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Sunday, April 28, 2013

Questioning the Ethics of Cosmetic Genetic Modification

Veronica Vine
Problems With A Genetically Modified Future
“There is often less danger in the things we fear than in the things we desire.”
- John C. Collins
In the year 1990, a four year old girl became the first gene therapy patient. Suffering from adenosine deaminase deficiency (ADA) which results in a severely compromised immune system due to the buildup of toxic waste products in lymphocytes, her white blood cells were removed and retroviral transduction performed to insert a functional form of the gene to correct the defect resulting in a normal life for what could possibly have been a terminal patient. Since that successful and safe occurrence of gene therapy, the idea of using this technique for a multitude of genetic disorders, both life-threatening and non-life threatening, became increasingly prevalent, with “more than 900 clinical trials” having been approved since 1989. With this increasing interest in gene therapy, there also came an increasing interest in human genetic engineering.
While, currently, genetic engineering methods are being sought purely for medical reasons and the treatment of disease, human curiosity and ambition will eventually raise the question of whether to make genetic modification available for cosmetic purposes. Cosmetic genetic modification carries with it several more important and more pressing ethical and social issues than does medical genetic modification. Among those are the possible lowering of genetic diversity, the possibility of genetic discrimination, and the question of how we determine which traits are preferred as well as the ethical question of whether parents or other parties should be allowed to determine the potential future of another human being.
Genetic diversity is important for several reasons, but most notably because greater genetic diversity means a greater likeliness that the species will survive through natural selection due to an unfavorable environment. A study in the Journal of Mammalogy states, “Lower variation depresses individual fitness, resistance to disease and parasites, and flexibility in coping with environmental challenges.” (Lacy 320) The Cheetah is a consummate example of the effects of low genetic diversity on a species. In the early days of the earth, all but one species of Cheetah died off due to extreme climate change. This resulted in a large amount of inbreeding of this singular species; thereby, lowering their genetic diversity significantly.
Since the early 1900’s to today, a slender body style for women has been considered attractive. This idea illustrates itself by looking at both advertisements and photographs of women from the early 1900’s to now demonstrating that, not unlike other physical traits like height, strength and hair color, in America a certain relative body style is preferred over others by a large majority of the population. This being true, it is entirely understandable why advocates against cosmetic genetic modification argue that its implementation could result in the potential loss of genetic diversity within the human population. Unlike other reproductive technologies like genetic screening and embryo selection that also have the potential to affect genetic diversity, cosmetic genetic modification involves the direct alteration of a person’s DNA that may alter all successive generations. The potential for this domino type effect where the parents alterations are then passed on to all successive progeny, gives it tremendous ability to drastically and detrimentally affect the genetic diversity of the population.
Incest is a practice considered unacceptable and taboo in America for this very same reason, that it may cause the lowering of genetic diversity within a population and consequently the increase in susceptibility to disease. A study published in Nature in 2009 suggests that inbreeding depression, or decreased fitness within a population due to the loss of genetic diversity, is caused by the presence of recessive deleterious mutations. Charles Darwin first noticed the negative effects associated with inbreeding in plant species which when done, “lowered vigour and fertility in most of his study species.” (Charlesworth 783) The study by Deborah Charlesworth suggests that the cause of this lowered fertility and vigor was due to the increased presence of recessive mutations. Many species of animals, like the fly Drosophila melanogaster, have been shown to possess “individually rare, highly recessive and highly detrimental mutations” that normally allow for a low frequency of mutations within the population, but when the genetics of the two procreating individuals are very similar, runs of homozygosity can occur. (Charlesworth 784) Runs of homozygosity are regions of the genome where the allele inherited from both parents are identical. This is problematic when the run of homozygosity is an area coding for recessive mutations. Thus the more similar the genetic code of both parents, the larger the amount of runs of homozygosity, thus the higher chance of inheriting recessive mutations.
Some proponents against this proposed possible loss of genetic diversity may argue that the population of the world is so large, almost 7 billion, that the implications of these genetic modifications could not possibly cause the extinction of the human species and this may have some truth to it; however, were the population of the United States alone to lose a large amount of genetic diversity, there could be very damaging consequences. As most people who live in the United States marry others who also live in the United States, if a large portion of the population were to be genetically modified to have similar traits, most of those with these preferred traits would procreate with those having similar preferred traits. While the United States is only one small portion of the population that does not mean that it cannot experience the effects of loss of genetic diversity in its own segregated area. Historically royalty often participated in incestuous marriages as it was believed to preserve and continue the preferred traits of the royal house. Despite being part of only a small portion of the world’s population, a study published in PLOS One supports the belief that King Charles II of the Spanish Habsburg dynasty was infertile and physically and mentally disabled due to frequent and continuous inbreeding within the kingdom. The fact that King Charles II presented with two genetic diseases both recessive linked indicates the validity of the implication that inbreeding and loss of genetic diversity caused these genetic diseases as well as his infertility. Looking at this example one can see that even in a very isolated part of the world, the effects of inbreeding and loss of genetic diversity can be very problematic and may eventually affect a larger portion of the world.
Also since the current method of delivering genes to the target cell is by way of viral transduction that often involves integration of the desired gene into the genome, we cannot determine the exact spot in the host DNA where the desired gene will insert. This then has the possibility of creating mutations, and/or inactivating genes. Were cosmetic genetic modification to be readily available to a large portion of the population, Americans could potentially become just like the Cheetah population with a higher susceptibility to disease, a lower rate of reproduction and possibly birth defects as a result of inbreeding of those with too similar of genetic makeup.
