Genetics and Bioethics: Enhancement or Therapy?

Note: This cross-post was written by J.W. Wartick, and was originally published HERE. I really encourage you to check out his site. 

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Bioethics is an expanding field with direct implications for our lives. Here, we’ll reflect on the possibility and implications of gene therapy and enhancement. While I was at the Evangelical Philosophical/Theological Society Conference in 2012, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a talk about this very topic, and that will be the focus of this post. Unfortunately, the speaker had been switched around and was not listed in the booklet that I have. Furthermore, I never caught the speaker’s actual name (I tried to write it down when he was introduced, and got Gary Alkins, though I have tried searching online for that and haven’t come up with it), so if someone knows what it is, please let me know. I’ll reference the speaker as “speaker” throughout this post.

The central relevant moral question under discussion was: “Should genetic technology be used to not only heal but also to enhance the human condition?”

A Vital Distinction

The most important aspect of this discussion is the distinction between gene enhancement and therapy. Gene therapy is the use of genetic research and information to cure illness. Speaking very hypothetically, suppose that we were able to discover the exact genetic code for illnesses like sickle cell anemia, isolate it, and replace it with a non-anemic code before a person was even born; that would be gene therapy. Genetic enhancement takes this a step further. It allows for modifying people genetically to enhance certain features such as physical strength, endurance, mental aptitude, and the like. It would, in a sense, create “super humans.”

Therapy

Using our knowledge of genetics for therapy, the speaker argued, is perfectly justified. We are called by Christ’s example to treat illnesses, and gene therapy can be seen as an extension of this. There was little time spent defending the moral permissiveness of gene therapy, as the primary question was whether genetic enhancement is morally permissible.

Enhancement

There are several arguments for genetic enhancement. These include:

1) The “natural lottery” argument: if we have the capacity to genetically enhance humans but do not, that means we are, effectively, just playing a genetic lottery to see if our children turn out well. Parents have a moral duty to act against the natural lottery.

2) We encourage environmental enhancement (i.e. seeking better education, putting children in brain-stimulating environments, encouraging sports for their physical well-being, etc.), why is genetic enhancement any different?

3) We already manipulate chemicals (caffeine, vitamins, etc.) for our well-being, why not genetics? In the end, what matters is human well being.

4) Genetic enhancement is simply the next logical step for humanity. If we agree that therapy is good because it stops genetic defects, should we not also hold that enhancement is good because it pushes people to fill their greatest potential.

Against these arguments, the speaker argued:

A) Genetic enhancement could never match the ideal outlined in these arguments, wherein every human being is enhanced on a number of levels. Instead, it would very likely increase the split between the haves and have-nots by allowing those who have much to increase their dominance over society. The haves could afford to continue enhancing and remain a kind of super-human society while the have-nots would never be able to catch up.

However, a possible counter-argument to this reasoning would be to note that there will always be people who are advantaged and people who are disadvantaged. It’s unclear as to how this should serve to undermine the moral base for genetic enhancement.

B) There is a great good in letting humans accomplish things which stretch their skill set. Think about the steroids controversy in sports. We intuitively know that those who used performance enhancing drugs had an unfair advantage over those who did not. Similarly, those who would be genetically enhanced would have an unfair advantage over those who were not enhanced in almost any conceivable area of human achievement.

C) What of bodily autonomy? Who’s to say that it is a good for parents to meddle with their children’s genes. What if a child does not want to be extremely strong, or what of their parents choose to give them giftedness in music, but they simply don’t like to do music? What if the children hate what their parents chose for them: hair color, eye color, etc.? Unlike the “natural lottery,” such attributes related to enhancement actually do have blame to assign to someone. Is there no bodily autonomy involved?

Enhancement and Theology

There are numerous theological issues involved in the debate over genetic enhancement. First, humans were initially created perfect. The fall has caused them to lose that perfection, but God’s plan is perfect and doesn’t require us to try to evolve back into perfection.

For Christians, the ultimate fulfillment of God’s plan comes in the New Creation. The notion that humanity needs a genetic upgrade reflects the worldview of naturalism. Christians do not hope in their own ingenuity but rather in God’s plan for creation. That does not mean we cannot get actively involved in healing, but it does mean that we do not need to violate persons’ humanity by enhancement. The assumption involved in enhancement is that our bodies are not good enough and that we need to improve them, but that is not a Christian notion. Although we are fallen creatures, that does not imply that we are creatures capable of getting out of our own fallenness. Furthermore, the notion that our bodies are not good enough is a type of gnosticism in which we devalue the material world that God created for us.

