Societal Consequences of Human Genetic Engineering
Section 15 of NOVA’s program, “Cracking the Code of Life,” utilizes popular film and television scenarios to relate to its audience the potential possibilities of future genetic modification of humans. In a scene from GATTACA, the doctor explains the process of choosing “simply the best” of the two parents’ DNA to create their child in a petri dish. According to Francis Collins, former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) and current director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), that technology is “right in front of us – or almost in front of us.”
The advancement of research in genetic modification raises ethical concerns of how this information technology will be used in the future. Who will regulate which genes are modified and which are not? If law prohibits genetic modification except in cases of modifying mutations that cause diseases, how will the law regulator, presumably the government, define a “disease”? What will be the standards for disease severity? Will the law provide genetic modification for mutated genes like BRCA but not for blindness or alcoholism? How will they decide which diseases are “more important” or “more severe” than others?
Society as a whole can generally agree that using genetic modification to help prevent incurable diseases like cancer, diabetes, and Tay Sachs disease, is highly favorable. Potential prevention of these diseases could save thousands of people pain, suffering, anxiety, and, on a more superficial level, millions of dollars. The line begins to blur when society examines the possibility of using this genetic modification technology not only to prevent disease, but to make their children “genetically different to enhance their performance.”
If society decides that anyone who can afford genetic modification can take advantage of its benefits, will parents begin to alter the characteristics of their future children? Program host Robert Krulwich asks, “what parent wouldn’t want to introduce a child that would at least be where all the other kids could be”?
All parents want their children to have the best possible start to life and have the best advantages that they can provide. I wonder how far some parents would go to secure the best genetic start for their children. If genetic modification becomes a public option, it will probably only be available to those who can afford it. Because of the inevitability of its high cost, the only people who would be able to afford to create genetically “perfect” children would be those in the highest percentile of wealth. Therefore, if only a certain group with a specific socio-economic status could even have access to this science, the gap between social classes will increase not only because of a disparity of wealth, but also because of a disparity in gene perfection. The definition of “elite” will encompass human perfection through genetic modification.
Defying nature to build super-humans is not a real concern until science has proven that this is possible, and currently this technology is not perfected. Science should be allowed to progress and discoveries should not be hindered or stopped. However, it is important for society to decide now how they will deal with the ultimate results of future scientific research.
By: Elizabeth S.