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Genetic Engineering from a Natural Law Perspective

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Genetic Engineering from a Natural Law Perspective

Aldous Huxley wrote one of the most memorable books about a world in which humans have become “uniform batches.”  The Brave New World (1932) is often used to represent the controversy about bioengineering because it portrays mankind’s future (in the book, it is the 26th century) as a negative utopia in which individuality is lost and reproduction is automatized by incubators.  Huxley calls “his cloning technology” the Bokanovsky’s process:

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“ ‘Bokanosky’s Process is one of the major instruments of social stability!’

                       Major instruments of stability.

            Standard men and women; in uniform batches.  The whole of a small

            factory staffed with the products of a single bokanovskied egg. (…)

            ‘Community, Identity, Stability.’  Grand words. ‘If we could bokanofskify

            indefinitely, the whole problem would be solved.’” (Huxley, Chapter 1)

A utopic mankind would reach out for the complete elimination of war and poverty while giving everyone health, happiness, and comfort from technological advancements.  The irony in Huxley’s novel is that everything that truly makes us happy and unique has been taken away by fabricating ‘cutter cookie humans.

’ Genetic engineering has been a vast controversy all over the world.  The scope of this paper is to explore the topic of genetic engineering from the perspective of natural law.  The history of genetic engineering as well as a the science of genetics need to be discussed as well.  Finally, the controversy will be explored by defining the issues that divide so many people, even today.

            The idea of artificial breeding has been in existence for centuries.  In fact, selective replanting has been used since the beginning of farming.  The concept is simple: the best vegetables and fruit of one season should have seeds that will continue the same quality of the produce, season after season.  The same has applied to animals that are selectively bred, based on the isolation of certain physical characteristics.  In the beginning of the 20th century, Gregor Mendel became ‘the father’ of selective breeding and genetics, when he carefully bred out certain traits in his pea plants while breeding others in.  He is the first one to identify traits as being dominant or recessive, terminology still in use today.  In 1952, Watson and Crick published their solved structure of DNA.  Around this time, DNA had become the primary focus of geneticists.  After Watson and Crick’s discovery, modern genetics, the selection and manipulation of genes, and DNA recombinant technology were on their way.  By the beginning of the 1970s, biotechnology took off and provoked apprehension not only within the public but among the scientists too.  Potential dangers were unknown and no one was really sure what to expect.  In fact, public apprehension gradually became very noticeable because the technology had not been tested yet in a way that could reassure the public.  Some scientists even thought that their words would be sufficient to calm agitated spirits among the population but they overestimated their ability to clearly predict dangers when they themselves did not master the technology yet.

            The science behind genetics mainly makes use of bacteria and phages (bacterial viruses) to manipulate genes.  Using the ability of bacteria to absorb genetic material, one can use bacteria to take up a specific DNA sequence coding for a protein product.  Special enzymes inside the cell will integrate this new DNA, usually on what is called a plasmid (extra DNA in circular form in a bacterium) and express or make the new protein product.  Through physical and chemical methods, the product is isolated and purified.  Bacteriophages or simply phages attack bacteria by injecting their genetic material inside the bacterial cells.  Phages become vectors that modify the genome of bacteria, rendering them able to express a foreign specific protein product.  These methods can be applied to animals and plants.

