Genetic Engineering

Genetic Engineering

Medical and general scientifi c researchers now have capabilities that could only be dreamed of in previous generations. We are only slowly developing a set of ethical rules by which to judge those capabilities, however. Genetic manipulation makes possible a future such as the one Aldous Huxley fantasized about in his Brave New World, one with a human race designed for special purposes. (See Box 7.2.) Agricul- ture has for several years been making use of genetic engineering to create disease- resistant crops. Milk and meat are being irradiated before they hit the stores. And perhaps the most controversial issue: Transgenic animals are being patented, such as pigs that have had human genes placed in them to facilitate organ transplants, cats that glow in the dark, and goats that have been genetically manipulated to contain spider silk proteins in their milk to be extracted and combined to produce materials of unprecedented strength. Although it may be to humankind’s ultimate advantage to have access to these wonders, failure to contain such laboratory-generated genetic material, or failure to foresee the overall consequences of such genetic tinkering, could have disastrous results if no sense of ethics or social responsibility is instilled

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to guide the decision of researchers. After all, the infamous killer bees (which have now settled comfortably in the southwestern United States) are the result of a lab experiment gone out of control. In Europe there is now a general mistrust of the entire idea of genetically engi- neered food products, from grain to farm animals. But what about genetically engi- neered humans? In 2000 a little boy was born specifi cally in order to try to save the life of his older sister. Six-year-old Molly Nash had a congenital blood disease that would, in all probability, take her life before the age of ten. Doctors used “preimplantation ge- netic diagnosis” (PGD) to select an embryo in vitro that was both free of the disease and a good match as a blood cell donor. A month after the baby, Adam, was born, stem cells from his umbilical cord blood were transplanted into his sister. Molly was given the transplant while she held her little brother in her arms. Three months later she was allowed to return home from the hospital to her parents and her new brother, with her chances of survival improved to 85 percent. Out of the public eye until 2010 when she turned fi fteen, she is now a healthy active girl with a normal family life, including a nine-year-old brother who knows he helped his sister. Such are the possibilities opening up to us with genetic engineering. Then why are some people worried about the social consequences of this miracle cure? Because we, as a society, have not decided where we’d draw the line: Do we endeavor to cre- ate healthy babies, or should we go further, such as customizing babies according to

Aldous Huxley’s science fi ction novel Brave New World from 1931 is famous for predicting that cloning of humans may be a future option, but even more timely is Huxley’s prediction that humans in the future will be so oriented toward an easy life that they will, in essence, be unable to handle any form of emotional stress without medication. The drug of choice, Soma, is available to everyone, and it is consid- ered a breach of decorum to handle one’s own problems without being drugged into oblivion. The prediction rings true in several ways: For example, many people in this country now seek help from prescription drugs rather than working their way through certain emotional stresses—the quest for the quick fi x. Helped along by a powerful medical industry and per- vasive advertising campaigns, some doctors

are all too willing to prescribe medication that will dull the pain of life in their patients. De- pressed? Take a pill. Can’t sleep? Take a pill. Too tense? Take a pill. Too relaxed? Take a pill. Some people are, of course, in genuine need of medication for severe mental stresses as well as physical pain; but our twenty-fi rst-century cul- ture seems to have lost its view toward long- term solutions. Ethicists bemoan the tendency: If we can’t get instant gratifi cation or solve a problem in short order, we lose our focus and our resolve. What’s more, we lose touch with what is a normal state of affairs : life with some pain, some grief, some problems—which you then work through and incorporate into your life story or put behind you. In Chapter 13 we take a look at the philosophy of telling one’s life story.

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