As a student who is eager to stake her career in the ethics of bioscience (genetics specifically) I admit I was eager to discuss genetic engineering. However, after discussing all the complexities of all the different types of genetic modification (gene therapy, GMO’s, stem cell research, cloning, etc) I was left confused and frustrated. I still don’t really know whether I am for genetic engineering as passionately as you Mr. Silver (though I am definitely wary of your seemingly careless statements of “Why not?”) or against it. So if my arguments seem indecisive and unsure, it’s because I’m still finding solid ground to stand on.

I suppose it is difficult for me to grasp the idea of genetic engineering because most of the science lies so much in the realm of possibility rather than reality (although I had previously thought that “designer babies” was something at least 50 years from happening, there is now a clinic in the US very close to giving parents the ability to choose the baby eye, hair, and skin color). But at the moment, we can admit that we don’t know enough to actually manipulate genes fully. While there have been advances in understanding the genome and its impact on organisms, genetic engineering at its current state is an imperfect and mysterious science. The human genome specifically still remains a mystery to scientists; with factors such as the epigenetic theory and the idea that genes play a role in more than one quality expressed in humans and that one gene may be a factor in the expression of a number of qualities, utilizing our current knowledge to manipulate or eliminate undesirable genes seems at least a century away. And yet at the rate of our current progress, it is hard to deny that someday the possible will be a reality. And so in order to fully analyze this topic as a whole, we must argue its endless possibility, no matter how far off into the future it may seem.

The art of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) is a science that is very real and present in our lives, and has gone on quietly with out the attention of the public, save a few green peace extremists. Firstly, I am not one to romanticize Mother Nature for its natural beauty and “the good old fashioned way”, for there has been far too many famines and deaths as a result of starvation. And secondly, I agree that for its health benefits I can see its desirability of GMO’s; the idea of “golden rice”, disease resistant fruits and pest resistant crops seems like something that could curb world hunger and our impact on nature. That being said I feel that our current legal regulation of GMO’s is insufficient and fundamentally wrong in its theory, specifically in the idea that a patent can be placed on an uncontrolled product and that a corporation can own a living thing. I remember watching a video in which a bitter farmer talks about being sued for having his seeds unintentionally contaminated by a genetically modified seed owned by the corporation Monsanto. It seems ridiculous that the law not only upheld but authorized a lawsuit to carry out against the farmer simply because a crosswind might have caused the genetically modified seeds to fall and mix with his. I wonder how many other farmers have been sued only because their farm was next to a Monsanto farm, or any other company with a patented GMO? The fact that any company can own a living thing is morally wrong in the idea that while we may own land and property, we cannot own the earth and its living things. Further more I feel that the companies that use GMO’s are being childishly stubborn in their unwillingness to put a label on their food that states that GMO’s were used in it. This debate over whether GMO’s are actually safe will never be put to rest unless there is a way to quantify and keep track of valuable information concerning GMO’s. Another important factor of GMO’s is there affect on the environment. It seems positive, because some of the genetic factors scientists can put in genes that would replace harmful pesticides that decimate all ecosystems around it, but I wonder if GMO could play a role in helping pests become resistant to certain toxins. As with all the other topics I will be discussing, if GMO’s are not regulated, there could be unintended consequences.

