Ethix Forum – Issue 17

What are the primary ethical issues and challenges we must face up to in the emerging biotechnology realm (genomics, bioengineering, etc.)? Who should take responsibility here? What are the first steps to be taken?

Since today’s technologies will be outdated in the near future any attempt to restrict certain types of technologies is a strategy of limited scope and utility that will not address the larger issues: what are the moral and ethical applications of biotechnology to the human race?

In the past we have used the government, through agencies such as the FDA, to protect the public from the dangers of new drugs by processes that force industry to identify the efficacy and toxicity of medications before they are made available to the public. What has been lacking to this point is a discussion of the moral and ethical nature of these medications. The advent of biotechnology brings with it the ability to manipulate the human body in ways that previous technologies could not.

Medical ethics and other bodies of knowledge can be used to help us develop policies and
guidelines that will enable us to use biotechnology responsibly to better mankind.

Our choices are either to deal with the implications prospectively before the applications are available to the public, or deal with the outcomes retrospectively through the legal system. To abdicate our opportunity to set national policies about biotechnology applications suggests we believe the legal system should become our moral compass. Allowing the legal system to become our moral compass may be the worst decision we can make.
Doug Gibson
President & CEO
Washington Imaging Services, LLC
Seattle WA

One challenge is how to balance the copyright and patent interests of biotech creators with exploding needs among people who cannot afford to pay “market” prices (e.g., AIDS drugs in some parts of Africa).

Another question is how much we are willing to tinker with human life. For example, I would be in favor of genetic therapy to re-engineer a schizophrenic who wishes it but what about an individual with an inherited predisposition for alcoholism? or a gay person who wishes to become straight? When parents lose a six-year old we can argue that cloning will not bring that lost child back but when a three-month old accidentally suffocates, cloning may come pretty close to doing so. Will we set limits or have guidelines?
Julie Donalek, RN, D.N.Sc.
Assoc. Professor of Nursing, North Park University,
Chicago IL

There is a gap between the rate of new understanding in science and the rate of human/ethical understanding. Science relentlessly and rapidly moves ahead discovering the secrets of the universe. If there is a secret, scientists somewhere are going to try to turn over the “rock” and discover something new. Science does so without much regard for values or ethics issues. This is to some degree inevitable as science is not well equipped to deal with ethics and values.

If this is true, then it is up to the rest of society to help deal with the moral/value implications of science . Too often we wait until months or even years after a new discovery to wake up with an “Oops this could be a dangerous problem for humankind!” We need to develop some form of rapid early warning “dialogue-and-wrestling-with-implications” system so that ethicists, philosophers, citizens, and the political process get involved with science far earlier than we seem to do now. Laws and regulatory responses will ultimately have to come from the people and from their understanding of the value and ethical implications of science’s discoveries.
Al Bjorkman, Ph.D.
Assoc. Professor of Biology
North Park University
Chicago IL