Genetic Engineering and Morality: What Ethical And Moral Issues Does Genetic Engineering Face Today?

Page content

What Is The Role of Morality In Genetic Engineering?

The creation of a perfect human being is a future which many scientists, philosophers and even several political intellectuals have envisaged as the best fate of the human race. To achieve this dream, scientists have carried out enormous amounts of research in the field of genetic engineering. It is now possible to regenerate full human organs, like a liver or a kidney, to replace damaged ones in patients with chronic diseases.

Moral And Ethical Issues In Genetic Engineering

In the field of crop and meat production, the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is now a reality. In the fields of clinical medicine and pharmaceuticals, genetic engineering has provided many discoveries in the form of new drugs and gene therapy, as well as the use of customized therapy in personalized medicine (Reiss & Straughan, 1996). Although genetic engineering does offer all these benefits, there is debate on the role of morality in genetic engineering. Some prominent ethical and moral issues have to be considered before society can lift the presently imposed limitations and bans on the use of genetic engineering (Sadler & Zeidler, 2004; Reich, 2002).

Negative individual eugenics:

The role of morality in genetic engineering is an important one, both from the ethical and religious points of view. The main issue in which the moral and ethical aspect of genetic engineering which religion also raises is the misuse of “negative individual eugenics.” This refers to the creation, use and then subsequent death and discard of human fetuses used in many processes of genetic engineering. These unborn fetuses are considered as potential human beings, especially by many religious faiths, such as the Roman Catholics (Reiss & Straughan, 1996; Reich, 2002).

The use of negative eugenics is also highly controversial from the viewpoint of ethics as it concerns the fundamental human rights to life. Negative individual eugenics is justified only if the only option left for the human being in question is living a life-time filled with pain and suffering due to serious genetic defects. In such cases the use of genetic engineering is morally justified because it may be used to control or mitigate a rare genetic disease. The issue ethical and moral activists have against genetic engineering is that it should never be used as a means of simply enhancing any individual’s genetic make-up. Rather, genetic engineering should be utilized in the field of positive eugenics to improve the genetic stock of the human species through the selection of individuals with desirable genetic characteristics and instead of getting rid of people with undesirable ones. The practice of eugenics is ethical only when genetic engineering and morality are both a part of it (Reich, 2002).

Issue of ethics involved in obtaining cells from human fetuses:

Another moral issue with the use of genetic engineering which many religious groups have is the use of material obtained from a human fetus. For example many cell lines used in the production of vaccines are obtained from stem cells originating from the umbilical cord of a human fetus. Roman Catholics have been known to refuse vaccines produced from such sources because, according to their religious beliefs, killing off the human fetus for any purpose whatsoever is a sin. From the ethical point of view, human rights activists also agree that killing human fetuses for genetic engineering purposes is wrong (Reiss & Straughan, 1996; Sadler & Zeidler, 2004).

Issue of extra ecological burden on the planet:

Some of the other aspects in which the role of morality in genetic engineering should be considered include the ecological burden that optimization of the human life span will place on the resources of our planet. Genetic engineering will increase the human life span but, from the moral and ethical point of view, this might not actually be desirable. Not only will this place excessive burden on available resources, the human body and mind is not designed by nature for limitless creativity. As such this its is a possibility thatl such long life spans will doom human existence to a boring, calcified routine. What is to be considered is whether nature and evolutionary trends designed the human body for an artificial increased live span. In actual truth, an excessively long life is against nature in a logical in an ecosystem which survives on the principles of evolutionary innovation (Reich, 2002; Sadler, Chambers & Zeidler, 2004).

It is easy to see that genetic engineering and morality must be practiced together, because even though we strive for human genetic perfection, is this actually what nature would have attained using Darwin’s principle of evolutionary selection? Evolutionary selection is a highly evolved process of nature which probably has taken billions of years to become perfect so may not be morally correct to interfere with such a system (Reich, 2002; Reiss & Straughan, 1996). Genetic engineering should be used in a moral and ethical way for positive eugenics only.


“Ethical issues - Genetic engineering.” (2002). Presentation delivered in Heidelberg at the ISC2002 by Jens G. Reich, Max-Delbrück Centre of Molecular Medicine, Humboldt University Medical Faculty (Charité) Department of bio-informatics, Berlin, Germany.

Reiss, M. J. and Straughan, R. (1996). Improving Nature. The Science and Ethics of Genetic Engineering, Cambridge University Press.

Sadler, T. D., Chambers, F. W., & Zeidler, D. L. (2004). Student conceptualizations of the nature of science in response to a socio-scientific issue. International Journal of Science Education, 26, 387– 409.

Sadler, T. D., & Zeidler, D. L. (2004). The morality of socio-scientific issues construal and resolution of genetic engineering dilemmas. Science Education, 88(1), 4 – 27.