                        Bernard Davis (1993) wrote a semi-scientific review of genetic engineering from a historical point of view.  He writes that very early on, rules needed to be set to frame what practices and experiments would be acceptable to do or not. (Davis, 2)  The beginning of such efforts happened at the Asilomar conference in California during which ‘doomsday scenarios’ were explored in order to characterize potential new dangers.  These scenarios turned into the starting point for most of the rules, guided by the NIH (National Institute of Health) and a specific regulatory committee RAC (Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee).  Remarkably, the reaction of the public to genetic engineering had been to carry out vigorous debates about the uses of such a technology.  The concerns had been focusing on gene therapy, genetic screening in humans creating disadvantages to get work or to keep one’s privacy, the straying of therapeutics into eugenics, and the possibilities of opening Pandora’s box with environmental deterioration and/or creating ‘superbugs’ that would kill plants, animals as well as humans. (Davis, 3)  One example Davis gives is the well-intentioned need to solve the drug resistance problems in bacteria , which adapt to new antibiotics very quickly.  What if one decided to alter bacteria and suddenly, the strain’s virulence is augmented, Pandora’s box indeed.  Nevertheless, there is a parallel between recombinant harmful bacteria and recombinant harmful plants or insects in people’s minds.  Davis states that since such a catastrophe has not occurred yet, the dangers of genetic engineering may be overstated since many ‘evolutionary steps’ would have to occur before the accidental release of ‘superplants’ and/or ‘superbugs.’  Therefore, genetic engineering does not violate Natural Law, which is in effect the Natural Order of things.  In order to justify this scenario, the analogy used is when exotic species are translocated into a new environment.  These species may push the native species to full extinction.  People claim that if genetically engineered plants, insects, bacteria were to get out, they would render the ecology we rely on useless, and even dangerous.  However, Davis makes an interesting observation as an answer to these objections.  He differentiates the exotic species as having either no indigenous enemies or having too many.  Therefore, its adaptation will either fail or succeed.  According to Davis, it is more likely to succeed. As to an engineered organism, the organism with a modified genome returns to its own environment, probably less likely to be less adaptive.  Consequently, Natural Law has not been broken. (Davis, 4, 5)  Based on Davis’s review of the regulations pertaining to genetic engineering, it seems that regulations are not set in an orderly fashion, rendering the examination of such regulatory policies very difficult.  One good point brought out by the National Research Council is that regulations should concentrate on the risks of each genetically engineered product instead of heavily regulating the process by which it was created. (Davis, 6)  Various agencies have failed to address these issues appropriately.  He gives the examples of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and the Federal Coordinating Committee on Science and Technology whose watchdog role has been insufficient.  (Davis, 6)  Nonetheless, genetic engineering has been involved in the controversy over food that has not ended yet in other parts of the world.

In Europe, the stand of law makers has been to ban genetically modified foods (GM) altogether because the dangers of GM foods have not been properly evaluated by heavy exporters of GM foods like the U.S…  These concerns intensified, especially after September 11 with the fear of bioterrorism.  Pre-September 11, Dotson and Darrell (1997) look at the biotech industry and its potential to elevate Europe among the top genetic industrial powers.  Genetic engineering is favoring a system that is privatizing agricultural knowledge; patenting transgenic animals and transgenic plants while handing economic and financial power to a few corporations have been the main legal issues.  In Europe, the trend that people as a whole support more readily is the independent ownership of a farm, the small-scale production of agricultural products, and sustainable agricultural practices that support diversity, local control, and humane treatment of animals, thereby keeping in line with the Natural Order of things.  Especially in Europe is food viewed as a cultural issue, which renders the U.S. GM giant corporations almost powerless.  Ironically, the cultural view of food is what particular attracted the corporations in Europe.  Furthermore, the unified Europe, if they had accepted the GM craze, would have been a serious scientific competitor to the U.S. because of its excellent complements of scientists rivaling their U.S. counterparts.  Unfortunately for the biotech companies, GM crops were never accepted by the European farmers, or European consumers.  Noticeably, public health crisis like mad cow disease had turned people against the blind acceptance that ‘the government says that GM foods are good for you.’  Mad cow disease actually is a violation of Natural Law when cows are fed ground sheep bone as food instead of grass.  Yet, someone thought that cows could become carnivorous!  The infectious agent comes from the sheep and contaminates the cow, causing the disease.  Therefore, public policy decided to show much caution as soon as the issue came forward.  This attitude crippled the biotech industry in Europe because their grasp on the market was not as powerful as in the U.S.  Dotson and Darrell emphasize that the legal and ethical issues are essential to understand the European stand on GM foods versus the U.S. stand.  In the U.S., techniques to obtain GM plants and animals are patented.   In the U.S., human-animal chimeras are not statutorily excluded from patentability, even though the Patent and Trademark Office stated that they would not issue patents for such creations based on the U.S. constitution.  However, the view is that patent law is predicted by the concept of public good.  Hence, patents from chimeras should not be prohibited just because they entail risks.  In Europe, the European Patent Commission determined that the human body in its various stages of development is not patentable. (Dotson, Darrell, 919-949)

