Genetic Enhancement: Redefining What it is to be a Human Being


AbstractThe nature of technology is such that for every bit of progress made, there is a downside that threatens to undermine the value of the benefits. Despite the potential genetic technology has to revolutionize medicine and improve the quality of life of millions of people, it is no exception to this rule. For many, the draw back for genetic manipulation lies with its inextricable link to genetic enhancement. Most people applaud the idea of using genetic technology to cure diseases so that people can live ‘normal’ lives but are fearful and wary of the idea of ‘super’ human abilities. This paper explores some of the reasons for this concern. In particular, it looks at implications genetic manipulation would have on the health, values and morals of society.

Each Genetic technology is part of a long line of technologies and developments designed to offer people more choices and opportunities to improve the quality of their lives. However, the nature of technology is such that for every bit of progress made, there is a downside that threatens to undermine the value of the benefits. The drawback for genetic manipulation is arguably genetic enhancement. Most people applaud the idea of using genetic technology to cure diseases so that people can live ‘normal’ lives but are fearful and wary of the idea of ‘super’ human abilities. This paper intends to explore the concerns most people have as well as the ethical and social implications of genetic enhancement.

In a society where twelve out of the fifteen leading causes of death are health related, the first concern about genetic enhancement should be the safety of the technology and how it would affect the human body (Burd-Sharps et al. 56). History has shown that all substances or methods of intervention intended to bring the human body closer to ‘perfection’ has side effects and risks (Kass). Athletes that use erythropoietin to increase their level of red blood cells and enhance their performance will likely suffer lethal strokes and heart attacks while still in their prime years (Schneider and Freidmann 44) College students that take ecstasy risk damaging their dopamine receptors and will probably suffer early on-set Parkinson’s disease (Kass). Anyone that undergoes surgery risks a number of complications. The fact that most forms of genetic technology will be done on the molecular level makes it unlikely that genetic enhancement will be an exception to this rule.

Even more concerning about the safety of genetic enhancement is that these effects if and when they do occur will affect generations of families to come and even whole societies. Enhancement of a certain trait over the years may result in ‘perfection’ of that trait but it may come at the cost of reduced natural diversity. For example, to enhance the body’s ability to carry oxygen and thereby enhance physical fitness, one might consider removing the sickle cell trait completely. However that trait reduces the effects of the malaria parasite. Those who do not possess this trait have higher mortality rates and lower fertility rates (Wiesenfeld 1134). The sickle-cell trait that is considered defective because of the role it plays in the development of sickle-cell anemia is an important source variation from the norm and a life or death- determining factor for those living in areas where malaria is pandemic. The evolution and existence of the sickle cell trait is nature’s way of ensuring survival. This example emphasizes the importance of deciding what traits should be enhanced and raises the very important question of who defines what traits are ‘normal’, which traits need to be enhanced and which need to be eliminated.

Over the course of the Second World War, we saw a situation where the government made these decisions. The Nazi regime defined ‘normal’ as blonde haired and blue eyed and abnormal as disabled or Jewish. The resulting massacre and atrocities committed under the pretext of improving the human race is not easily forgotten. Yet, the eugenic ideas of that era have not been abandoned. We have established the declaration of human rights and codes like the Nuremberg and Helsinki codes to protect every human being but many geneticists still see eugenics as the goal of genetics. Geneticists in China see eugenics in the light of its original meaning, “having a healthy baby” and are not aware of the negative connotations the word has for Westerners (Wertz and Fletcher 44). Geneticists in India, Hungary, Thailand and Russia also share similar beliefs about the goal of genetics. Even in the American society that prides itself on being an advocate for equality and freedom, eugenic principles are still applied and adhered to. People have and always will believe certain human qualities such as good health, intelligence and good moral judgment are admirable traits, and the standard that should be aspired to. The only difference appears to be that it is a much more subtle and possibly subconscious movement. In 1990, only a very small portion of the population used prenatal detection. By 2004, 78% of U.S. primary care physicians and 81% of patients thought women with a family history of genetic disease should be tested (Wertz and Fletcher 44). Today, prenatal diagnosis has become virtually a requirement for all women with a family history of disease or that are above a certain age. It is not hard to imagine that in the future, in this case probably the near future, failure to undergo testing would be frowned upon and seen as irresponsible parenting by society.

In today’s society, there is generally an opposition to eugenics as a coercive social program and an excuse for discrimination and murder. People tend to be more tolerant of the form of eugenics where by the individual is ‘free’ to choose which traits they want to enhance and which ones they want to get rid of. However, it is easy to forget that ‘freedom of choice’, particularly when it comes to issues of disability, is often compromised by economic and cultural influences of society. Disability today is defined by the World Health organization as an:

Umbrella term for impairments, activity limitations or participation restrictions," conceiving "a person's functioning and disability . . . as a dynamic interaction between health conditions (diseases, disorders, injuries, traumas, etc.) and contextual factors," including the social, attitudinal, and physical environments and personal attributes. (Iezzoni 332)

Thus, it applies that if methods of enhancing genes became available, a new, higher standard of ‘normal’ would emerge and the definition of disability would change. In a society where youth, physical fitness and superior intellectual capacities are highly valued, the incorporation of the use of genetic-enhancement technology to increase muscle mass and cognitive functions as ones body starts to age may become so common place that the loss of muscle mass function and memory capacity associated with aging may become ‘abnormal’. Essentially, what is today the natural aging process and a testament to years of experience and wisdom may be considered a mere disability to be treated.

