Enhancement for Health Versus Vanity in Human Genetic Engineering: Can We Draw the Line? by Amanda Waddell
We want to be faster. We want to be stronger. We want to be more beautiful. We want to be more intelligent. In today’s society, such qualities determine our social placement. With pressure to fit these standards, people are making the decision to physically alter themselves, from using pharmaceutical drugs to gene manipulation, in order to keep pace with our advancing society . With the recent identification of genes through the Human Genome Project, the possibility of finding specific genes that code for different traits and aspects of the human form is a viable one . From these progressions, people are expressing hope and precaution towards altering specific genes at the germ-line as a means of change. Although this idea arose for the intent of medicine and overall health, the possibility for eugenics, using gene intervention to create an overall perfect person to society’s standards, is inevitable and a source of much uneasiness within society. Personal enhancement has followed progress in science and medicine. Technologies originally developed to treat diseases or other health problems are now being used for unintended reasons: personal enhancement. The treatments developed for many forms of health issues have shown to create enhancement on a person who does not express the corresponding health issue . Because the original intents of these technologies were considered socially acceptable, society continues to accept the technology regardless of hesitations surrounding enhancement options. Some cases where medical treatment has been used for enhancement are the use of Ritalin, a drug to treat ADD and ADHD, for increased concentration , Human Growth Hormone, a treatment to counteract stunted growth, for increased height , and the insertion of the myostatin gene, used to treat muscular dystrophy, for increased muscle mass . Once these drugs are approved by the Federal Drug Association (FDA), they become available to the general public. Though the use of the drug is monitored, it is not completely controlled. The proven success of the drug, implied in the FDA’s approval, gives physicians and clinical researchers the opportunity to prescribe the drug or perform the treatment in cases where he or she finds it necessary . Dr. Gary Marchant, Professor and Executive Director Center for the Study of Law, Science & Technology at the Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law at Arizona State University, argues that once a procedure or drug has been approved, it has the possibility of reaching anyone, depending solely on the subjective diagnosis of a doctor . Many treatments are later found to treat a range of health conditions once they are released. By observing the medicinal effects on various patients, the uses can be expanded.
Therefore, there is a broader range of people and conditions that can be treated, making the drug more accessible. The next step for science technology in the world of medical diagnosis and treatment deals with the study of the effect of genetic expression on human development. With the human genome identified, the idea of targeting specific genes to alter specific human traits is becoming a distinct possibility . With such technology, human genetic engineering hopes to remove genes that code for disease, mutation, and other genetic aberrations as a means to eliminate their expression. By modifying the gene at the germ line, the condition would not be expressed in future offspring of the genetically modified individual . This scientific breakthrough could help to eliminate need for the large amounts of money, research, and time being used to fight disease by removing the disease altogether. Nevertheless, hesitations have stopped the progress of this genetic advancement. Ever since the idea arose in the early 1960s, this concept has been overshadowed by ethical debate over research techniques and the indefinite possibilities for the future of this technology . A main source of debate involves research and forms of testing. The research process involves experimental use of embryos. Ethical concerns remain regarding how embryos would be tested throughout the developmental stage and throughout their life . Additionally, this testing would occur only if the correct sequence is determined and the genetic transplantation can be identified as successful. If it is not successful, the debate arises as to what to do with the embryo, whether to continue its implantation despite a problem that could have taken place during the genetic modification process, or to discard the embryo. From an ethical standpoint, many people and societies believe that an embryo is a potential person with a future, and therefore, deserves human rights . The difficulty in researching and perfecting techniques of human genetic engineering is the question of whether or not it is ethically and socially viable to use human embryos as test subjects, some which would be discarded due to the experimental nature of research . Debates like these have halted the little research that has been conducted, putting all of this science at a standstill based on a group of people’s moral outlooks. The intentions of human genetic engineering cannot help but perplex researchers, policy makers, and society. If the technology can be developed to eradicate disease, it would have the potential ability to change anything related to the human genome--anything from physical attributes to intellectual capabilities can, to some extent, be manipulated at their source . There is even a possibility that the range of human emotion could be censored to eliminate feelings of hurt, sadness or stress . With the trends seen with the other enhancement drugs and treatments, it can be predicted that advances in personal enhancement will parallel the progression in health. It can be seen from the use of drugs and treatment in the past that people are willing to invest in these eugenic concerns. Policy makers, unwilling to let eugenics make its way into the project, have been developing ways to incorporate censorship into this project . Here, the governing body over the research and development of this project could state which diseases could be altered and which ones would not.
However, like prescription drugs, there are ways that genetic modification will adapt to the vanity aspect of society. Along the lines of eugenics, this technology does have the possibility of altering everything from health to beauty. On the other hand, the idea of selecting for a trait of a future offspring has been happening for years. For much time, people have selected mates based on physical, intellectual, and emotional traits as a means of their translation into a possible offspring. This idea, coined ‘directed evolution’ by Maxwell J Mehlman, has been an ongoing process, assisted recently with scientific technology . Today, people have the opportunity to choose sperm and/or eggs from people with specific traits in in vitro fertilization. Even the sterilization of some traits has been tried with help from this advancement. As reproductive technology improves, the chance to select traits of a potential offspring becomes a viable option . A natural instinct drives a parent to want the best possibly future for their offspring. Therefore, the desire to have traits that have been deemed successful by society would only improve chances of a promising future. Genetic modification, even if for enhancement purposes, would only expand upon similar selection technology available today. Working with genes comes with an added risk, based on their complexity. The genes coding for the trait would need to be distinguished to have clear phenotypic, physically expressed, connection to the specific genotype . If there is not a strong correlation, it can be hard to predetermine the actual expression of the gene over time. Also, many diseases and mutations are polygenic, related to a sequence of genes, or even result of multiple gene interaction . This would cause even more difficulty in the identification of the problem and performing the genetic modification. This complexity will directly lead to difficulty in further advancement of genetic manipulation. The advancement of human genetic engineering has been and will continue to be laced with debate. But, should the possibility for eugenic enhancement determine whether disease, mutation, and other gene-related abnormalities should be treated in this manner? By looking too far into the future, the original goal of the project is overlooked. Although using this technology for enhancement can be expected over time, the opportunity to eliminate disease and other health issues should drive the continued research and application of human genetic engineering. By halting research and development, it may be sacrificing great strides that could be taken in disease and the development of future generations. Until the divide between intention and fear of expansion becomes clear to all, advancement will be at a standstill.
Amanda Waddel is a student at Arizona State University.
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