Evaluation

It seems to me that the arguments against enhancement are sound. In particular, the argument about the haves and have-nots seems effective. The argument from bodily autonomy also carries a great deal of weight. It seems to weigh against every argument that was brought to bear in favor of genetic enhancement.

It seems that if parents select for certain attributes, then parents can be held morally culpable for the genes their children develop. Thus, if the child dislikes an attribute, they could feasibly hold their parents responsible for that selected attribute. Interestingly, this may work both ways too: a child could hold their parents responsible for not changing an attribute. Yet this latter argument seems to make a mockery of parenthood, holding parents responsible for nature.

In the theological sphere, one may wonder whether someone could just as easily argue that because we were created initially perfect, a pursuit of bodily perfection could be viewed as a fight against the Fall and the curse. I tried to ask this as a question, but there wasn’t time at the end to get to all the questions. The speaker did an excellent job noting possible counter-arguments to their points, and I thought gave a very fair presentation overall. It seems that the best argument against genetic enhancement may be the bodily autonomy argument, but there are others besides that.

I’d like to know what your thoughts are on this topic: Do you think enhancement is moral? Why or why not?

Links

I have written on a number of other talks I went to at the ETS/EPS Conference. I discuss every single session I attended in my post on the ETS/EPS Conference 2012. I also discuss a panel discussion on Caring for Creation, and a debate between a young earth and old earth proponent.

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3 thoughts on “Genetics and Bioethics: Enhancement or Therapy?

  1. Therapy/enhancement are only different in perspective. Sickness, even genetic ‘disorders’, are part of natural variation. So any change to our genetic make-up that improves the condition of any individual *is* enhancement. If I underwent an enhancement that improved my strength by 10% I would still be less strong than many who had not been enhanced. Genetic ‘disorders’, i.e. mutations, are what made us human.

    Which brings us to the naive notion of ‘perfection’. No such thing. Never was, since we evolved from other animals to this human species thanks to mutations and natural selection. For any evolution deniers out there you can hardly object to these enhancements since you don’t really believe in genetic change – so no matter what we do we won’t be changing our humanness. Of course, for those that accept evolution and so reject the notion of perfection they must know that we could change the species of those enhanced, if we wished. The concept of species after all depends only on the distinct species not being able to breed.

    • I think you have touched upon what is perhaps the most important point in the entire debate: is there any relevant difference between therapy and enhancement? If you say no, then I think your position is largely correct. If you say yes, then other points will follow.

      But I do think that some of the arguments I presented herein still have relevance even if you say “no” to the above question. For example, it would seem that there would be some kind of moral obligation/duty/culpability for the enhancements which were chosen. How does that work?

      Of course, bringing up “tough questions” does not necessarily undermine the arguments for enhancement.

      I am curious as to your response to arguments A, B, and C. I think they would still carry some weight even if we grant that therapy/enhancement is a matter of degree as opposed to kind.

  2. J.W. Wartick

    A) The split between the haves and have nots has always been there. Historically it’s been having, or not, money and power. So no new moral issue there. In all likelihood money will get the enhancements, so any disparity is already present prior to the enhancement. Same issues as there are for medical care now.

    B) In sports it is a matter of practicality. Many human sports recognise the great diversity in human bodies and so create classifications, typically by weight. You really have to first decide what the particular sport is measuring, set criteria according to that, and then define rules to make it fair. If an Olympic runner with boosted capabilities is winning all the trophies then the sport loses its interest – there is no competition. This is a pragmatic matter rather than a moral one. It was interesting that in the Paralympics they do have additional classifications. This is perhaps a preview of what enhanced Olympics might look like.

    The moral issue arises once the classifications and the rules have been laid down. If anyone then ‘cheats’, by taking drugs, or by achieving and under classification, then we have a moral problem to be dealt with as usual.

    C) What of bodily autonomy? Circumcision? Extra homework? Private music tutor? Making sure your kids have a Christian education? Since when has bodily autonomy been taken that seriously? The brain is a bodily component, and what it is indoctrinated with has consequences.

    Kids generally don’t like to be different; but if they must be different then being better is better than being worse. Often it’s the parents that want to adjust the odds in their child’s favour. That’s what needs to be questioned. Enhancements are just one example of that.

    So, A, B and C all deal with competition and fairness in their various forms. Until we have a better understanding of what we want in our societies in that regard we will be stuck with these problems irrespective of enhancement – as we always have been. What is the morality of competition, in sport, in business, in life?

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