Though beliefs about disability and the need to alleviate suffering by curing them are strong, the prejudices and beliefs about socio-economic class are even stronger. A survey on a case of a blind woman on welfare with three blind children wanting to have another child clearly illustrates this:

A single blind woman on public welfare has a dominant genetic disorder that leads to legal blindness. She has three sons. Each has a different father. All three fathers are absent. All three sons are 90% blind in spite of early attempts a treatment. The mother tells then geneticist, “Now I think I’ll have a little girl.” There is a 50% risk that the child will be blind. The geneticist thinks privately, “Don’t you think you have brought enough suffering into the world?” For each statement below, indicate the extent to which you agree or disagree:

1. I agree with the geneticist’s private sentiment
2. The geneticist should convey this sentiment to the woman
3. The geneticist should try to persuade her not to have another child
4. The geneticist should suggest sterilization
5. There should be a law requiring her to be sterilized.

(Wertz and Fletcher 47)

A majority of people outside the U.S. 62%, as well as physicians 69% and patients 75% said they would try to persuade the woman not to have the child. However, for many respondents, the situation would have been different were the woman ‘healthy’ and not on welfare (Wertz and Fletcher 44).

According to the 2008-2009 American Human development report, the top 1% of households in America own 33.4% (one third) of America’s wealth and the bottom 60% of households possess only 4.2% of all the wealth held by U.S. households (Burd-Sharps et al. 6). This huge gap in income and wealth started in the 1970’s and has continued to increase. In 1980, the average executive earned 42 times as much as the average factory worker; today, executives earn 400 times what factor workers in their industries earn (Burd-Sharps et al. 136) Based on this trend, it is not hard to fathom that gene technology (particularly for situations where the goal is enhancement), like other new technologies, will initially be expensive and available to only to the elite. With access to technology that can improve cognitive function, athletic ability and many other traits that can give one an advantage in our society, being reserved for the wealthy, we can expect that the gap between the ‘haves and have-nots’ will increase. The affluent members of society will not only be able to offer their children better schools, more resources and opportunities, but they will also be able to pass down genes needed for success. Such a wide gap lends itself to a situation where those with wealth and power feel superior to those without and history has shown that this kind of situation increases the chances of tyranny and the marginalization of the ‘inferior’ group.

Some argue that inequality is part of the human condition and the concept of wealth would mean nothing without the existence of poverty just like joy would have no significance without the existence of suffering. It is true that the unequal distribution of resources in society is not a new phenomenon but most Americans accept this inequality of outcomes because they have a deep-seated belief in equal opportunity and the meritocracy of American society (Burd-Sharps et al. 16). Most people believe that anyone, regardless of their initial situation can achieve greatness by working hard-“nothing good comes easily”. We admire those who overcome insurmountable odds and adversity (Kass). We value the process, the effort and the means of achieving an end. Erik Parens illustrates this clearly when he says:

In many valued human activities, the means of acquiring the capacities required for the activity are a part of the very definition of the activity, and transforming them transforms, and can devalue, the activity itself. (Parens 12)

This idea that the means are as important as the ends is seen clearly in the world of sports. The use of genetic technology by athletes, for example during the Olympics would turn the attention away from the beauty of the sport, the healthy and unifying sense of striving for and achieving lofty goals and outdoing physical limitations, to a political show of who has the best technology (Schneider and Freidmann 2). Instead of being a unifying and celebratory event, it would be a cause of tension and anxiety.

The same principle of the value of the means applies to changes in personalities and spiritual growth. Our society rewards the effort involved in overcoming undesirable traits such as greed and aggression. American people talk about personal journeys and the value of the lessons learnt, saying “that which does not kill us only makes us stronger”. All these values cease to be valid if instead of exercising self-control we can manipulate our genes to give us desired traits and remove undesired ones. Instead of controlling our temper, we take a pill that does not allow us get angry. In a society like that, it is hard to imagine how the system of justice would work because if we rely strictly on our genes to determine our behavior and character then there would be no way to assign blame, no one would ever be worthy of praise and no one would be liable to accept responsibility (Sandel, 2003). However, it is also hard to imagine a situation where human beings leave their actions and the plan of their lives up to the fate of their genes.

The human body is complex and the interactions between genes and different structures within it are equally complex. This complexity is what makes any form of manipulation risky but it is also this complexity that suggests that we can enhance certain aspects of our genetic make-up and without compromising all or at least the core of our true nature. Certain enhancements can even aid in the pursuit of excellence without devaluing the achievement (Kass). Genetic enhancement to improve one’s cognitive function may help and inspire people who are intrigued by research but only have the capability to be a desk-clerk to pursue their interests more effectively. Enhancements to steady the hand of a neurosurgeon or prevent long distance drivers from falling asleep at the wheel would be valuable contributions to the improvement of society. Genetic technology offers peace and help for those who have struggled for years with undesirable traits such as addiction, depression and aggression. It also serves as a means of preventing future diseases, not unlike vaccines do today.

There are many warranted concerns about the possible negative effects of gene-based enhancement on the individual and society. However, we must take care not to forget that the technology used for human enhancement would be an extension and result. Genetic technology for therapeutic reasons and genetic technology for enhancement are intertwined because it is very likely the procedure used to restore the memory of a patient suffering from amnesia will be similar if not the same as the procedure that will improve a normal, healthy person’s ability to store and recall information. To condemn or suppress the development of such technology would be to condemn millions of people living with the pain and suffering of diseases like heart disease, cancer and schizophrenia. When it comes down to a question of alleviating pain and suffering or succumbing to our fears and concerns about the negative effects or use of technology, history shows us that we always choose to try and ease the pain. Developments in genetic technology will continue and the only thing we can do is to be aware of all facets of history, discuss solutions to potential problems and prepare- that is the role bioethics plays now and will play in the future.

Works cited