Genetic Engineering and Cloning

Tuesday, June 22, 2004
First Aired: 
Tuesday, March 2, 2004

What Is It

When is genetic manipulation morally permissible? For health? Beauty? Wit? What sorts of animals is it acceptable to clone? Should we ban stem cell research? John and Ken discuss cloning and the ethical issues surrounding genetic engineering with Hank Greely from the Stanford Law School.

Listening Notes

In the first segment of this episode, John Perry and Ken Taylor introduce the most basic arguments for and against stem cell research.  Both Perry and Taylor agree that stem cell research has tremendously beneficial implications for the people who would be directly affected by such research. Since stem cells are differentiable and can grow into any kind of organ with the right chemical signaling, it would be possible to create organs such as hearts for transplant and save hundreds of patients' lives. Further down the line, stem cell research may even lead to the development of transplantive brain tissue to help patients with Parkinson's and diabetes. The ethical dilemma posed by stem cell research centers around debates over when life begins. Kant argues in his Groundwork on the Metaphysics of Morals that we should treat the humanity in ourselves and in others as an end and not simply as a means. Those who see problems with stem cell research claim that, since an embryo grows into a person given no intervention, it is a potential person, and so we should respect it's potential to develop its own rational capacity and autonomy—personhood. By creating embryos for the harvesting of stem cells, then, we are treating human life as means and this seems morally objectionable. Those in favor of stem cell research point to the fact that an embryo or blastocyst is merely a clump of cells that can develop into anything—whether that is a person, persons, or organs. In this sense such a clump of undetermined, differentiable cells possess no property or criterion that could distinguish them as persons and therefore there is no ethical conflict.

The key moral difficulties as guest Hank Greely sees them have to do with the variety of positions on the moral status of a human embryo. It would be easy enough if an embryo were simply a clump of stem cells, but of course embryos do have the potential to grow into live human beings. Greely points out that the moral arguments concerned with the destruction of human embryos in harvesting stem cells are interesting when we consider that the potential of an embryo to become a person is only realized if it is carried in a womb to full term. About 50 to 80 percent of all fertilized eggs never establish pregnancies, so, actually, a fair amount of created embryos are naturally discarded. The line between persons and nonpersons is somewhat arbitrary, but people do draw them.

As far as genetically enhancing our children, Greely points out that we still know very little about the connection between genes and things like intelligence and other traits we want in our children and we might never know much about how to make genetic alterations. On the other hand, it seems as parents we are obliged to do all we can to enhance our children. Arguably, this is the point of the great extent to which we “raise” our kids.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to: 00:04:30): Amy reports from the waiting room of the UC San Francisco Pediatric Care department that specializes in the treatment of type 1 diabetes in children.  Stem cells with their regenerative capacity could provide a cure for diabetes.
  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek To: 00:36:26): Ian Shoales reports on Eugenics
  • Conundrum (Seek to: 00:48:32): Would you be wasting your vote by not voting for one of the leading contenders in a presidential election? Should you vote on principle, or vote to prevent a particular party line from winning?