Developments in genetics – in particular the mapping of the human genome – are tremendously exciting. For example, if we can correctly identify the disease carrying genes, we may be able to eradicate cancer. But new knowledge gives us new abilities. And new abilities give us new ethical dilemmas. This is so true in the field of biology that a whole new discipline has emerged – bioethics.
What is it
Recent advances in mapping the human genome suggest a vision of the future that might fill us with equal parts hope and dread. On the one hand, the possibility of identifying disease-causing genes may enable us to eradicate cancer, obesity, or depression before they ever develop. On the other hand, the idea that soon we could be “designing” our progeny, choosing physical and psychological traits we deem desirable, is fraught with deep moral complexities. But are these ideas realistic or just the stuff of science fiction? What real ethical problems does the current state of human genomics present? John and Ken map out the terrain with David Magnus, Director of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics and co-editor of Who Owns Life? This program was recorded live at the Marsh Theater in Berkeley, California.
Although advances in the field of biology obviously offer exciting prospects for the future of medicine, new knowledge inevitably leads to new ethical dilemmas. What, for example, are we to do about the increase in reproductive technologies and the phenomenon of “designer babies?” The possibility of eventually engineering babies with certain desired traits like intelligence and athletic ability is frightening. John dismisses such worries as science fiction; nothing of the scope that Ken imagines is feasible, because he assumes that we understand much more than we actually do about how certain genes affect traits.
To help separate fact from fiction, Ken introduces David Magnus. From the outset, David asserts that designer babies are not on the horizon. Even if such technology eventually becomes available, bioethicists should worry about ethical dilemmas that are relevant now and not those that might be relevant in over 25 years. John, Ken, and David spend the majority of the rest of the show discussing what David thinks is a pressing ethical dilemma: how to deal with the explosion of available genetic information.
David explains that there are conflicting principles at play in this domain. Whereas some bioethicists argue that patients deserve to know as much as possible about their own genes, others – such as David himself – insist that the duty of medical professionals is to do as much good as possible. Furthermore, this principle of beneficence entails that genetic information should be restricted, because full disclosure may be misleading to individuals who overestimate the accuracy or significance of results. John wonders whether this type of limitation is merely a classic case of paternalism. Ken agrees and puts the point more bluntly: is it that bioethicists find people “too stupid” to make good use of the knowledge? David insists that the giving out genetic information ought to be regulated because it is a part of the medical practice so should be conducted as safely as possible.
Ken finishes by expressing his continued worry about the possibility of designer babies. If science has figured out quantum theory, it seems probable that we could come to understand the complex genetics prerequisite for designer baby technology. David's proposed 25 year rule allows us to take comfort in the “far-off-ness” of such technologies rather than in their impossibility.
- Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 6:05) : In a conversation framed by references to movies like GATTACA and The Boys from Brazil, Dr. Jonathan Moreno of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine discusses the line between reality and science fiction in cloning, reproductive technologies, and genetic engineering.