Moral and Ethical Issues in Gene Therapy
Genetic research has advanced in a dramatic fashion in the last decade or so, to the point where it has now become possible to attempt therapeutic genetic modification, in a few cases of human genes, where a defects exists which manifests itself in certain serious diseases. This possibility, known as gene therapy, is only in its infancy. At present, no one knows how effective it will prove to be, even in the few conditions on which it is being tried - whether it will only be of relatively limited application, or whether it will open up many wider possibilities. It suffers both over-optimistic claims from some quarters and exaggerated dangers from others, over which the church needs to be discerning. It is, of course, not possible to assert exactly where the possibilities opened up by today’s technology will lead in terms of future developments, but various ethical and moral issues are implicit in the technology which it is important to draw to the Church’s attention, so that it is forearmed in an area where developments have been taking place at a bewildering pace. An editorial in the “New Scientist” in April 1994 drew attention to the need to weigh up what may still be future issues today, before the technological “horse” bolts from the stable and it is too late to lock the door.
Potential Ethical Issues
Perhaps the most basic underlying questions centre on a Christian understanding of the human being. What does this tell us vis a vis our genetic and physical makeup? What are therefore proper interventions into that genetic makeup? What would be improper in terms of our human dignity?
More applied questions include :
The distinction between repairing genetic damage and any potential there might ever be to make genetic “improvements” Our duties in respect to the rights and the suffering of future generations and to what extent we could intervene in the genome on their behalf The dilemma that our human knowledge is insufficient, which measn that risks are involved - how then do we handle the uncertainty? The balance of individual and family or societal good, say regarding who has the right to know genetic information How should a society best arrive at decisions and legisation over ethical issues, taking account of public opinion and minority views. There are questions which relate to the proper place of the commercial dimesnion in medical technology : the extent to which commercial interests are a catalyst for future developments or a pressure to drive it faster and further than is appropriate the political choices involved in pursuing certain lines and not others whether discoveries and applications of the the human genome and modified genetic sequences should be subject to intellectual property rights like patenting. It lies beyond the scope of this brief report to develop a detailed theolgical and ethical framework to address such wide range of issues. Since the focus is primarily on the issues themselves, the approach taken is to address the underlying ethical aspects in respect of particular issues as they arise. Is it acceptable for human beings to manipulate human genes? Are we Playing God?
What is a Human Being?
Hubris and Humanity
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Are we Playing God?
It is often asked whether it is right for human beings to manipulate human genes at all, as if this were in some sense “playing God” by altering fundamental aspects of human makeup (and also that of plants and animals) which are God’s prerogative only, or simply that it is a dangerous “tampering with nature” in a way which we have neither the right nor the skill to do? Christians have long viewed scientific research as a proper response to God’s commands to “fill the earth and subdue it” and to “work and take care of” the garden, illustrated in the touching and highly significant picture of Adam naming the animals. In relationship to God, humans are, as it were, invited to explore what...
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