            In Genetic Engineering and Social Justice, Resnik (1997) lays the foundation for discussing the “Rawslian theories of distributive justice.” (Resnik, 1)  Distributive justice is effectively the societal effort to organize social institutions that make up for the natural differences in abilities, skills, and talents to treat people with “fair equality of opportunity. “ (Resnik 1)  The grand words in Huxley’s Brave New World were “Community, Identity, Stability”, which imply that the natural endowments that people get at birth can be changed to stabilize social justice and society.  Resnik brings out the idea that there does not seem much of a stretch of imagination to think that genetic engineering could be used to fix humans so as to promote an artificial egalitarian society, hence “bokanoskifying” society.  The step over to eugenics is not really far, Resnik claims, because parents always want the best for their offspring so ‘tweaking their genome should not be a big deal’.  Based on Rawslian theory, genetic inequalities among people is allowed only if these inequalities are to everyone’s advantage while ensuring there is a fair equality of freedom in society as such.  Essentially, Rawls’s theory would support the development of universal principles aimed at governing the distribution of “primary goods” and “social goods”: rights, liberties, opportunities, income, and wealth. (Resnik 2)  In addition, the principle of justice would supersede any other societal alterations that would organize social institutions in a way that would not benefit everyone. (Resnik, 2)  What Rawls calls the difference principle would allow a reorganization of society only if there is an equal benefit for everyone.  So, Rawls would allow for genetic engineering if the resulting societal alterations were equal for everyone. (Resnik 5)  However, the problem here is that genetic engineering may change the range of what we call normality, creating sub or super beings.  Therefore, a concept of genetic equality has to be developed based on the question of how much genetic variation is fair.  Rawls would agree with a “genetic leveling” that would allow fair equality of opportunities. (Resnik, 6)

            The controversy of stem cells falls into the category of genetic engineering because it promotes the manipulation of cells, mainly to improve the health of millions of people.  Based on Rawls’s theory, this would be acceptable since ‘everyone would have access to being cured.’  Nevertheless, because stem cells are harvested from embryos, ethical issues are prevalent for the opponents of stem cell research, being that life is being destroyed to serve the needs of society.  They feel that destroying embryos to harvest stem cells is wrong as well as creating embryos from stem cells. (Today’s science, 3-5) (Taber, 12, 13)  Consequently, in this case, Rawls’s theory of equal justice may fail because the manipulation of stem cells does not bring equal fairness in opportunities for everyone.  Specifically, if people are to be cured from stem cells, then everyone presumably has access to that technology but reality is that it would not be the case.  Also, what about fairness to the sacrificed embryos that are technically nascent human beings since embryos start their existence after fertilization?  Well, this question is also a controversy, this time about whether or not, embryos are considered alive.  As far as making embryos from stem cells, what is the goal of this procedure?  Making humans or more embryos to sacrifice?  In addition, what would be the fate of these future people?  Would they be better genetically speaking than the rest of us?

            In conclusion, genetic engineering seems to be a very complex issue.  The current controversy over genetically modified plants and animals, over GM foods, and over the future of mankind as the “Brave New World” has ramifications in religious beliefs, philosophical theories, and legal as well as political arenas.  Stem cells have added another debatable dimension to the debate, rendering genetic engineering even more controversial.  In addition, it seems that many details of the results and effects of engineering mutant organisms have not been disclosed by the giant biotech companies.  The Natural Law describes the natural biology of ecosystems.  Based on our pre-genetic engineering days, we still caused destruction of the environment and human lives.  Genetic engineering may very well be the next phase that will finish off the Natural Order of things.

Works Cited

Davis, Bernard D. Genetic Engineering: The Making of Monsters? Public Interest, 110, (1993, Winter): 63+.

Dotson, Darrell G. The European Controversy over Genetic-Engineering Patents. Houston Journal of International Law, 19, 3 (1997): 919-949.

Huxley A. The Brave New World. Multiple Publishers, 1932.

Resnik, David B. Genetic Engineering and Social Justice: A Rawlsian Approach. Social Theory and Practice, 23, 3 (1997): 427+.

Stem Cells Made-To-Order. Today’s Science, 9 (2005): 3-25.

Taber, Sarah. From Skin Cell to Stem Cell. Today’s Science, 10 (2005): 12-13.


Cite this Genetic Engineering from a Natural Law Perspective

Genetic Engineering from a Natural Law Perspective. (2017, Jan 22). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/genetic-engineering-from-a-natural-law-perspective/

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