Additionally, cosmetic genetic modification carries with it also the possibility of the discrimination of those without modification. While genetic engineering technology is progressing, it was only in 2012 that the first gene therapy drug, Glybera was approved for sale in the United States at an astounding 1.6 million dollars per injection and it may be many years until any sort of cosmetic genetic engineering could possibly be distributed to the populace as a whole for a reasonable price. So while the opportunity for potential cosmetic genetic modification does exist, the first occurrences of such a commodity will most likely be tremendously expensive; therefore, unless very restrictive and highly regulated laws are placed requiring those without genetic modification to be judged on the same criteria as those with modification, success will become even more of a commodity than it currently is. Those without the financial ability to genetically modify their children to be more athletic or more intelligent will be disadvantaging them before they are even born.
If cosmetic genetic modification became an available alteration, the rules for competition would also drastically change. Those that could afford to alter their genes allowing them to become faster, stronger, and more intelligent would rise even higher above those would could not, thus allowing them to become more successful and further widening the economic gap between rich and poor. The only way to prevent this occurrence would be to create a separate arena for competition between the two. For example, if a certain college only accepts say 200 students per year, then there would have to be 100 of those spots set aside for non-genetically altered students and 100 of those spots set aside for genetically altered students, with each group competing with others of the same group. Companies would have to be required to admit a certain number of both types of people. While it is true that ambition and dedication can make up for certain inherent lacking traits, it is possible that ambition and dedication themselves are coded for by genes in our DNA. Were this to be the case then, even with such stringent regulations on competition, those would could afford genetic enhancement would still have an advantage, with those genetic enhancements allowing them to be naturally more successful. Thus we can see that in the short term, cosmetic genetic modification could result in the further widening gap between economically advantaged individuals and economically disadvantaged and in the long term could result in the potential loss of genetic diversity due to extensive use.
From the super intelligent genetically selected population in Gattaca to the genetically modified super-soldiers in Halo, the outcome of a society filled with genetically modified individuals with preferred traits has been explored by numerous science fiction novels and movies. In Gattaca, those with certain DNA sequences that researchers believe code for preferred traits are singled out as superior to those that do not; however, this idea of genetic discrimination is not limited only to science fiction. In 1910 Charles Davenport founded the Eugenics Record Office which was designed to utilize genetic engineering “to improve the natural, physical, mental, and temperamental qualities of the human family.” However, instead of improving the qualities of humanity, this organization instead alienated those with traits deemed undesirable, which “manifested itself in a widespread effort to prevent individuals who were considered to be "unfit" from having children”. (Norrgard) In order to cleanse the gene pool, many early advocates of eugenics argued for policies of sterilization or elimination of those with undesirable traits. This questionable history makes the future of cosmetic genetic modification all the more frightening as it highlights a mentality that says that a group of human beings can somehow adequately determine which traits make other human beings better than one another.
Along with the question of whether we should allow genetic modification for individuals to have preferred traits comes the question of which traits should be preferred? For physical traits this question is fairly straight forward, but for personality traits it is immensely more complex. Perhaps some people would agree that honesty and humbleness are good traits to have; however, others may view honesty as a detrimental trait depending on the person’s profession and humbleness may be viewed as weakness in certain situations. Thus it seems, there would be no set of perfect desirable traits that everyone could be engineered with; therefore, in order to make more able human beings by this method, each person’s profession would need to be decided before birth thus allowing proper ‘enhancement’ of the areas of that person’s genome that would make them the most successful at their chosen profession. This, however, then brings up the question of consent on the part of the unborn child and whether another person has the right to choose another person’s future.
Does a parent have the right to choose what type of traits his or her child will or will not have? By choosing to make one’s children genetically modified to be taller than average, a parent is inadvertently, or perhaps intentionally, limiting the options for what that child may choose as a future career. If he grows up to want to be a jockey, his genetically ‘enhanced’ height will serve for him as a disadvantage. Additionally this raises the question of whether children may potentially become viewed as commodities as Richard Hayes points out in his article in The Washington Post; “At what point do children become artifacts designed to someone’s specifications rather than members of a family to be nurtured?” (1)
While it may seem as though we are a very long distance on the timeline of human advancement from cosmetic genetic modification being available to a signification portion of the general populace, the time to contemplate the possible consequences of such technological advancement is now. There is no easy, or set answer to the conundrum that genetic modification poses to society; however, there is the opportunity to anticipate those consequences and consider their impact. People often argue that what differentiates humans from every other type of animal is our intelligence and our ambition to create, discover and invent; however, those same qualities that society finds so positive and uniquely human are just as dangerous as they are marvelous. In a time when we are pushing the limits of artificial intelligence, cloning, genetic engineering and many other morally ambiguous, but immensely interesting scientific endeavors, one may wonder if the end result of these scientific advancements will be worth the euphoria of their discovery. I propose, perhaps, a different view of what differentiates humans from other animals. I believe it is our discipline, our ability to not act upon impulse; to want something, but to resist for the greater good that differentiates human-kind from other forms of life. It is our responsibility and our duty to have the best interests of society as a whole in our minds as technology progresses and to not be lured by the fascination and power of scientific discovery.

