Genetic Engineering

Genetic Engineering and applied Ethics

Genetic Engineering

The basic building blocks of life are our genes, which are made of DNA. Every cell of our body has a full set of genes. In the mid-70s scientists first discovered how to move pieces of genetic material from one species to another.

  • Today genetically altered crops such as soybean and maize are grown extensively, especially in USA and are marketed all over the world.
  • Scientists working for pharmaceutical companies use altered genes to produce 'designer drugs' and research is gathered to treat certain inherited diseases by gene therapy.

Embryo Research

  • aim is to find cures for serious illnesses using tissue or cells from embryos.
  • most of this research focuses on stem cells and the field of regenerative medicine- the repair of damaged organs and body parts.
  • stem cells can change into other types of cells such as heart cells, muscle cells, nerve cells or skin cells.
  • the stem cells of an embryo can develop into every single cell type.
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  • embryonic stem cells are removed from early embryos in a process which destroys the embryo.
  • the embryos used in research may come from left-over embryos after IVF treatment or can be created in a laboratory from donated sperm and eggs.
  • at this present stage of science, no cure has been achieved using embryonic stem cells and they will always cause problems because the genetic material will never be the same as that of the patient so anti-rejection drugs would have to be taken regularly.
  • best option at moment is to make new embryos by THERAPEUTIC CLONING which involves removing the DNA from an embryo and replacing it with the DNA from a cell removed from an individual. The resultant embryo would be allowed to grow to maybe 14 days. It's stem cells would then be extracted and encouraged to grow into a piece of human tissue or a complete human organ for transplant.
  • REPRODUCTIVE cloning is a technology used to generate an animal that has the same nuclear DNA as another currently or previously existing animal. Dolly the sheep was created by reproductive cloning technology in a process called SCNT.
  • In the UK embryos may not be experimented on after 14 days; a human embryo cannot be placed in an animal; human cloning is not allowed; the genetic structure of any cell cannot be altered whilst it's part of an ambryo.
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Genetically Engineered Crops

  • Advantages: better taste and quality; better resistance to pests and diseases; environmentally friendly in that it doesn't require chemical pesticides and will conserve soil, water and energy; will also greatly reduce hunger and malnutrition through greater yields and sturdier crops.
  • Disadvantages: threaten environment as causes havoc w/ cross pollination; could have unknown effects on human health; demand that poor farmers buy new seeds each year, favours large producers

Designer Babies

  • couples go through IVF process to make a perfect match for their children who have life-threatening diseases such as in 2002 Michelle and Jayson Whittaker wanted another child to match for their son Charlie who had a life threatening blood disorder.
  • destroys unwanted embryos-> fertilisation is a process that takes about 24 hours to complete and so there is no specific moment when personhood can be conferred so it is not opposed.
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  • some people are concerned that new-born baby will be subject to painful medical procedures to help a sibling but in fact the necessary cells are taken from the umbilical chord.
  • worries that in an increasingly materialistic society, the baby is being treated as a commodity-just made to be a donor or to fulfil parental desires as it is difficult to asses the motives of others, some may say that embryo selection is the beginning of a 'slippery slope'
  • genetic screening may lead to many more foetuses being aborted merely for one genetic flaw which may not be severe and which many people are living with today.
  • could also possibly raise the issue of a society defining what is normal and abnormal
  • gene alteration can be targeted to somatic cells, in which the parent's egg and sperm cells are changed with the aim of passing on the changes to future generations.
  • However, gene therapy given to a foetus before birth could mean that we decided which genetic predispositions are to be altered: e.g. nowadays obesity, low eyesight are seen to be normal inheritable characteristics although in the future perhaps this would be a reason to abort a child?
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  • it also concerns people that only the rich would have access to this expensive treatment.
  • embryonic stem cell research is the threshold of cloning

BUT-> many scientists now say that it's unnecessary to use embryonic stem cells in their search for cures:

  • embryonic stem cells are very 'plastic' which means they can be unstable and become malignant, causing cancer.
  • adult stem cells are found in umbilical cord blood and placenta blood, as well as virtually every major organ of the human body.
  • adult stem cells have already been successfully used in treatments while embryonic stem cells are only in the theoretical stage.
  • the benefits of embryonic stem cells are a long way off.
  • adult stem cells overcome the problem of immune rejection.
  • with the rise of animal rights activists and the problems involved in using adults to test drugs, it is likely that embryos will be used less for actual research and more for testing by pharmaceutical companies.
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b) to what extent can embryo research be justified?


  • not sentient being until after 14 days
  • ->preference utilitarianism
  • ->embryos have no preference
  • early embryo has no spiritual self (before 14 days it can split)
  • ->weak SOL
  • ->principle of love justifies use of embryo.

