Write an essay explaining why scientists involved in germline therapy
and cloning are criticized for “playing God.” Include the following in your discussion.
a. Expound on the radical nature of these procedures, how scientists tinker with the very core of procreation, and list the possible negative implications.
b. Explain how these procedures are different ethically from selecting attractive sexual partners, from vaccination, from liver transplants, artificial insemination, and in vitro fertilization.
c. Then give your reasoned ethical opinion concerning whether they should be permitted.
2. Write an essay explaining two (2) ethical difficulties involved in genetic screening.
Couples hope to have healthy babies with an opportunity for a good life. Unfortunately,
approximately 10% of couples in the United States are infertile. Other couples face the
likelihood of birthing children with grave physical disabilities. Still other couples may want to
design a certain kind of offspring. Today and tomorrow, these couples, with the aid of new
medical advances, can achieve their desires. But, what are the ethical concerns in the
development and use of these medical technologies? Are the advances ethical? Which ones?
What are the personal and societal consequences of the different procedures? What are their
The earlier forms of assisted reproductive technologies (artificial insemination, in vitro
fertilization, and different forms of ovarian stimulation, implantation of ova and zygotes) have
been debated and have generally passed medical ethical approval. In this assignment, we explore
the ethics of:
1. Prenatal diagnosis for disease and sex.
2. Whether information should be open to parents and the public, especially insurance
3. Whether abortions should be performed on the basis of the babies’ sex or health.
4. What genetics can do and should do to produce healthy and/or exceptional children.
In its broadest terms, the controversies over genetic intervention pit conservatives who
value prenatal life and traditional and natural processes against progressives who envision a new
and more humane future with less suffering. Historically, new methods of reproduction raise
fear and condemnation that gradually lessen as they prove to be reliable and produce healthy
babies. There may well come a day when cloning and eugenics are accepted practices, but we
must first evaluate the ethics of these and other procedures.
The general benefits of the new medical technologies are that:
1. They enable couples to have children.
2. They enable disease-free children.
3. They promise revolutionary cures for many intractable diseases.
The possible downsides of these new technologies are that they may:
1. Weaken people’s reverence for life.
2. Weaken respect for religious authority.
3. Encourage women to have abortions.
4. Put society on the slippery slope to horrors such as eugenics.
If new medical advances in human reproduction are permitted, they raise new questions
in medical ethics:
1. For what situations are they ethical?
2. How can we avoid abuses and slippery slopes?
3. How should applications of these technologies be regulated and/or monitored?
When a prenatal diagnosis is performed, important, sensitive information such as genetic
predispositions to certain diseases is generated. Some argue that this information should not be
generated or at least not be revealed to either the child’s parents or the public. They believe that
this information will tempt parents and doctors to play God, to try to design the perfect child, and
to have abortions. Others argue that the sex of the fetus should be withheld because of possible
parental sexist preferences. Still others would say that this sensitive information should not be
made public because it could influence the child’s employment possibilities and his or her ability
to obtain affordable insurance later in life.
It should be granted that detailed prenatal diagnosis may result in a higher percentage of
healthy babies and fulfillment for childbearing couples. It should also be granted that this kind
of diagnosis will lead to inevitable abuses in a free society interested in knowledge and profit. It
will be practically impossible to keep this kind of knowledge secret for ordinary people. The
ethical question is, How can we foster good uses of prenatal diagnosis and discourage its abuses?
Somatic cell therapy extracts a population of cells from an individual; removes a
defective gene from that population, replacing it with a healthy gene; and returns the geneengineered
cells to the patient. This process should render treatable many genetic diseases that
are caused by a defect in a single gene. This therapy would seem to be ethical because it is
supported by the fundamental moral principle of beneficence: it would relieve human suffering.
Should the same ethical approval be extended to germline gene therapy, which replaces
genes in sperm, ova, and cells that give rise to sperm and ova? This kind of therapy could ensure
that later generations would not inherit a particular disorder, yet some people argue that this
process is unethical because we would be “playing God.” It would, they argue, be a prelude to
eugenics, not only to removing disease, but also to genetic engineering in the service of creating
super people. (Most people are aware of Hitler’s desire to create the Aryan race, but few are
aware that Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, introduced the scientific argument for
eugenics or that mentally handicapped adults were sterilized in the United States in an attempt to
keep them from having handicapped children of their own.) Still others argue that the process is
too dangerous. In our present state of knowledge, we could alter the course of embryonic
development, for example, by interfering with the work of nature’s time-tested housekeeping
genes and produce severely handicapped children.
