The Ethics Of Genetically Modified Babies

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A newlywed couple steps into their local geneticist’s office excitedly. Today is the day they have been looking forward to for years. With a loan from the bank, genetic insurance, and financial aid from their parents, the couple has finally collected enough money to design their perfect child. As future parents, they must ensure a perfect life for their first child, untouched by disease and challenges, perfectly arranged for a bright childhood and prosperous career. These decisions are heavy and daunting, but they try to remember to luck they have regarding this decision in the first place. As they wait for the geneticist, the future mother thinks of her sister, who recently had a child born with muscular dystrophy, a disease that causes continuous muscle loss and weakness. Her heart fills with guilt as she thinks about the decision she made a year prior. Instead of lending her sister money to save that child from years of suffering, she chose to keep it for her own child, who she feared would suffer from mere unattractiveness and slight academic disadvantage. The ever-expanding genetic revolution continues today, and it will force future generations to make similar decisions regarding their children. Though society will inevitably move toward the use of genetic modification in conceiving children, the unintended consequences require the nation to design a policy to draw the line between personal desire and medical necessity.

The technology associated with genetically modified children began in the United States around the year 2000, when the first “designer baby” was created. According to the New Hope Fertility Center, a designer baby - also known as a genetically modified baby - is a child that has grown from an embryo that has been genetically selected or altered to include or remove particular genes/traits (“Designer”). The processes initially used to develop these children have progressed and developed over several years, each building off of the last. The first form of genetic modification began in 1978 with In Vitro Fertilization (IVF). IVF is a type of fertilization in which the sperm and egg are combined outside of the body as opposed to natural processes. This technology has developed and branched into many other forms of modification, including the several forms of genetic engineering that exist today. Researchers developed Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD), in which only embryos without certain genetic disorders are implanted after fertilization, shortly after IVF. However, the most recent genetic breakthrough is the evolution of Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPER) genetic engineering. CRISPER technology allows researchers to modify specific fragments of DNA to prevent fatal genetic errors and disorders. With these technologies, women are able to have DNA extracted from an embryo, which will then be screened for mutations or genetic disorders. They can proceed to choose between altering or fixing that DNA or implanting an alternate healthy embryo. However, these are only the technologies that exist today. With so much research in biotechnology, today’s genetic revolution is driving society towards an unfamiliar future of procreation, and this future entails much more than correcting errors/mutations. With more research and development, gene-editing technology has the potential to make predictions about human traits associated with complex genes, as well as change or alter them. In essence, future parents will have the ability to “design” their ideal child, which is where an ethical and legal minefield begins to form.

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The choice to provide one’s child with certain traits, including traits involved with both physical appearance and intelligence, appeals to almost every individual within society. When faced with the opportunity to give one’s child what seems to be the best life possible, virtually anyone would take it. In “Would I Want a Designer Baby?”, author Elena Milova describes gene-editing technology, as well as possible benefits and drawbacks to its use. She explains, “WHO’s [World Health Organization] main goal is to help everyone in all nations in achieving the highest possible standard of health, and it defines health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Think of that. Perfect health” (Milova). Prospects of significantly improved health propose an idealistic future, devoid of physical imperfection, psychological flaws, and hereditary disorders. This idea suggests the possibility of a certain type of utopia regarding the future of human intelligence and skill. However, the consequences of unregulated genetic engineering will steer society far away from any sort of utopian future. With the choice to remove genetic imperfections, parents will inevitably feel inclined to improve everything else within their child’s genome. If one parent has the right to prevent serious mental disorders in her child, which will result in improving that child’s mental ability, other parents will argue the right to improve their child’s mental ability, regardless of the presence of genetic mutations. The controversy between possible uses of gene-editing technology blurs the lines between medical necessity and personal desire.