Works Cited
Alvarez G, Ceballos FC, Quinteiro C (2009) The Role of Inbreeding in the Extinction of a European Royal Dynasty. PLoS ONE 4(4): e5174. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005174

Charlesworth, Deborah, and John H. Willis. "The Genetics of Inbreeding Depression." Nature Reviews 10 (2009): 783-96. Web.

Hayes, Richard. "Genetically Modified Humans? No Thanks." The Washington Post 15 Apr. 2008: 1-2. Web. <http://biopoliticaltimes.org/downloads/Hayes_WashPost_041508.pdf>.

Lacy, Robert C. "Importance of Genetic Variation to the Viability of Mammalian Populations." Journal of Mammalogy 78.2 (1997): 320-35. Web. 27 Apr. 2013. <http://www.vortex9.org/reprints/importance%20genetic%20variation.pdf>.

Norrgard, Karen. "Human Testing, the Eugenics Movement, and IRBs." Nature.com. Nature Publishing Group, n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2013. <http://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/human-testing-the-eugenics-movement-and-irbs-724>.


  1. Veronica is a guest author. Comments?

  2. in the last line you wrote; "It is our responsibility and our duty to have the best interests of society as a whole in our minds as technology progresses and to not be lured by the fascination and power of scientific discovery." We are a very curious species and will always be on the move forward and have let too many groups slow progress for far too long under the veil of religion. i agree there should be forethought placed into these decisions that could direct our species in a new direction. but there is the curious side of me that wants to see what we could come up with and just learn to adapt.

  3. I agree, but I think that in attempting to anticipate and possibly mitigate the potential negative impacts new technologies will have on our society we are adapting to those discoveries. It might not be impulsive adaption, but it is still adaptation nonetheless. And this sort of adaption, I believe, would result in less problematic consequences than were we just to try to discover new technologies without even considering the consequences.

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  5. "cosmetic genetic modification could result in the further widening gap between economically advantaged individuals and economically disadvantaged"

    It amazes me that people would bring us such weird fantastical ideas of protecting the socio-disadvantage class but would readily apply a different standard when it comes to consumer technology. For example, children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds will naturally not afford smart devices and the latest gadgets. Yet we don't see ethicists speak out on this issue. We could advocate that a law is passed that gives children equal access to technology (at the expense of taxpayers) of course, or simply treat technology as pornography, which will effectively place a bar on age that a person may use them.