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Genetic Engineering Essay, Research Paper

The Benefits and Risks of Genetic Engineering

The arrival of genetic engineering presents Catholics with an interesting moral dilemma. Although it clearly brings with it immense benefits for the entire human race, certain aspects of it don’t bide by Catholic moral teachings. If a doctor uses biotechnology to diagnose or cure a patient, is he playing God, or simply saving life? Due to issues like these, the Catholic Church holds certain reservations when it comes to this new field in science. The Church’s view is not strictly a one way street however; it can also see the benefits present in this science.

“The Catholic Bishops of the United States believe that, despite occasional tensions and disagreements, there can be no irreconcilable conflict between religion and science (Schnurr 1).” As Monsignor Schnurr points out, the Church has nothing against sciences like genetic engineering, as long as they agree with its moral guidelines. The Church believes that many aspects of genetic engineering are beneficial, and should be further researched and implemented.

Genetic testing and screening has obvious uses. People’s genes can be checked for diseases, negative traits, and disabilities. If someone is genetically tested they can be more certain of their future. Doctors can get an early start on preventing or curing fatal diseases, greatly increasing the patient’s chance to live. If the tests show the patient is completely healthy, they can relieve that patient’s anxiety. The Church’s official word on genetic testing is that it is morally just when it functions as an extension of sound medical practice (Singer 72). The Church, being a center of healing itself, doesn’t deny the usefulness of genetic engineering as an extension of traditional therapeutic practices. “Catholics have served the sick for many centuries, and the Church is one of the major providers of health care in the world; naturally, it applauds every medical advance that promises healing without violating moral law (Schnurr 1).”

This is not surprising; the Church has always had a similar view of genetic engineering, and scientific advances in general. In 1983, when genetic engineering was in its infancy, Pope John Paul II officially told the World Medical Association that the Catholic Church will support all medical advances (Singer 8). Any “strictly therapeutic intervention whose explicit objective is the healing of various maladies such as those stemming from chromosomal defects will, in principle, be considered desirable,” he says. He goes on to elaborate on the restrictions of the science, “[any advances will] be considered desirable, provided they are directed to the true promotion of the personal well being of the individual.”

Genetic testing can assist sound decision-making in a wide range of situations. It is most commonly used to detect genetic defects in newborns before they can become problems. Millions of Americans are hospitalized every year because of hereditary diseases and congenital abnormalities, most of which could have been prevented by early detection (Singer 39). As the Church says, when genetic testing brings about a cure, it is a blessing (Schnurr 1). There are several Church teachings regarding this, the most detailed of which probably being the statement made in 1987 from the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith called the Donum Vitae, or gift of life (Cheney 18). This statement was “Is genetic diagnosis morally licit? If genetic diagnosis respects the life and integrity of the embryo and the human fetus and is directed toward its safeguarding or healing as an individual, then the answer is affirmative”

Another area where genetic testing can benefit human flourishing is in the arena of human reproduction. Couples about to get married or have children would naturally want to know if they have any heritable genetic defects. Things like mental retardation, cystic fibrosis and breast cancer can all be passed down through reproduction (Cheney 1). While such testing carries risk, it can be considered an act of prudence, whether the couple subsequently decides to marry or not (Schnurr 1). Pope John Paul II said in his recent encyclical, the Gospel of Life, that prenatal diagnostic techniques are morally permissible “when they do not involve disproportionate risks for the child and the mother, and are meant to make possible early therapy or even to favor a serene and informed acceptance of the child not yet born.” As genetic tests like amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling, tests to detect abnormalities in children (Singer 112), become more an more accessible to the average population, more and more people are taking advantage of them.

Some aspects of genetic engineering, however, waver over the Church’s line of moral acceptance. Genetic testing can encourage an abortion if the child shows positive signs of some unwanted trait, such as a severe physical or mental disability. It is even speculated that, given the ability, some governments may enforce a mandatory genetic screening on all unborn children so they can weed out the future “burdens,” and only allow parents to have healthy and productive children (Singer 30). The benefits of something similar to Hitler’s “perfect race” are clear, and if someone with enough power were to disregard the raw immorality of such a lethal practice, it could become more than just a speculation. Genetic engineering could also bring out a new kind of discrimination, as people with inferior genes are targeted and treated unfairly by the public (Singer 30).