Advocates of germline gene therapy argue that we have always tried eugenics in some
form, as by seeking a desirable mate, and that we have always resisted more aggressive eugenic
efforts in the past. They also argue that our understanding of genetic processes is somewhat
intelligent, and our ability to treat unexpected consequences is somewhat developed. Therefore,
they say, any unforeseen results can be taken care of. Moreover, these advocates argue that
medicine itself has a prima facie duty to pursue and employ germline gene therapy because it
offers us the chance to rid ourselves completely of many serious genetic diseases for which there
is no effective treatment.
Cloning humans was once the stuff of science fiction. It is now a real probability. This
probability is proof for many that science has gone too far in its God-playing. The idea of
creating replicas of ourselves raises in our imaginations nightmarish possibilities. How could a
person raise his or her identical twin? Would people use their clones as part shops that they
could dismember at will when their own body parts wear out? Would we sell clones of gifted
people to the highest bidders? How many cloned embryos will have to be discarded because of
serious defects? How do we know that the clones would not have major defects? Wouldn’t
cloning lessen the worth of individuals and diminish respect for life?
Much of the fear of cloning lies in a misperception that persons with the same DNA will
be identical. This is not even true of natural identical twins. It would be less true of a clone
because of the different uterine environment, mitochondrial differences, a different growth
environment, and a different will to live. A clone of Michael Jordan might face pressure to be
good at basketball, but he would not be Michael Jordan; he would be himself.
In certain circumstances, a couple might decide upon cloning to have offspring that are
biologically similar to them. Do they have a right to clone? Cloning might allow couples to
have offspring that are free from hereditary diseases. Cloning might also allow a person to
obtain needed organs or tissue for transplantation. Cloning might allow the duplication of
individuals with great talent. It might also make possible important advances in scientific
knowledge. These are all, arguably, human goods, mostly minor, that could be provided by
It is inevitable that attempts will be made to clone humans. These attempts will probably
result in numerous abnormalities, abortions, miscarriages, and seriously defective people. Each
cloned baby will, however, be a human person entitled to full human rights and respect. These
attempts may also create healthy babies and little or no collateral damage. In that brave new
world, cloning might well become respectable. We must ask ourselves, however, how many
defective clones is an acceptable risk to create one perfect clone? One? Four? Ten?
Another topic that is frequently in the news is stem cell research. While most Americans
have heard of stem cells, most have no real knowledge of what they are or how medical science
uses them. Stem cells have two important characteristics:
1. They are unspecified and renew themselves for long periods through cell division.
2. Under some conditions, they can be induced to become cells with special functions,
such as the beating cells of the heart muscle or the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas.
These characteristics allow scientists to have an unending supply of stem cells to study
the way the body processes stem cells and to try to induce similar processes in the laboratory.
The hope is that this research will yield regenerative cures for diseases ranging from diabetes to
Three types of stem cells have been identified: embryonic stem (ES) cells, embryonic
germ (EG) cells, and adult stem cells. Embryonic stem (ES) cells are generally harvested from
eggs that have been fertilized in vitro in the fourth or fifth day after fertilization. At this time,
they are hollow microscopic balls of cells called blastocysts. The inner cell mass of the
blastocyst is transferred into a plastic laboratory culture dish that contains a nutrient broth called
a culture medium. Early procedures at this point introduced non-dividing mouse cells in order to
stimulate the inner mass cells to proliferate. Newer procedures avoid using mouse cells.
In several days, the inner mass cells proliferate and begin to crowd the culture dish.
When this occurs, they are moved to several fresh culture dishes. This process is repeated many
times for several months. Embryonic stem cells that have proliferated in cell culture for six or
more months without differentiating and appear to be normal are referred to as an embryonic
stem cell line. Batches of this cell line can be frozen and shipped to other laboratories for further
culture and experimentation.
Embryonic germ (EG) cells are removed from the genetic ridge of deliberately aborted
new fetuses in about the second month of pregnancy. They have characteristics similar to ES
cells. Adult stem cells typically generate the cell types of the tissue in which they reside. A
blood-forming adult stem cell in the bone marrow, for example, generally gives rise to red blood
cells, white blood cells, and platelets. Recently, it has been discovered that these adult stem cells
might be able to develop into other forms such as neurons or heart muscle. For more on this
subject, see stemcellresearch.org (www.stemcellresearch.org/facts/miscupdate1.htm).
The ethical questions concerning stem cell research mirror those concerning gene therapy
and cloning. A particular question arises for researchers who may be morally opposed to
abortion. Can they in good conscience experiment on stem cell lines that have been derived
from laboratory blastocysts or aborted fetuses? Is harvesting stem cells from fertilized eggs the
same as aborting a viable human being? If this procedure is legalized, would we then be
committing mass abortion in the name of science? On the other hand, does stem cell research
provide the key to curing currently incurable diseases? If so, would stem cell research be
justified or would bad ethics lead to bad science?
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