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okkkpkThe Pros and Cons of

Genetic Engineering
Yin Ren What if, by simply taking a pill containing new hormones, you could
possess advanced athletic powers and run
like an Olympic athlete? What if, by injecting yourself with stem cells and
altering your genetic makeup, you
could have the baby of your dreams? Would you do it? If you and others did,
what would our society become?
Is this science fiction? Think again. During the last few decades, research in
genetic engineering has been advancing at lightning
speeds. Recent breakthroughs have presented us with unforeseen promises,
yet at the same time with complex predicaments.
The promises of genetically modifying humans to improve their well being
and to treat debilitating illnesses are becoming
a reality. However, our newfound knowledge in genetics may also enable us
to engineer our own genetic blueprintsto
enhance our muscles, height, and intelligence, to choose the sex, hair
color, and even personality of our children, and to create super humans
that seem perfect. The ethical predicaments surrounding genetic engineering
are vast, complex, and profound.
Despite the enormous amount of progress in the field, our moral
understanding and awareness is still limited in scope. Our ethical vocabulary
does not provide us with adequate tools to address the problems
posed by advances in genetics. As science outpaces moral understanding,
scientists and ethicists do not communicate sufficiently and struggle to
articulate their concerns. Proponents argue that genetic engineering can
cure more diseases, from cystic fibrosis to spina bifida, than other methods
of therapy. Screening embryos for predispositions and risks in genetic
diseases is also possible. Advocates of genetic engineering argue that this
would enable parents to avoid the emotional hardships and economic
burdens that accompany the birth of a child with an incurable disease. As
the new technology becomes more widely available, new and better genes
will be passed onto others. The social gap between the naturally endowed
and everyone else, between those who can afford the technology and
those who cannot, will ultimately narrow and disappearcreating a new
age of human beings who are happier, smarter, and healthier.
However, some critics and ethicists disagree. They mention the
tremendous human safety risks, and argue that one cannot prevent the
misuse of the technology for non-medical purposes, such as enhancing
ones athletic performance. Altering a babys genetic traits and manipulating
our own nature, in this view, demeans the uniqueness of each individual
and thus undermines our humanity. Ethicists contend that genetic
engineering devalues the meaning of parenthood,
where children become merely consumer goods and properties of their
parents. Moreover, opponents argue that advances in

genetics are not fuelled by justifiable societal needs, but by novel biomedical
opportunities. Those who can pay for the new technology
will make themselves better than well, widening the existing social gap
between them and those who cannot afford it.
No one knows for sure what the social consequences are if we play our own
28 MURJ Volume 12, Spring 2005 Features
Figure 1. ANDi. The first genetically engineered monkey.
Should we allow humans the choice of being genetically
modified? Should parents have the right to design and alter
their children at will? Should current research in human
genomics be banned completely? What other options are available?
Ultimately, who finally decides on these matters? This
paper will examine several key issues surrounding designer
babies and genetic engineering technologies.
In 1976, the first successful genetic manipulation took
place on mice, in efforts to produce more accurate disease
models and test subjects. These mice were modified at the
germline stage: that is, permanent genetic changes were
induced by transplanting new genes into the mouses embryo.
The real breakthrough happened twenty five years lateron
January 11, 2001, when scientists in Oregon unveiled ANDi, a
baby rhesus monkey carrying a new jellyfish gene in his
genome.1 The birth of a genetically modified primate, one of the
closest relatives to mankind, heralded the arrival of a new era
in human genetic research. One month later, scientists
announced in Nature the completion of sequencing, or mapping,
of over 97% of the entire human genome, roughly five
years ahead of schedule.2 This represented a crucial step in our
march toward fully understanding human disease. Equipped
with the new dictionary of the human genome, all we have to
do is to learn how to use and modify it at our will.
In early 2003, New Jersey fertility doctor Jacques Cohen
reported the first modification in the human genome.
According to Cohen, his pioneering infertility treatments produced
two babies with DNA from two different mothers, which
represented the first case of human germline genetic modification
resulting in normally healthy children.3 Although such
changes in the genetic makeup were miniscule, their implications
were symbolically profound. Arthur Caplan, director of
the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania,
called it an ethically momentous shift.4
As the face of science is being permanently altered by such
changes, so is our moral understanding and awareness. When
the words gene therapy first entered our daily vocabulary,

