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Human Genetics Research

QUESTION: Human genetics research - Is it ethical?


Human genetics research and the resulting potential medical advances constitute a revolution sweeping medical science. It is the fourth revolution since Hippocrates some 2400 years ago found that the workings of the body (as opposed to life itself) can be explained by the laws of nature rather than the supernatural. The first revolution occurred in 1854. It identified that cholera is spread by contaminated water and led to sanitation systems. The second revolution was the use of surgery with anesthesia. The third revolution was the introduction of vaccines and antibiotics allowing many infectious diseases to finally be prevented or cured.

This fourth revolution in human genetics research leading to gene therapy and genetic engineering could lead to real cures and potentially enhanced humans. However, these effects could be felt far beyond medicine and could affect every aspect of our culture. Used carefully, it could increase health and happiness. But if used unwisely, the genetic engineering on human beings could endanger everything we value, including who and what we are. One of pioneers of human genetic engineering predicts that within 30 years, there will be a gene-based therapy cure for most diseases. But he fears the profound dangers of his own work.

Human genetics research is the first step down a potentially slippery slope. Research, the science of learning new information, itself is not an ethical issue. However, the current ethical controversy over human genetic research is directed at how the research is done rather than the research itself. The ethical concern is the use of embryonic stem cells in the research rather than the use of adult stem cells. The extraction of the stem cells from a human embryo destroys the embryo, thus destroying the potential for life. At its core, this issue forces us to confront fundamental questions about the beginnings of life and the ends of science.

The goals of the research include gene therapy and gene-line engineering. Gene therapy is directed toward curing disease in people without affecting inherited traits. Gene-line engineering is directed toward permanent change in disease resistance and aesthetic and functional enhancements. Ethical concerns with gene therapy, although significant, are minimal compared with intentional human engineering. These gene therapy concerns include inadvertent changes to the reproductive system and other undesirable side effects similar to the side effects of drugs.

However, the ethical concerns with intentional gene-line engineering are many and profound. The two main concerns are those associated with an enhanced super-race and a potential Frankenstein syndrome. The super-race would be the elite with the normal race being subjugated. The Frankenstein race would either have to be controlled in some way or be eliminated or it may eliminate us. These are situations that we do not want to deal with. Consequently, we must proceed very carefully in all aspects of human genetic research and engineering.

From a Christian Theistic worldview, intentionally making changes in the human blueprint is playing god. This is something that would not be condoned. Alternatively, from the opposite humanist worldview, human engineering is no more than helping evolution along and it would be negligent not to improve our lot. Our position on this issue like so many other cultural issues is dependent upon our belief on a more fundamental worldview truth.

Learn more about Human Genetic Engineering.

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