Ethical Dilemmas Arise When You Turn Science Fiction into Reality

Genetic Research

Once again, something that was formerly in the domain of science fiction has crossed the line over into reality. But in this case, that’s not the only line that has been crossed.

NPR recently reported that geneticists at the Oregon Health & Science University had created an embryo containing genetic material from three individuals as part of research aimed at curing genetic diseases caused by defective mitochondrial DNA. The geneticists located the bad DNA in unfertilized eggs, replaced it with good DNA from donated eggs, and then fertilized the now-fixed eggs, creating healthy embryos. (No human babies have been birthed from these embryos yet, but the researchers have used the process to create baby monkeys.)

This research has a good chance of eliminating certain genetic diseases which result in horrible situations, e.g., babies dying within days of being born, but that good may be offset by legal and ethical challenges.

For starters, there are questions about the “identity” of any babies born as a result of this procedure. Imagine the legal issues that could arise if three (or perhaps, even more) people were able to lay genetic claims on a single child. There could also be far deadlier results than legal issues regarding parentage. What the geneticists have essentially done is discover a way to pass genetic information across generations. If this process were to ever go awry, the result could be brand new genetic diseases rather than cures for existing ones.

Also, it doesn’t take too big a leap of imagination to see this process being used for enhancement in addition to cures. The concept of “designer babies” — i.e., babies who have been designed to have desirable traits such as a specific eye color or gender, or resistance to a particular malady — is not new, and this recent development offers yet another tool for creating them. But this could have far-reaching social implications. From NPR’s article:

…the move raises those early fears about manipulating DNA to create a brave new world of genetic haves and have-nots, according to Darnovsky.

“Socially, what this would mean is we would be moving toward a world in which some people — and it would be people who could afford these procedures — would have either real or perceived genetic advantage,” she says.

It is becoming increasingly possible that our world, already so divided by ethnicity, culture, wealth, politics, religion, etc., could face additional divisions brought on by genetic enhancement. Enhancement that the Oregon geneticists are helping, inadvertently or not, to bring about.

As I’ve written before, we live in a day and age where advances in science and technology are rapidly undermining many of our long-standing notions of what can, and should, be done when it comes to humanity. This situation, and others like it, present a unique challenge and opportunity for Christians, given our belief that humans are not merely raw material to be used and experimented on, but rather, have been created in the Image of God. Indeed, much of our theology is founded upon that belief. We must carefully consider how such developments challenge that belief and think critically about Biblical decrees regarding life and what might violate them — even as we recognize and praise the benefits that research, when ethically done, can have for humanity.

Photo via Oregon Health & Science University.

About Jason Morehead

Jason Morehead lives in the lovely state of Nebraska with his wife, three children, zero pets, and a large collection of CDs, DVDs, books, and video games. He's a fan of Arcade Fire and Arvo Pärt, Jackie Chan and Andrei Tarkovsky, "Doctor Who" and "Community," and C.S. Lewis and Haruki Murakami. He's also a web development geek, which pays the bills — and buys new music and movies. Twitter: @jasonopus. Web: http://opus.fm.

  • Tim Lockwood

    That does sound disturbing The whole concept of designer babies is appalling to me and this goes beyond that

  • Bryan

    The designer babies slippery slope is terrifying, but one with already present horrible manifestations (such as the staggering rate of down syndrome abortions for example).

    I’m still not convinced this really brings up parentage issues though – not anymore than say organ or bone marrow transplants. Mitochondrial DNA is a completely separate genome, all of us have 100% maternal DNA (which is why these mitochondrial diseases are so nasty – no chance for genetic diversity). So in many ways mitochondrial DNA is and has always been jumping generation to generation.

    All that to say, just because we can doesn’t mean we should. A recent read though of Out of the Silent Planet had a rather chilling effect on what had been a growing scientism in my own life. Good stuff Jason.

  • Timothy Adams

    This is exactly why I tend to agree with what that the Roman Catholic Church (the magisterium, not media outlets run by laypersons) has to say regarding eugenics. They fought it tooth-and-nail in the late 19th/early 20th century and never let up. And yes, many adherents took increasingly extreme positions on it since then, but I would consider G.K. Chesterton’s writings on it required reading for all who follow Christ. Btw in the interest of full disclosure, I am an Eastern-Rite Catholic…

  • Johman Borjal

    Fifty years down the fictitious road, this sounds smack like a page from “The Boys from Brazil”.

  • http://byzantium.wordpress.com Kullervo

    For the record, I believe most US jusrisdictions it’s possible to have up to four legal parents already (your parents divorce, each marries again, both second spouses can adopt you without anyone else having to relinquish parental rights; and to my knowledge, an adopted parent-child relationship is legally indistinguishable from a blood relationship in every sense in every US jurisdiction). So the notion of more than two parents with some ind of legal relationship to a child would not be a new thing.

  • http://opus.fm/ Jason Morehead

    @Kullervo: Good point. But in those cases, you still only have two parents with a genetic relationship to the child, the birth mother and birth father. I don’t think it’s too big a leap of imagination to see how it would make custody battles, adoption, and other similar legal proceedings a bit more complicated if more than two parents could claim valid genetic, and not just legal, relationships to a child.

    I say this only because I’ve seen numerous friends go through the foster care and adoption processes, and though they might have a solid “legal” relationship with a child, that can get easily overruled in favor of the birth mother because of her genetic relationship to the child (even if that’s ultimately to the child’s detriment).


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