Should man govern nature? This is a question that has been posed more often recently than ever. Human will soon know the secret to life and be able to use that secret in many different ways. This is all made possible by a nation-wide research effort called the Human Genome Project. The HGP is a scientific study and mapping of the estimated 50,000-100,000 genes in the human body. It is being hailed as one of the most important projects in the world by scientists and scholars alike. The information that these researchers uncover could be helpful for generations to come.
The research will allow doctors to correct genetic disorders before children are born, eliminate the often-fatal problems associated with babies born prematurely, and to cure diseases such as AIDS. The problem with this project is not the doctors, scientists, and other researchers investigating the genes. They are out to help people and are not doing this to get rich. Large corporations, such as insurance companies, and governments are looking to save money on future policyholders through the use of genetic testing. These illustrate the negative and corruptive aspects of the HGP.
The Human Genome Project was originally founded by the Department Of Energy (DOE) and is now jointly researched by the DOE and the National Institute of Health (NIH). Research on the project began in 1990. They used a four-letter system to decode the long strands of deoxyribonucleic acid. As understood from previous research, there are four nitrogenous base pairs that make up DNA. ‘A’ stands for Adenine, which is paired with ‘T’ for Thymine, and ‘G’ stands for Guanine, which is paired with ‘C’, Cytosine. Using this system, scientists from across the globe have properly sequenced a large part of the human genome.
This research project was expected to take approximately fifteen years from the beginning. By 1993, the initial plan was in need of revising, because the effort was already ahead of schedule and greatly under budget (Lee 1-3). It is believed that at the current pace of research, 90% of the genome will be sequenced by the year 2000. The entire genome will be completed by 2003 (Begley 3). The government issues thousands of grants a year to the HGP effort, 6500 in 1989 and 4700 in 1990 (Lee 247).
‘Traditionally drug companies have developed drugs by looking at ‘function’ i. the illness, and then going back to discover the molecular structures. Now we are drowning in structures, i. e. genes, and trying to find their function’; (Branfman 2). This information can provide a little bit of background to the HGP and its purpose. Despite the positive efforts made by the research community to complete the project and improve many lives, there are many negative aspects that need attention. Insurance companies are very likely to create some problems that will need to be regulated by the government.
There has already been evidence that insurance companies have and will use genetic testing as a way of choosing policyholders. Insurance companies will start requiring genetic testing of unborn children for predispositions of undesired traits or diseases. They may then deny the child coverage if the test results prove to be undesirable. The unborn children are not the only ones who will be affected. The current policyholders may be required to take a genetic test to show whether or not they are susceptible to genetic disorders, in which case the insurance company would drop their policy if the results prove to be positive.
If the policyholder refuses to submit to a genetic test, his insurance coverage may be discontinued. Spouses, children, and other dependencies may also be required to test for genetic flaws, in which their coverage will discontinue in the event of an undesirable predisposition. One real-life example, ‘A healthy boy who carried a gene predisposing him to a heart disorder was denied health coverage by his parents’ insurance company, even though the boy took medication that eliminated his risk of heart disease’; (Bereano 3).
People seeking first time insurance coverage will find it to be the most difficult. They may have to be tested before they can be covered. This scenario can mean that if a potential policyholder is rejected at one company, they may not be able to find coverage from any company (Bereano 2-4). The insurance companies are not the only area for concern. Government agencies will actually prove to be a very large problem. Many questions can be raised about the government policies on failed genetic tests. One such question would be: Will the government protect people with a predisposition to recklessness?
There is no clear-cut way to answer this question, but it seems that it will be self-evident within the next few years. How will the government use genetic testing as a way to control convicted criminals? This is another such question that may have been posed, but for this one there is already an answer forming. ‘The FBI has been promoting the genetic screening of criminals to establish state DNA identification data banks to be used in criminal investigations; recent federal legislation penalizes states fiscally if they don’t participate.
Yet the data includes samples from those whose crimes have low recidivism rates or don’t leave tissue samples; in some states, people merely accused are forced into the program. ‘; This system is actually beginning to come into use within this nation. This process though is just one step towards the possibility of a nation-wide, person-to-person DNA data bank, in which every citizen of the United States of America may be forced to submit a sample of their own DNA for reference in future crimes or as a means of identification.
The government may also use a system of genetic testing to selectively choose who can remain on welfare. A major ethical issue of the genetic testing capabilities is that the government could essentially not provide welfare to certain persons that test positive for the ‘laziness gene’;. Another possibility is that to save money, the government will alter the genotype of its welfare recipients to get them to work. HMO’s (Health Maintenance Organizations) have and will use genetic testing in negative ways to determine whether or not a person should be covered under the policies.
