Human Genetic Engineering: Human Utopia or Dystopia?
NPR did a piece yesterday on human genetic engineering where Shoukhrat Mitalipov and a group of researchers at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland successfully “made changes in human DNA that can be passed down from one generation to the next.” Mary Herbert and other researchers in England are also doing similar research. In the Oregon laboratory, they have been able to extract DNA from a woman’s egg cell that is known to cause genetic defects and implant another persons “healthy” segment of DNA. By doing this, they are hoping to wipe out genetic diseases that are passed down through the mother. And while they have not fertilized these human eggs, they have successfully brought a monkey to term with manipulated eggs.
This raises some thorny issues about human genetic engineering:
- This has been a line that no scientist has dared to cross before. It has been an unwritten rule that this tampering with the human genome is off-limits. But now the line has been crossed. And with each generation crossing lines that were previously thought uncrossable – when will it end? And while that might sound like dooms-day talk, it is our willingness to imagine the worst (i.e. mutant zombies eating your brains) that keeps our headlong thrust for progress in check.
- This now brings in the very real possibility of introducing something into the human genome that that we can never take back. We could essentially introduce a disease into the population than is worse than the one we took out. At that point human genetic engineering would be a curse, not a blessing.
- At what point is that “step too far?” At what point do we tamper with the human condition to the point that we cease to be human? While I realize that right now they are trying to eradicate genetic diseases, the day will come when we genetically engineer our children to be healthier, smarter, stronger, and more accomplished than the generation before it. The line could become so increasingly blurred between human and not human that soon Cheetah-men with rapier wits and Einstein-like intellects will someday become the norm – oh, and brain eating zombies.
We need to ask ourselves if human genetic engineering is moral and ethical now – while the genie is still somewhat in the bottle. Because once it is out, it is out.
On the other hand… This could be a great boon for humanity. If we eliminate genetic diseases and more children are able to be healthy, that will only enhance society. Is this really leading us down the road to killer zombies? Is human genetic engineering eradicating God’s image in us or just the next step in our journey as a race? One thing is for sure, while it is fun to poke fun at human genetic engineering and its concerns, it is a very serious topic.
I will end with the final thoughts of the NPR report: “Despite the concerns, Mitalipov and Herbert say the real benefits of preventing genetic diseases outweigh such hypothetical risks. Herbert is awaiting a decision by the British government on whether she can proceed to the next step in her research. Mitalipov has already asked the Food and Drug Administration if he can try to make a healthy baby by genetically altering human eggs.”