The opportunity to use biological technology for personal desire creates a slippery slope of genetic modification, as well as a genetic arms race within and between nations. In his article, “Our Genetically Modified Future is Closer Than You Think”, Jamie Metzl, a member of the World Health Organization, discusses this idea. He explains, “Prospective parents with the best of intentions or governments with lax regulatory structures or aggressive ideas of how population-wide genetic engineering might be used to enhance national competitiveness or achieve some other goal could propel us into a genetic arms race that could undermine our essential diversity” (Metzl). Parents who might otherwise oppose gene-editing technology will fear the inescapable disadvantage in which their children will be placed regarding job prospects and relative health, forcing them to succumb to this pressure. In addition to competition between individuals, international competition will arise. A country that chooses to reject genetic engineering usage will lose its competitive advantage against other countries due to a relative decrease in overall health, life expectancy, and intelligence. Thus, individuals, as well as entire nations, will effectively be forced to disregard personal values due to the pressure to maintain pace with the rest of society. In addition to a competitive disadvantage, the use of genetic engineering for personal desire will continue the dichotomy between the haves and the have nots of different social classes. New and improving technology is not free of charge. In his article, “Scientists Can Design ‘Better’ Babies” New York Times journalist Clyde Haberman explains, “The sheer expense of the procedures threatens to widen an already substantial gap between the wealthy and everyone else” (Haberman). As a result, the wealthy class will not only be at an economic advantage, but they will also be at a physical, mental, and athletic advantage as well. Therefore, the use of biotechnology will further polarize society into increasingly distinct socioeconomic groups. Moreover, even individuals born naturally into wealthy families will have a hereditary advantage due to the likelihood of the use of genetic modification in previous generations. According to bioethicist Henry Greely of Standford University of California, “A perfectly feasible 10-20% improvement in health via PGD, added to the comparable advantage that wealth already brings, could lead to a widening of the health gap between rich and poor, both within a society and between nations” (Ball). Greely proceeds to explain how the wealthy class is more than likely to exploit gene-editing technologies to outrank others in the world of business. Furthermore, a relative worsened health status of the world’s poor generates increased social tension between socioeconomic groups, causing less unity between and within nations. Evidently, the future of biotechnology seems intriguing, but there exists an exceedingly multifaceted reality of the genetic revolution.

Evidently, the development of genetic technology poses numerous ethical and legal controversies, which calls for a policy to draw the line between personal desire and medical necessity. Despite the multitude of possible negative impacts following the personal use of genetic engineering, the use of biotechnology purely for health purposes proposes a bright future for society. In an article called “Genetically Modified Babies ‘Ethically Justifiable’”, Bioethics journalist Dr. Kevin Smith states, “If common disorders could be avoided or delayed by genetically modifying humans, the average disease-free lifespan could be 'substantially extended' (“Genetically”). If the entire world were to fully withdraw from genetic engineering usage, its people would miss an important opportunity for societal progression. However, in order to use future biotechnology properly, the world must cooperate both within nations and internationally in order to organize a policy to promote the use of beneficial genetic engineering. However, this policy will require governments and leaders to balance individual rights/freedoms and detrimental social consequences. In his article, “Designer Babies: An Ethical Horror Waiting to Happen”, Philip Ball discusses this balance. He explains, “Too often we discuss these technologies as if personal morality or particular religious views are a sufficient basis for governmental action. But one must ground government action in a stronger set of concerns about promoting the wellbeing of all individuals while permitting the widest range of personal liberty of conscience and choice” (Ball). While individual governments should maintain the right to develop individualized policies, guidelines that apply to everyone must be implemented as well or international social tension will increase drastically. In addition, the costs associated with this technology must not exceed prices at which they are only available to a minute percentage of the world’s population to avoid significant widening of socioeconomic gaps between classes. The right to use biotechnology for medical purposes should be available to everyone, but abused use of this technology should be strongly prohibited. Only when a child faces significant physical and/or mental health obstacles should the parent be allowed to utilize gene-editing technology. Additionally, in the case of a dispute between medical necessity and personal desire, the matter needs to be arbitrated by an independent - possibly international - tribunal, put in place to determine which particular uses of genetic engineering are ethical.

