Ethical Issues With Genetic Modification

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Genetic modification is the process of altering the genetic makeup of an organism. This has been done indirectly for thousands of years by controlled, or selective, breeding of plants and animals. Modern biotechnology has made it easier and faster to target a specific gene for more-precise alteration of the organism through genetic engineering.

Genetic modification dates back to ancient times, when humans influenced genetics by selectively breeding organisms, according to an article by Gabriel Rangel, a public health scientist at Harvard University. When repeated over several generations, this process leads to dramatic changes in the species.

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Dogs were likely the first animals to be purposefully genetically modified, with the beginnings of that effort dating back about 32,000 years, according to Rangel. Wild wolves joined our hunter-gatherer ancestors in East Asia, where the canines were domesticated and bred to have increased docility. Over thousands of years, people bred dogs with different desired personality and physical traits, eventually leading to the wide variety of dogs we see today.

The technology that specifically cuts and transfers a piece of recombinant DNA (rDNA) from one organism to another was developed in 1973 by Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, and Stanford University, respectively. The pair transferred a piece of DNA from one strain of bacteria to another, enabling antibiotic resistance in the modified bacteria. The following year, two American molecular biologists, Beatrice Mintz and Rudolf Jaenisch, introduced foreign genetic material into mouse embryos in the first experiment to genetically modify animals using genetic engineering techniques.

For the past several decades, researchers have been genetically modifying lab animals to determine ways the biotechnology could one day help in treating human disease and repairing tissue damage in people, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute. One of the newest forms of this technology is called CRISPR. The technology is based on the ability of the bacterial immune system to use CRISPR regions and Cas9 enzymes to inactivate foreign DNA that enters a bacterial cell. The same technique makes it possible for scientists to target a specific gene or group of genes for modification. Researchers are using CRISPR technology to search for cures for cancer and to find and edit single pieces of DNA that may lead to future diseases in an individual. Stem cell therapy could also make use of genetic engineering, in the regeneration of damaged tissue, such as from a stroke or heart attack.

In a highly controversial study, at least one researcher claims to have tested the CRISPR technology on human embryos with the goal of eliminating the potential for certain diseases. That scientist has faced harsh scrutiny and was placed under house arrest in their home country of China for some time.

Sides to the Debate

The technology may be available, but should scientists pursue genetic modification studies in humans?

This is where the debate lies. According to Rivka Weinberg, a professor of philosophy at Scripps College. 'When it comes to something like a [new] technology, you have to think about the intention and different uses of it,'. The majority of medical trials for treatments that make use of genetic engineering are performed on consenting patients. However, genetic engineering on a fetus is another story. 'Experimentation on human subjects without their consent is inherently problematic, there are not only risks, [but also] the risks are not mapped out. We don't even know what we are risking.' If the next-generation technology were available and shown to be safe, the objections to testing it in humans would be minimal.

But that's not the case. 'The big problem with all of these experimental technologies is that they are experimental,' said Weinberg. 'One of the main reasons why people were so horrified by the Chinese scientist who used CRISPR technology on embryos is because it is such an early stage of experimentation. It is not genetic engineering. You are just experimenting on them.'

The vast majority of the advocates for genetic engineering realise that the technology isn't ready to be tested on humans yet, and state that the process will be used for good. The goal of genetic modification, 'has always been to tackle problems currently facing human society.' However, in the future, this may not be the case.

Major Ethical Theories

Utilitarianism approach:

Genetic engineering is done forf the benefit of society. The experimentation on non-consenting foetus has the potential to change millions (potentially billions) of lives who are affected by hereditary diseases and illnesses. The act of ‘playing god’ is justified in the greater good for society.

Deontology approach:

We must respect the human right of embryos despite its protentional to advance the human race. It is not legally or morally acceptable to begin changing the genetic makeup of humans, evident in the response to the Chinese scientist, and it creates a gateway for countless legal and ethical issues associated with human and genetic engineering and contradicts the word of many religions.

Biblical References

Corinthians 15:38-39

But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish.

Leviticus 19:19

“You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind. You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor shall you wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material.

Psalm 139:13-16

For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.

“Because genetic engineering was unknown at the time that the Bible was written, it is difficult to establish definitive references on that topic alone. In order to determine the Christian view of genetic engineering, we need to establish a grid of principles through which to view genetic engineering. For specifics on the Christian view of cloning, please see “What is the Christian view of cloning?”