most Americans applauded its novelty, ingenuity, and potential

for medical research. However, as one realizes the deep social
and ethical consequences, the concept of super humans scare
them. The possibility of creating a new breed of humans with
better genes is not something that the public has prepared for.
Hundreds of citizens rallied across the country, hailing for a
halt in human cloning research. A Time/CNN poll found that
over ninety percent of Americans were against creating genetically
superior human beings.5
Muscle Enhancement
On a more moderate level, gene therapy has been used therapeutically
in many aspects of human medicine. Over the last
decade, the world has seen tremendous progress in the field of
muscle repair and improvement using gene therapy. Aside from
patients with muscular dystrophy due to malfunctions in the
immune system, muscle cells deteriorate as a result of old age,
lack of daily physical activities, or chronic illnesses that limit
ones movements. Traditional methods, such as rigorous physical
therapy, are not feasible for people of all ages. Most current
drugs contain large doses of steroids to stimulate cell growth,
but these drugs are not specific to muscle cells and excess hormone
levels can lead to undesired side effects such as heart
disease. A gene therapy to alleviate muscular dystrophy, or
even reverse the inevitable and debilitating muscle loss due to
old age, would be welcomed. Professor H. Lee Sweeney of the
University of Pennsylvania developed a synthetic gene that,
when injected into the muscles of mice, prevents and reverses
the natural deterioration of muscle cells.6 More recently in
August 2004, scientists in California announced the birth of
Marathon Mice, a new breed of genetically-modified mice that
gained muscles and endurance without any exercise, and never
became obese.7 Although the therapy is not yet approved for
human use, the vision of curing muscular dystrophy is not too
far away.
However, such therapy does not come without ethical implications.
Based on scientific reports on the current status of
Features Yin Ren Volume 12, Spring 2005 MURJ 29
Figure 2. Marathon Mice. Researchers in San Francisco unveiled a type of
genetically engineered
mice that can run farther and longer, bringing the genetic doping of elite
athletes a small step closer
to reality.
genetic enhancement of muscles, there are tremendous human
safety risks. The track record for mammalian experiments
showed that the medical risks are formidable and even dire in

some cases. Most test subjects did not survive due to immune
responses to the injected foreign gene. The therapy fails to
meet the rigors of human safety, efficacy, and protection.
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that these health risks
can be eliminated after improving the procedure. But what if
we use the medical technology for non-medical ends, such as to
improve athletic performance? The widespread use of steroids
in the doping scandals during the Olympics suggests that many
athletes are eager to try out genetic muscle enhancement.
Imagine runners sprinting through a mile in less than three
minutes without breaking a sweat. What is really disturbing
here? It is one thing to achieve athletic perfection through
years of training, but it is quite another to perform such a feat
because of newly enhanced super muscles. Genetic engineering
provides those with an unfair competitive advantage over
the un-enhancedit diminishes the essential values of fairness
and competition. Our admiration of pure athleticismthe
culmination of talent, discipline, and effort, shifts from the athletes
themselves to the lab scientists and doctors who wrote
their prescriptions.
Designer Babies
One of the predicted central uses of genetic engineering is
to customize our babies according to our will. One method,
known as Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD), gives
prospective parents the ability to screen and select for specific
genetic traits in their children.8 Due to technical limitations on
the number of tests that could be performed on an embryo and
the complexity of the relationship between single genes and
physical characteristics, the number of traits that could be
tested is severely limited. Nevertheless, several applications of
this technology have been especially effective in screening for
severe medical conditions. One can detect potential genetic
predispositions for Down syndrome and Huntingtons disease
by analyzing cells containing the embryos genetic information,
even before pregnancy begins. This prevents women from having
to decide whether to abort an abnormal fetus, and eliminates
the deep grief and economic difficulties that many families
are forced to cope with.
In the future, the new technologies may offer parents the
possibility to enhance their children. As more and more genes
are discovered to be associated with specific functions, parents
could potentially examine the genetic makeup of their fetuses,
and modify them by inducing changes in their embryonic stem
cells. This could enhance a childs mental and physical abilities,
from being taller to having the potential to master music
and chess. Most parents simply want their children to be the

