Genetic Modification Research: Economic and Ethical Implications

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Thursday, May 2, 2019


Genetic enhancement and modification are fields developing much more rapidly than the dialogue about them. These fields are being propelled forward by individual researchers all across the globe. The few who do discuss these topics outside of the directs spheres of influence struggle to articulate their discomfort and to understand research specifics.  

The majority of the developed world has non-specific laws governing genetic modification experiments. The specifics of laws vary from country to country, and even from state to state in the U.S.

In the United States, the law that applies nationally is one that only prevents the FDA from reviewing any research in which a human embryo is intentionally created to include a heritable modification. The federal government is also not permitted to fund this research. The underlying position in that statement is that germline modification (embryo editing) is not to be permitted. This is echoed in all major European countries which is still at least in theory governed by the Declaration of Helsinki. China also does not permit germline editing.

It is generalized in this writing that all of the views surrounding these subjects fall along a spectrum, one end being the transhumanist position and the other being the position advocated for by humanists. The transhumanist position is that it is morally obligatory for humans to permit and subsequently implement the editing of human embryos for desire and enhancement. The humanist view is that, in pursuing the ultimate control of human mortality, the critical values that define and unite humanity are undermined.

Humanists argue that, while enhancements would enable more people to be capable of a larger overall quantity of giftedness in society, they also severely devalue that giftedness by so drastically increasing the supply. The more significant issue is that this change in mindset results in no longer treating a child as someone to be brought into the world and helped to become a unique independent individual.

Transhumanists argue that once abilities and gifts are available to be acquired, individuals are taking on a great deal more risk and responsibility. The added burden is that once an individual’s capabilities are deemed entirely within their control, they are then wholly responsible if there is any mistake. An example of this is that an enhanced athlete has no excuse not to perform at the exact predicted level. The humanists argue that it is the awareness that human capabilities, gifts, and life outcomes, are not entirely controllable, that urges humans to show restraint to in order to avoid the risks that are generated by the portion of their capabilities that they cannot control.

At the time of this writing a Chinese fertility scientist has already edited twin embryos, and the children have been born. The scientist, Dr. He, attended a press conference shortly after the birth. He claimed he had successfully used Crispr-Cas9 edit and replace technology to remove a gene associated with HIV susceptibility on these two twin girls. Dr. He went on to claim that his procedure gives the father a reason to live since he was HIV positive.

These claims have been met with serious ethical and professional concerns, because this violates the international moratorium on germline editing. This poses problems for Dr. He in China as well. It appears he misled his university, and the hospital at which he practices.

Dr. He did not seek approval from Chinese regulators by waiting to list his clinical trial in the Chinese trial registry until after the twins had already been born. There is even evidence that he misled the parents by offering this embryonic editing experiment as a method of preventing their children from contracting HIV. The method Dr. He used was not only experimental, but illegal in China.

There are other ways for men with HIV to safely produce offspring with their loved ones without experimenting on embryos, semen washing for instance. Semen washing is essentially a process that separates genetic material from the rest of the semen, permitting IVF with the HIV positive males’ genetic material with no chance of passing on the HIV.

Dr. He is now thought to be under house arrest in China, and the edited twin girls are with their parents.

Transhumanists further contend that individuals given the freedom and access to enhancements will use reason to become more prosperous and make others more prosperous as well. They say that genetically enhanced humans are more capable of effectively innovating and producing, so it would rationally follow that the more enhanced individuals there are in society, the more innovation there is, and the more efficient production there is. From an economic standpoint, this would be a positive societal transition.

While these transhumanist arguments are reasonably compelling, they are contingent upon the good faith of the enhanced individuals and their enhancers. It is reasonable to assume that there would be just as many people with bad intentions who deliberately misuse their enhancements or their ability to select the genes of those they have dominion over

One could also argue that enabling parents to alter the genes of a child to predispose them to something preferred by the parents robs the child of at least some of its autonomy.

Depending on the expectations of the parents, it may significantly reduce their autonomy. For instance, a child engineered to be musically and athletically talented, even if they are unharmed by the editing process, may be pushed by their parents to focus on specific sports and instruments. Perhaps some parents are exploitative parents and resolve to design their child with the intent of producing a dominant professional athlete, who is also destined to be incredibly generous to their parents.

In reality, it is possible, even probable, concerning children enhanced as embryos, that they will be disinterested in the very areas in which they are designed to perform well or become victims of their hubris. It is equally likely that the enhanced could end up being bullied out their profession, if they have enhancements in the field, as a result of perceived unfairness.

The interaction between the human body and its respective individual is unique and valuable with respect to that human’s struggle to overcome physical, emotional, and mental challenges. It is arguable that it is immoral to impose the risks that accompany the uncertainty of the genetic modification enabling improvement on those who are unable to consent (the individuals enhanced as embryos). Some would argue that nobody presently consents to the bundle of genes they have, but this doesn’t seem like a logical rebuttal. Embryonic enhancements still represent a risk that is additional to random mutation and developmental complications

It is probable that market availability of enhancement would increase the prevalence hubris exhibition in society as well as perhaps an increase in the magnitude of the negative externalities inevitably generated by the aforementioned hubris. Solidarity is arguably the most crucial with regards to the retention of social safety nets and suppression of collective hubris.

When the uncertainty about health outcomes no longer becomes a factor and individuals can merely enhance their way out of trouble, there is far less general sentiment for the moral obligation to provide safety net programs. Once an individual has abilities that are well beyond that of the average person, they feel morally obligated to redistribute the economic prosperity generated by their windfall gains but only if they didn’t choose to acquire those exceptional abilities.

In a world of marketable enhancement, there is no moral incentive to perform the redistribution of the prosperity generated by the individual through acquired improvement— the perception of the acquired attribute changes when it becomes attainable. An individual no longer has something very few are lucky to have innately. Instead, they have something that can be acquired in the market by anyone and isn’t unique to them.

The potential upside of genetic enhancements that are made available to all cannot be high enough to justify the cost because there are more immediate externalities for the society generated by the prices associated with increasing the availability. If a nation decides to make genetic enhancement treatments available to all who want them at no cost, they are likely to expend all of the societies resources long before attaining the desired outcome. The outcome would be a society with even more income inequality than before the start of the enhancement entitlement program.

Making enhancements universally available is not going to yield the optimal quantity of enhancement in society, morally, economically or otherwise.

On the specific subtopic of embryonic enhancements meant to negate the effects of a disease like Huntington’s or Tay Sachs, it seems morally obligatory to permit extensive R&D and application along with reasonable regulation and total transparency. It follows that it is ethical to make a lifesaving product available that not everyone who needs it will be able to get. If there is a treatment that can help individuals with negatively life altering genetic compositions (meaning they generate illness/mental absence/death) these treatments should be put on the market and be minimally regulated.

Regarding direct enhancement that yields the individual above average in one or more of their productive attributes, it is exceptionally hard to argue that an individual doesn’t have the right to enhance themselves in a way that won’t affect their children. Just the same, one cannot prevent an individual from reproducing based upon their genes or choices without restricting their autonomy.

It is probable that a realistic projection of the changes in the distribution of outcomes resulting from market availability of sci-fi type enhancements would merely be an increase in the level of achievement by already high achievers. It is worth noting that the productive capacity of human beings has increased by a massive amount and continues to increase substantially every year. We have proven we do not need the luxury enhancements and are likely to innovate to the point that becoming enhanced would be inefficient and outdated.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.


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