Not justified

  • embryo created in image of God (vitalism)
  • ->strong SOL argument
  • ->wrong to kill an innocent life
  • early embryo has an interest in not being harmed
  • ->natural law position
  • ->every embryo has a right to life.
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b) how useful is relative morality in dealing with issues surrounding genetic engineering?

  • explain GE


  • concerned with consequences.
  • subjective; changes with different situations.
  • flexible; different levels->extreme, moderate, weak
  • no objective standard because things change over time (e.g. medical procedures change so do their ethics and so absolutist approaches are too inflexible.
  • no clear guidance can be confusing, with regards to GE there are too many factors to consider so an absolutist approach might be easier and a conclusion can be reached at greater ease (e.g. Natural Law to abortion, always wrong.
  • hard to judge what is right.

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Situation Ethics

  • normative relativism: does have a code of conduct so still take individual situations into account whilst providing more guidance.
  • principle of Agape so when applied the conclusions should be the most loving which is undoubtedly desirable.
  • principle of agape is difficult to use because everyone's idea of the most loving thing is different for everyone, subjective.
  • inconsistent- may be contradictory.

.....and then another theory.....absolutist perhaps.

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b) evaluate a Utilitarian approach to GE


  • thinking about the greatest good for the greatest number > relate this to the effects/possible outcomes of GE. This is the basis of health care system in the UK. Seems justified to say it's better to use a few cells to save lives of may people in the future.
  • does not treat every situation as the same but will consider individual circumstances.
  • preference Util. is particularly useful as it makes us aware of the interests of others.


  • hard to predict consequences
  • hard to assess likelihood of success
  • may not be able to apply Hedonic Calculus as embryos can't feel pain.
  • cost to NHS.
  • who decides what greatest good is? Some things may be right and wrong in themselves e.g. SOL.
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b) How useful is the categorical imperative when considering embryo research?


  • within Kant's CI he acknowledges that all rational humans have intrinsic dignity. This means that embryo research would be considered morally wrong because it undermines the 2nd formulation to treat humans as an end in themselves.
  • Because of this, Kant provides a very clear cut approach to decision making when embryo research is concerned.
  • Kant takes SOL approach to GE, which is appealing to many who see the intrinsic value of human life, including religious people.

Isn't useful

  • fundamental problem with Kantian ethics is highlighted by the 3rd formulation of CI. This is the kingdom of ends where everyone is law-maker and whose decisions take into account all other human beings as law-makers.
  • Kant never states when an embryo becomes a rational human being.
  • Argues for the protection of the weak , but as an embryo does not show signs of rationality, it ceases to be a matter of concern.
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Natural Law

Against-> throwing embryos away goes against primary precept of do not kill as embryos are already regarded as a form of life; God created us imago dei so therefore GE is changing God's creation; an early embryo doesn't have physical/mental capabilities to be able to reason but the general interest/purpose is to ensure our life is to be preserved and not altered against our own wishes.

For-> using the knowledge we gained from education, and therefore GE is fulfilling our purpose to education;some might argue it's the real good rather than the apparent good as you are using technology and skills gained to help people and further their lives.

Christian Ethics

Bible-> SOL arguments: "before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart" so shows against although Jesus was an anti-nomian and heals on the sabbath showing that you can break the rules to heal disease.

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Church-> CATHOLICISM: a precept is to reproduce so if the only way to do this is to GE then maybe it is not so wrong. Papal rules- using reason to benefit humans with adult research is goof, if it harms anyone else it is wrong.

PROTESTANTISM: virtue ethics and situation ethics= agape. sola scriptura- bible source and morals (as before). GE is natural development of human reason in curing natural diseases. Divine Command Theory- obedience is God's will- do what he thinks.


  • principle of Utility- greatest good for greatest number.
  • Good effect in the long term as we could cure genetic diseases, does this justify?
  • Preference Util would consider preferences of embryos and of living people but do embryos have preferences? Natural for people to use their intelligence to overcome problems.
  • Hedonic calculus- we don't know consequences.
  • "Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied"-> a human's happiness is more important that that of an embryo who cannot feel?
  • if the motives are right (motive util) it could be ok so designer babies is not a good motive.
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  • better to save many lives in the future at the expense of some embryos now.
  • Embryos cannot feel pain so Hedonic Calculus cannot be applied to them.
  • the costs to the NHS? should we waste money on GE when we could spend it on curing people now?
  • The likelihood of success?
  • does not treat every situations as the same but will consider individual circumstances.
  • with Mill who sees happiness of the mind as greater than that of the body, which one does this account for? is GE happiness of the mind or body? You cannot really universalise a rule to do with GE.
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