Genetic Engineering, unlike GMO’s, seem more a technology of whose possibilities are vested more in the future and assumption that society can reach that level of manipulation. Assuming that we could indeed manipulate our genes before birth, the manipulation would fall into two categories: the elimination of genetic diseases and disorders, and the manipulation of genes to enhance or change superficial qualities not crucial to survival. Of course we could all agree that one of the goals of medicine is to cure disease, but if we were to cure those at the genetic level, moral complication would assuredly arise. The first question that arises is what we consider to be a disease or disorder? Obviously those that threaten life or cause pain, but what of those that do not? Take for example Manic Depression: it is not a disorder that directly threatens life, and many have said that it has a direct link to a different perspective on life and thus increased creativity. How many other disorders may have direct links to other creative facets? And further more do we have the right to take that creativity out of the persons life simply because we deem it a mutation? Another dilemma that arises deals more in the metaphysics of the benefits of suffering, of which I am not sure whether I agree with or not. While I can agree from my own personal experience that the hardships we face in life are what defines our character and our ability to persevere. However, I am not sure it is the same for debilitating diseases. For disease, no matter how spiritually strong one might be, is not something that can be triumphed over; sometimes there is no silver lining, only pain and bitterness at an undeserved life. But being one who has never suffered from serious disease in my life, it’s not my place to say. But I wonder, does a person with Down syndrome develop his personality a certain way because he has Down Syndrome or because of other life experiences? And does the fact that we don’t know mean we should tamper with the development of who a person is? I don’t think these questions can be answered by anyone unless they have been through disease or debilitations. And even then the opinions vary.

Contrary to the noble goal of ridding the world of disease, genetic manipulation for superficial purposes is an idea I despise and am vehemently against. At least when nature picks our genes out for us, it is unbiased and fair through system of lottery; there is no ploy to turn you into a football star or supermodel when your genes are given to you at conception. I am also against this merely because I think it wouldn’t work. There are many cases in which we may have a propensity or talent for a certain thing, but prefer to do another. I remember reading an article about a journalist who took a reading of his genome and found that he had more fast twitch muscles than slow, even though he preferred slow twitch muscle sports. No matter what we may be inclined to genetically, there is no way to assure that our personalities will decide to follow suit. As the saying goes, our genes are not our destiny.

The most real and present controversy of the topic of genetics is Stem Cell research. Fiery images of bloody embryos and picket signs of Capitol Hill come to mind. There have been ethical, logical, and spiritual arguments for and against it, of which I have all heard and been forced to confront. The key question to all arguments: When does human life begin? If it begins at birth, or at some point during fetal development, than we are wasting a valuable resource that could rebuild the lives of the diseased and disabled. However, if life begins at conception, then we are suggesting the potential cultivation and destruction of lives that could do nothing to defend themselves, all in the name of our selfish denial of the effects of human mortality. It all depends on how we as a society decide to define the beginning of life. Being a high school student who holds no fancy degree in embryology, theology, or any other discipline that could make a valid argument concerning the beginning of life, I feel as though my beliefs are rather juvenile. But seeing as no one else can give me an accurate definition that isn’t based solely off opinion, I don’t feel as self-indulgent giving my own. It is my firm belief that a blastocyst is not a living human being, nor is what we define to be “potential life” actual life. A blastocyst cultivated in a Petri dish cannot become a fetus without it being inserted into the womb where it would need to go through certain chemical dialogue within the womb in order to develop any further. By using a blastocyst for its stem cells, we are not destroying a life, only making the decision not to interfere to give it life. I believe life begins at the first sentient thought; life begins when we are able to feel pain and are aware of our existence (a primitive awareness, but an awareness nonetheless). And seeing as anything close to a nervous system or brain does not develop until the 26th week (that is, providing we actually inserted the blastocyst to cultivate in a womb), a blastocyst does not feel pain, or even realize what pain is. It is for these reasons that I consider a blastocyst to be a clump of cells, and not life or even potential life. The fact that this research, which could improve the lives of so many, is being impeded by religious views, which were established either by a book written at a time when stoning a man to death was considered an acceptable practice or by a senile old man shriveling away in his silken robes seems to me, absolutely ridiculous.

Genetic Engineering is a science that is inevitable. And instead of sticking our heads in the sand or refusing to understand it, we should be hammering out our definitions of what is right and what is wrong so we can have legally and morally sufficient regulation of this technology before it gets out of hand. And although I think that some of the questions presented may never be given an answer that is fully fair or right, it is our duty to at least try to answer them.