Our ability to change living things grows as we learn more about life. But sometimes biotechnology makes us question whether we should change organisms just because we can. Maybe the technology is dangerous or maybe it challenges our values. Consider the greenish pig in the photo. A gene from a fluorescent jellyfish was added to its genome by genetic engineering. No harm done, in this case. But how and when should we alter an organism’s genes?
Bioethics is the study of moral questions that are raised as a result of biology research and its applications. But what do questions of ethics have to do with biology? It might seem better to leave questions about values in a philosophy or social studies class. But keep your mind open as you learn more about the power of biological research to alter living things and to reveal new types of information. You might find that your biology class is the perfect place to consider any number of ethical questions.
Ethical questions require all of us to make decisions about “the right thing to do.” Often, the right thing to do is very clear. Do we cheat on a test, or do we study and learn the material for ourselves? A good decision can benefit ourselves, our families, and even our society—and it often follows the accepted values of society. However, many times the “right” and “wrong” about an ethical issue are not so obvious. Strong feelings on both sides of an ethical question can produce conflicts—in ourselves, and for everyone involved. Can we rely upon biology, or any other scientific field, for our decisions?
There are some obvious benefits to having biological information more easily accessible. The Innocence Project, for example, as of 2010 has freed more than 260 prisoners who were wrongfully convicted—some of them on death row—based on incorrect or incomplete evidence. In this case, DNA technology can add new facts to an old story and actually save a person’s life.
In less dramatic ways, biological information can help people live longer and healthier lives. Tests can reveal whether someone is prone to gum disease, heart attacks, Alzheimer’s, or certain kinds of cancer. With this information—now available through at–home saliva tests—people can tailor their exercise, diet, and other lifestyle choices to guard against actually contracting these diseases. Access to biological information in this case can be empowering, and can help people live healthier lives.
With genetic information much more easily accessible, new questions arise. Can a DNA–testing facility, for example, be trusted to keep your results private? This issue of right to information has taken many turns during the past decade. In 2008, the United States passed a law called the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). This law protects all citizens from potential discrimination by employers and insurers: Even if genetic testing does reveal an individual’s likelihood for developing certain health problems, an insurer cannot deny this person coverage based on this information. Do you think this law is necessary? Would you be more likely to get DNA testing knowing that this law is in place?
Aside from issues of privacy, what do your lifestyle and health decisions look like if you do test positive for a fatal disease? Although DNA testing is more accurate than many other tests, there is still a possibility of incorrect results. Even if they are correct, there is the possibility that a cure will come for any given disease within your lifetime. Families with the gene for a neurological disorder called Huntington’s disease, for example, often do not elect to be tested. Some individuals do not want this information—bad or good—to affect their lives. How does having this information improve or limit your choices?
Science can only provide information and possibilities. We can add new genes to an organism’s DNA. We can clone animals and may someday clone humans. We can extend human life expectancies. We can test people’s risk for diseases. But should we do all these things? Should government continue to make laws regarding bioethical issues? Should people be able to make their own decisions about personal health and privacy? As biotechnology continues to advance, you will face new bioethics questions throughout your lifetime. Will you be ready?
Questions to Consider
- Should scientists do all of the things that technology has made it possible for them to do?
- Should individuals or the government decide how biotechnology is used?
- Should scientific knowledge or personal beliefs be more important in decisions about biotechnology?
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Genetic testing is used in many ways. We can identify disease–causing genes, determine the guilt or innocence of crime suspects, and reunite families that have been separated. But should genetic testing be used by employers to make decisions about employees?
Suppose that a company secretly obtained and tested DNA samples from some of its employees. Because of rising medical insurance claims, the company wanted to know if the employees had a gene that increased their risk for developing a certain medical condition. Does this seem like a plot for a television show? It isn’t. In 2002, a company had to pay more than $2 million in damages for testing the DNA of employees without their knowledge.
Consider another case. In 2005, a basketball player named Eddy Curry missed the end of the season due to a potential heart problem. His team wanted to use a genetic test to find out if he had a life–threatening condition. Curry refused because the test results could have ended his career. The team refused to let him play. Both the team and Curry made choices. Who do you think was right?
Geneticist in Action
Many bioethicists focus on the ethical implications of technology. Dr. Charmaine Royal, however, is concerned with the ethics of experimental design and the applications and implications of biological research. Dr. Royal, who is a geneticist at the Human Genome Center of Howard University, points out that some scientists in the past tried to use genetic research to justify treating non–Caucasians as inferior. She also notes that although there is no biological basis for any meaningful differences among races, many African Americans are still suspicious of genetic research. Many, for example, have been discriminated against when an insurance company or a prospective employer finds out they have sickle cell anemia, which is a relatively common genetic disorder in African Americans. Dr. Royal, who is Jamaican, wants to ensure that African Americans are included and treated fairly in research studies, and that they receive the benefits of genetic screening and genetic counseling. In 1998 Dr. Royal helped start the African American Hereditary Prostate Cancer Study, the first large–scale genetic study of African Americans to be designed and carried out by an almost entirely African American research team.