The element of greatest concern with genetic engineering involves how much liberty mankind can take in its responsibility to care for the human body and the rest of creation. There is no doubt that the Bible exhorts us to be responsible for our physical health. Proverbs refers to certain activities regarding restoring the health of an individual (Proverbs 12:18). The apostle Paul states that we have a certain duty to care for the body (Ephesians 5:29). He also encouraged his protégé, Timothy, to take medicinal action for his infirmities (1 Timothy 5:23). Believers have the responsibility to use the body properly in that it is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19,20). We show our faith by offering assistance to those who have physical needs (James 2:16). Therefore, as Christians we should be concerned about the physical well-being of ourselves and others.

Creation was to be under the care of humans (Genesis 1:28; 2:15-20), but the Bible tells us that creation was impacted by our sin (Genesis 3:17-19, Romans 8:19-21) and anticipates being redeemed from sin’s effects. It is possible to conclude that, as caretakers of creation, humans have an obligation to “fix” the effects of the sin curse and attempt to bring things into a better alignment, using any means possible. Therefore, the thinking goes, any scientific advance can be used for the betterment of the creation. However, there are concerns regarding the use of genetic engineering to accomplish this good.

  1. There is a concern that genetic engineering will take on a role beyond that which God has given to us as stewards of His creation. The Bible states that all things were created by God and for Him (Colossians 1:16). God designed all living things to reproduce after certain “kinds” (Genesis 1:11-25). Too much manipulation of the genetics (altering species) could be tampering with things reserved for the Designer.
  2. There is a concern of genetic engineering attempting to preclude God’s plan for the restoration of creation. As already stated, the creation was affected by the events recorded in Genesis 3 (mankind’s rebellion against God’s plan). Death entered into the world, and man’s genetic make-up and that of the rest of creation began a change toward demise. In some instances, genetic engineering could be seen as an attempt to undo this result of sin called the “curse.” God has said that He has a remedy for this—redemption through Jesus Christ, as described in Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 15. The creation anticipates newness associated with the culmination of God’s promise to restore things to an even better state than the original. To go “too far” to fight this process may compete with the responsibility of individuals to trust in Christ for restoration (Philippians 3:21).
  3. There is a concern that genetic engineering may interfere with the God-ordained process of life. It seems evident from a general study of Scripture that God has a plan for the process of life. For example, Psalm 139 describes an intimate relationship between the psalmist and his Creator from the womb. Would the use of genetic manipulation to create life outside of God’s plan jeopardize the development of a God-conscious soul? Would interfering with the process of physical life affect the prospects of spiritual life? Romans 5:12 tells us that all humanity sins because Adam sinned. It is understood that this involved the transference of the sin nature from generation to generation so that all have sinned (Romans 3:23). Paul explains the hope of eternity through the conquering of Adam’s sin. If all that are in Adam (from his seed) die, and Christ died for those in such condition, could life created outside of that “seed” be redeemed? (1 Corinthians 15:22, 23).
  4. There is a concern that a bold pursuit of advances in genetic engineering is motivated by a defiance of God. Genesis 11:1-9 shows what happens when the creation attempts to exalt itself above the Creator. The people in Genesis 11 were unified, yet they were not submissive to God. As a result, God stopped their progress. God certainly recognized that there were some dangers involved with the direction in which the people were headed. We have a similar warning in Romans 1:18-32. There God describes individuals that have become so enamored with the creation (actually worshipping it instead of the Creator) that they were brought to destruction. The fear is that genetic engineering could foster similar motivations, and ultimately, similar results.” – This section comes from, written by anonymous.

Personal Reflection and Conclusion

There are many sides to the debate of Genetic Modification, and no matter what perspective is taken, all viewpoints cause conflict with others when discussed. Genetic modification has been around for centuries through ‘selective breading’, however, it is interesting that with the growing number of opportunities with this technology, the public seem to become hesitant in adopting Genetic Modification. This is clearly evident in the reaction from the general public, after a Chinese scientist tested on human embryos, however, it is clear that in the future, there will be a time where society where we will require a change in mindset in order to solve global issues.

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Ethical Issues With Genetic Modification. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 14, 2024, from
“Ethical Issues With Genetic Modification.” Edubirdie, 17 Feb. 2022,
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