There are many current legal and ethical issues in bioengineering and biotechnology including athletic and cognitive enhancements, stem cell research, cloning, genetic engineering, and genetically modified organisms. Biotechnology is “the manipulation of biological systems and organisms through technological means”(p. 471). There is tension between valuing liberty to pursue happiness of biotechnologies, and the potential negative outcomes of these technologies. Bioengineering, is the construction of machines to alter or supplement organisms.
Biotechnologies result in therapeutic effects or extraordinary forms of enhancement. When biotechnologies are used in a therapeutic sense in order restore normal function to an organism suffering due to an illness or injury. An enhancement on the other hand provides more than normal function to an organism. There are many moral dilemmas surrounding biotechnology. It is important to distinguish between athletic and cognitive enhancements, and athletic and cognitive therapy. Athletes who wish to bulk up and build muscle is an example of athletic enhancement.
The legal and ethical arguments of this issue is mainly between liberty and negative consequences. Those who choose liberty are choosing to freely do whatever they want to enhance there bodies, performances, to choose their own offspring, and find ways to profit and benefit from technology without harming others. In the case of Oscar Pistorius, an Olympic sprinter, who wore carbon fiber blades on the track for legs. Pistorius uses prosthetic legs, because he was born without legs. After a lot of controversy he was permitted to run in the 400-meter race in the London 2012 Olympics.
Many argue that Pistorius’s rosthetic legs give him an advantage in the race, because according to Scientific American, Pistorius uses less energy, lighter legs, and his legs do not tire. However he must also work harder to compensate for the springiness his blades inflict on him by bearing down on his prostheses. In this case the line between the two distinctions is very thin. The legs were not given to him so that he could run, they were given to him so that he could walk, and function as many other humans do. Pistorius’s legs are a means for therapy, but also resulted in the ability to help and enhance his running career.
Another controversial topic in bioethics is embryonic stem cell research. One goal of this research is to produce new cells, tissues, and organs that can be used to treat disease or injury (p. 473). These cells or blastocyst, are undifferentiated cells of the early embryo in the first few weeks of development. These cells remain this way after the egg is fertilized for the next five to seven days. Embryonic stem cells are the most potent and flexible compared to stem cells taken from bone marrow. These are the cells from which all of the body’s organs will develop.
These cells are pluripotent, meaning that there is potential for these cells to become a variety of different cells and tissues. When the cells are removed the fetus can no longer grow and develop. There is a lot of both political and ethical backlash faced with stem cell research, most comes from the moral status the embryo is facing. Critics of stem cell research often argue that a human exists from the moment of conception and that the blastocyst has full moral status as a person. There are other means to get stem cells for research. Adult stem cells can be used rather cells from the blastocyst.
Another way to obtain stem cells is in the amniotic fluid, without having to remove the blastocyst. These two forms of removal of the stem cells should take away some of the controversy on the moral issue of stem cell research, and the status of life of the fetus. Cloning is another topic that falls under the category of bioethics. There are two types of Cloning processes. There is somatic cell nuclear transfer, which “transfers the nucleus of a somatic or bodily cell into an egg whose own nucleus has been removed” (p. 474). The other type of cloning is fission.
Fission is “cutting of an early embryo”. Through this method it may be possible to make an identical human twins another set of a multitudes from a single embryo. Animal cloning is not efficient or is it safe. In the case of Dolly the sheep, 277 eggs were used but only one lamb was produced. Proponents of cloning argue that the use of cloning technologies on animals might improve the quality and quantity of animals produced from livestock. Critics argue about the wellbeing of the animal. Two additional types of cloning are therapeutic and reproductive.
Therapeutic cloning is using cloning for medical purposes, and reproductive cloning is producing “a new human being who would be the genetic twin of the person whose cell was used in the process” (p. 475). Both therapeutic and reproductive cloning, both face ethical discussion. Therapeutic cloning faces the same ethical question as stem cell research, as this type of cloning disposes of the blastocyst that would be identical with the human. John Gurdon says, that a reason to develop reproductive cloning is for parents. Specifically for parents who lost a child, that way the parents could simply just make a new one.
Critics of reproductive cloning fear that if this cloning takes off, it will create a devaluation of life. “Playing God,” is one objective to human cloning. Many believe that only God can and should create a human life. By giving someone the power to create human life, we are also giving that creator the power to control human. Cloning goes against the nature. Cloning is consider asexual reproduction which is not a way humans create life naturally. Cloning goes beyond sexual nature of humans and attempting to clone a human may become seriously harmful for individuals.
Cloning a human does not create a unique individual, it essentially creates a younger twin of the cloned person. It is uncertain if this human will have a psyche or a soul, but will have it’s own personality. This person would not have to right to an open future either. A cloned person would be expected to act like the individual they were cloned from. Parents may clone a child for the use of organs or blood donations for the sake of an already sick child. This puts these clones as neither valued nor unique persons. The cloning of humans devaluates human life.
In modern genetic research arguments often come up about the eugenics movement. Eugenics takes the genetic components of a species and looks for ways to change the creature in order for it to produce more. Eugenics becomes problematic when used on humans. Eugenics from a contemporary stand point, point that the practice of Eugenics is immoral. Eugenics esaily become a way to design offspring during in vitro fertilization to design and select out the embryos with genetic mutations.
Taking control of traditional human reproduction would be “unnatural and an affront to human dignity” (p. 84) Designing a baby so that the baby is perfect from medical flaws or illnesses, or even changing the genes the baby receives from the parents to ensure that the baby does not have a certain flaw. By designing a baby, it takes a way the natural human act of reproduction, and replaces the creator, with the caretaker. Genetically modified plants and animals, “GMOs are created through new biotechnologies such as gene splicing, radiation, or specialized chemicals” (p. 478). Critics of GMOs fear that GMOs have a potential risk to ecosystems and human health.
Many worry that GMOs may cause an increase of unknown allergies to develop with the mixing of genes. Still critics still worry that the crops that are engineered to be resistant to insects, may have a long term negative effect on people, as these foods may carry over into humans and cause more toxic reactions. Leon R. Kass’ Ageless Bodies, Happy Souls, explains the importance of distinguishing between therapy and enhancement. He describes the world coming to a point, where it is so focused on a utopia-seeking environment, that prescribing three-year-olds psychotropic drugs would be considered a norm.
He describes three risks to biotechnology as a whole. People may get to caught up in health perfection, and not worry about the safety and risk factors. People may use personnel enhancers in a competitive sense that give them an unfair advantage. The last objection he makes is the right to choose if and what biotechnologies may be used on you. Parents will enforce biotechnologies before a child is even born, forcedly changing the child into who they want that child to be. Kass is against any kind of bio enhancement as long as it does not go above and beyond the extraordinary means of therapy.
In Nick Bostrom’s In the Defense of Posthuman Dignity, the distinction between transhumanists, who “believe that human enhancement technologies should be made widely available, that individuals should have broad discretion over which of these technologies to apply to themselves, and that parents should normally have the right to choose enhancements for their children-to-be,” and bio conservatives are” generally opposed to the use of technology to modify human nature” (p. 500).
Bostrom believes that nature can give humans undesirable traits like cancer, and that parent’s foreseeing a disease of issue of this magnitude of right and need to do whatever it takes to protect their child from this illness. Biotechnology is morally acceptable when used in the right measures. When biotechnology is used for enhancements it is not morally acceptable, because the person can live a good life without the need for enhancements. When biotechnology is used for therapeutic measures it is morally acceptable. The means for biotechnology are necessary to function and live a happy life.