from haphazardly offering the technology later.

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