There have been many such instances of genetic discrimination already documented. One such case, ‘A pregnant woman whose fetus tested positive for Cystic Fibrosis was told by her HMO that it would be willing to cover the cost of an abortion, but would not carry the infant under the family’s medical policy if she chose to carry the pregnancy full term’; (Bereano 3-4). The greatest government concern is not welfare or selective protection, but rather the military implementations. The Human Genome Project can be compared to other such government projects as the Manhattan Project and the Apollo space missions (Lee 240).
These both have military purposes. The Manhattan Project was researched to learn how to unleash the incredible power of the atom, with which the military created horrible weapons of mass destruction. The Apollo space missions were designed to put a man on the moon, but they could essentially be used to learn how to launch and set up nuclear weapons from space. James Watson, co discoverer of the double-helical structure of DNA stated, ‘We used to believe our destiny was in the stars; now we know it is in our genes’; (Bereano 3). The Human Genome Project can be viewed the same way.
While there are many positive uses for the knowledge that these scientists are about to receive, there are also future military purposes. The more that can be understood about the human genome, the more information that can be used to create biological weapons. Discoveries are being made of the immune system that could lead to the engineering of viruses that could potentially render a victim defenseless against infection (Lee 240, 241). The government will undoubtedly have many ill-fated uses for the code of life, but genetic testing will affect every working-class citizen.
Corporations, if not regulated by law, can have the power to require a genetic test be taken as a term of hire, or test current employees to determine job capabilities and placement. If the government and insurance companies can take advantage of a new technology, such as genetic testing, then there is not anything that can prevent large corporations or even small businesses from choosing the best person for a specific job based solely on there genetic makeup. The dawn of the genetic age brought forth the use of a new word, ‘Eugenics’;.
Eugenics is a word used to describe unnatural selection. The Nazi’s attempted such crude experiments in the thirties and forties on Jews and other ethnic minorities. In modern terms, this is the process by which a parent will be able to choose the desirable traits in their child before, during, or even after conception. The use of this practice is not only unethical, but is also greatly immoral. Eugenics is broken up into two sub-categories. Genetic therapy is the manipulation of genes in order to bring a being up to a normal physical or mental standpoint.
Genetic enhancement is the other form, in which human genes are altered to express desirable traits, prolong life, or increase mental status beyond the normal level. It is of great concern that the altering of the genes in one generation will ultimately affect the germ line, or every descendant of that original generation. The majority of scientists and ethicists oppose gene therapy that will alter the germ line. Researchers are experimenting with different ideas to make it possible for an introduced gene to self-destruct in the presence of an enzyme that is only located in the reproductive cells.
This would allow for the altered gene to remain in one generation, allowing for future generations to make different choices (Begley 1-3). The concerns of the general public usually center on genetic discrimination. DNA testing is a relatively new idea; the government has not yet perfected its plan on regulation of knowledge of genetic test results. The Kennedy-Kassebaum bill limits genetic discrimination regarding certain medical insurance policies, but does not apply to life, disability, or automobile insurance or to employment – all areas of documented discrimination (Bereano 3,4).
Some individuals argue that the law should reflect moral judgment, while others oppose, and think that people should be free to make their own decisions in private (Lee 260). The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Council for Responsible Genetics (CRG) are both active groups towards the opposition of genetic discrimination (Bereano 4). Environmental issues are often an overlooked aspect of ethics. If both genes and environmental issues are linked to a specific disease, the environmental issues may be ignored in pursuit of the disease causing genes.
This project has posed many questions regarding the productivity of the effort. It is said that between 95% and 98% of human DNA consists of worthless code that does not provide information to the cell and probably has no function at all. The genes that actually cause the genetic diseases are located on the remaining 2% to 5% of the genome. These can easily be located and sequenced without wasting the time and money to sequence the entire genome (Lee 244). Genetics is a relatively new study in practical medicine.
Most community-based, university affiliated family physicians have had little if any training on genetic counseling. Many of them feel that there has not been an adequate educational opportunity to learn about genetics, and some indicate a reluctance to invest in self-education until genetic problems become more relevant in the practical field. These physicians do not perceive genetics as having a substantial impact on their practices, but do expect major clinical changes in the future (Fetters 1).
Although the Human Genome Project will bring upon many aspects that will be beneficial for generations to come, there are too many negative implications that will turn a lot of cheeks. Supporters of this effort will in the future regret their choice. There will be employment and insurance barriers due to genetic testing. Perhaps the worst part about the government implications is the biological military applications that will spawn destructive biological weapons. Man should not and could not govern nature. Nature has always prevailed from the beginning of time. Man has finally sealed his own fate.