best they could be. With new genetics, their dreams may finally
be realized. Lee Silver, a professor of molecular biology and
public affairs at Princeton called this no different than giving
your child advantages like piano lessons or private school.9
From a childs point of view, the genetic enhancements
imposed upon him or her by parents may pose a threat to freedom
of action. Whether the child succeeds in life is not wholly
determined by his or her own efforts, but rather from parental
decisions made prior to birth. The child might no longer accept
responsibility for the things they do. As a parent, to acknowledge
the unique qualities and the giftedness of life is to accept
their children as they are. For many, the sense of achievement
of being parents lies in the success of their kids, through the
combined effort of a childs own endeavors and the transforming
love of the parent. However, with life-enhancing procedures,
opponents speculate that parents may not look upon
their children as something they are obligated to nurture and
care for, but as mere consumer objects with a particular expecFigure 3. A genetically engineered mouse runs on a treadmill at the
Salk Institute for
Biological Studies in San Diego, CA.
Figure 4. Marathon Mice running on treadmill (copyright Lenny
Ignelzi/AP). A mouse runs on a treadmill at the Salk Institute for
Biological Studies in San Diego, Calif, after undergoing gene manipulation
to boost its endurance and prevent weight gain.
30 MURJ Volume 12, Spring 2005 Yin Ren
tation made even before the child is born. Leon Kass, a
bioethics professor at the University of Chicago and Chairman
of the Presidents Council on Bioethics, commented that To
really produce the optimum baby, youd have to turn procreation
into manufacturing, which would degrade parenthood.10
There are many social ramifications of manipulating a
childs genetic makeup. According to Kass, Its naive to think
that you can go in there with the traits that deal with higher
human powerswithout [causing] real changes in other
areas. The ripple effects of adding a new gene are unknown.
What would our society become if the next generation can live
up to 120 years? There would be a population crisis, the
impacts of which would be felt everywhere, but especially
severely in developing countries where food and housing are
scarce. As science outpaces social development, the complications
of elderly care also arise. Improvements in medical technologies
demand higher costs, and as people live longer, heath
care costs would skyrocket.
A New Society
The ultimate consequence, as proponents of gene therapy

predict, is the narrowing of divisions currently in place in our

society: from social, to ethical, to economical. Many social
divides exist simply because some of us are genetically better
endowed than others, and are doing jobs with better compensation.
Some children are born with better athletic prowess,
quicker mathematical minds, and more acute visual senses
than others. As a result, those lacking the genes will be at a disadvantage.
One reason for the division between professional
athletes and everyone else is their natural talents in sports: an
average adult who trains and works harder than Michael
Jordan will not receive greater acclaim or a larger contract.
With the new technology, however, the boundaries between
different classesbe they social, economical, or personal
will blur as time progresses. Proponents of genetic engineering
argue that the technologies may be expensive initially, but just
like all other important technologies such as telephones and
computers, they will not be out of reach for long. As the techniques
become widely available, enhanced genes will become
more ubiquitous through new therapy and traditional means,
and genetic gaps will close as a result.
But critics adopt the opposite view: genetic engineering,
they say, would not only deepen existing class divisions, but
also create new ones. Unlike other ubiquitous technologies
such as refrigerators and televisions, the benefits of gene therapy
will be out of reach for most. Many people will refuse to
accept gene therapy even if the enhancements are made free,
due to religious and other personal reasons. Others caution
that it may take longer than usual before the technology
becomes widely available, due to high cost and lack of efficacy.
Therefore, the economic gap between those who can afford this
technology and those who cannot will only deepen in the
Looking into the future, our new society may start to resemble
those dreaded worlds from the science fiction novels. A
world fully divided between the ruling alphas and drone-like
gammas, just like what Aldous Huxley described in his haunting
1932 novel Brave New World. Genetic engineering may lead