Not all risks of genetic engineering lie in the future. Today, genetic engineering is already being exploited and taken advantage of by the immoral and greedy. Commercial businesses are starting to offer genetic screenings for sale (Schnurr 1). The market is potentially huge, virtually everyone could be tested for some disease or defect. For example, all women could be screened for BRCA 1 and -2 breast cancer mutations. This would seem beneficial, until it is realized that only about 1,400 of the heredity-influenced diseases science has identified are currently curable (Singer 34). Getting a positive result on an incurable disease could be devastating. Knowing that one has a predisposition to cancer, or is at serious risk of developing early-onset heart disease, can have very serious psychological consequences. Moreover, information about one’s genetic makeup tells a lot about one’s relative’s genetic makeup. If a woman carries a predisposing breast cancer mutation, there is a fifty-percent chance that one or more of her sisters do as well. Her relationship with them will be affected whether she shares what she knows or not (Singer 34).

Our current methods of prenatal testing are not completely safe for the unborn child (Singer 41). The Pope has to say about this: “But since the possibilities of prenatal therapy are today still limited, it not infrequently happens that these techniques are used with a eugenic intention which accepts selective abortion in order to prevent the birth.” Such an attitude is “shameful and utterly reprehensible, since it presumes to measure the value of a human life only within the parameters of “normality” and physical well-being, thus opening the way to legitimizing infanticide and euthanasia.” The Pope goes on to say.

These situations raise an obvious question, “who has a right to all this genetic information? Because many hereditary diseases are expensive to treat and can be fatal, health and life insurance companies and government welfare organizations will have an interest in identifying people who display them or are carriers of a gene for them (Schnurr 1). Because of this, genetic screenings could become mandatory. It’s not unlikely that ten years from now a database could exist that contains all of our genomic information and traits (Schnurr 1). The existence of such a database threatens privacy, and creates a possibility for abuses such as the systematic denial of insurance (Schnurr 1). For example, colon cancer is already detectable in its early stages. If someone were to be diagnosed with it, should this information be revealed to the insurance companies, obviously against the patient’s will?

I personally believe that genetic engineering is bringing far too much good to the table to be ignored. It’s true that there are many negative side-effects, but the good far outweighs the bad. For every unborn child that is cruelly aborted because of some previously unrecognizable sign of imperfection, there will be many lives saved because of genetically designed cures and tests. As this technology becomes more a more perfected, more and more benefits will emerge. To shun something so beneficial because of several flaws is foolish.

“The Church’s knowledge of the human heart springs from 2,000 years of moral reflection based ultimately on divine revelation (Schnurr 1).” Despite this, the majority of Catholic moral tradition predates genetic engineering by hundreds of years. Genetic engineering clearly offers new challenges for the Church to address. While speaking to the Pontifical Academy for Life, Pope John Paul II said, “Indeed, the biomedical sciences are currently experiencing a period of rapid and marvelous discovery? But if scientific research is to be directed toward respect for personal dignity and support of human life, its scientific validity according to the rules of each discipline is not enough.” Scientific research must also qualify positively from a moral point of view. Also, from the outset all research should be conducted solely to promote the “true good of human beings as individuals and as a community (Schnurr 1).” Clearly, the scientific community alone cannot bear the responsibility of ensuring all research is morally sound. As our Pope said, “Catholic clergy and laity must become knowledgeable about emerging biotechnologies if they are to help people make the critical decisions they will inevitably face.” Both the Church and the scientific community can benefit from a merging of scientific study and religious morality.

Genetic engineering is an important tool, but like any tool, it must be studied in order to be used correctly. Unfortunately, this powerful tool may be taken advantage of by the unwise or unethical. Because of this, the Church continues to work for an integration into the scientific community, to ensure the genetic engineering, and all future breakthroughs, are created to benefit, not hurt, the human race.

engineering is an important tool, but like any tool, it must be studied in order to be used correctly. Unfortunately, this powerful tool may be taken advantage of by the unwise or unethical. Because of this, the Church continues to work for an integration into the scientific community, to ensure the genetic engineering, and all future breakthroughs, are created to benefit, not hurt, the human race.

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