Some may argue that people should have every right to improve or change their child’s intelligence, appearance, or athletic skill, as every child should be equally deserving of physical and mental ability. According to an article titled “The Pros and Cons of Having a Designer Baby”, genetically modifying a child can have many mental effects. Steve Minchin, a biomedical science student and journalist, explains, “Some aspects of your baby’s life that you can surely create a positive impact on are your baby’s health, your baby’s intelligence, your baby’s looks and more… Instead of pushing the baby to study hard and do well in the academic field, you can already enhance your baby’s mental capabilities before your baby is even born” (Minchin). If technology to make children more intelligent exists, people will argue that it is unethical to prevent mothers from using it. A mother who has the opportunity to make her child smarter, therefore giving him more opportunities for his future, will feel inclined to take it. However, recent studies have shown that a large portion of intelligence shown in individuals is behavioral. Research using Generation Scotland Biobank data states, “Studies of the DNA of hundreds of thousands of unrelated people suggest that only around 30% of the variation in intelligence is inherited” (“How”). Thus, genetically modifying children would have an insignificant effect on the actual intelligence displayed in a child. Even if a mother wanted to make her child smarter, it would make little difference if she did not raise her child to be interested in learning. Furthermore, even if genetically raising the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) of a child was more effective, it is crucial to recognize the strengths associated with people who have lower IQs. An article about the disadvantages associated with having a high IQ states, “Studies indicate that people with higher cognitive abilities are less likely to budge from their positions when an alternative viewpoint is presented with facts, no matter how reasonable or unreasonable their current stand is” (Sharma). Though they might be more adept regarding certain mental skills, more intelligent people tend to display higher levels of close-mindedness. Thus, they will likely disregard new, perfectly feasible ideas when trying to solve problems. People with higher IQs actually tend to lack skills that people with lower IQs have, so one cannot base success solely on a numerical value. In addition, a functioning society requires a variety of strengths, abilities, and skills throughout its population. A diverse population will progress much faster than a society lacking individuality regarding intelligence. Furthermore, the ability to improve a child’s mental and physical ability will cause parents to search for a certain perfection within their child. A parent should have unconditional love for his/her child, regardless of intellectual challenges. According to H. Biggs’ “Journal of Medical Ethics”, “The commodification of children in reproductive technology is turning parenthood into an unhealthy model of self-gratification rather than a relationship where unequivocal acceptance and love of the offspring, an ideal of previous generations of parents, is the primary focus” (Biggs). With the choice to enhance a child’s mental ability, parents will want to enhance everything else about their child, but even if they could, is it still truly their child anymore? In essence, increasing a child’s intelligence for personal desire through genetic enhancement does not actually have the desired effect, and it should be considered unethical to do so.

The genetic revolution moves faster and faster with every new piece technology. As exciting as new advancements often seem, the future of biotechnology is daunting as well, and with these new advancements comes a multitude of ethical - as well as legal - debates. Society will inevitably move further into the genetic revolution, but as it does so, policies must be developed to prevent a slippery slope of genetic enhancement. As bioethicist Henry Greely says, “Choices will be made… And if informed people do not participate in making those choices, ignorant people will make them” (Ball). Humanity has come very far in terms of biotechnological evolution, which proposes a possibly bright future for society. However, a seemingly bright future could quickly turn pitch black if society disgregards crucial ethical and legal decisions right now.

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The Ethics Of Genetically Modified Babies. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 30, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-ethics-of-genetically-modified-babies/
“The Ethics Of Genetically Modified Babies.” Edubirdie, 17 Feb. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/the-ethics-of-genetically-modified-babies/
The Ethics Of Genetically Modified Babies. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-ethics-of-genetically-modified-babies/> [Accessed 30 May 2024].
The Ethics Of Genetically Modified Babies [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Feb 17 [cited 2024 May 30]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-ethics-of-genetically-modified-babies/
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