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Genetic engineering: a Catholic persepctive on creating an ethical framework

By Yuri Koszarycz and Gary Curran - posted Friday, 11 June 2004


Much of the information in contemporary genetics is the result of a collaborative international research effort known as the Human Genome Project . On 26th June 2000, it was announced that the HGP had realized its goal, culminating in the publication of the first draft of the complete human genome.

Thus the science of genetic engineering has progressed to a point where we can definitively state that such manipulation will shape the society of the future. Christian theological ethics, in proclaiming the dignity and the rights of each human person, should endeavour to understand the complexities of these emerging sciences.

The adult human body consists of body cells or somatic cells. In addition, the ova or sperm cells, known as germ cells, allow for the reproduction of the species. Genetic manipulation can be applied to either of the somatic or germ line cells. Genetic intervention may allow faulty genes to be removed and correct ones to be inserted, resulting in the normal expression of the genes, and thus the elimination of the abnormal conditions. This in itself raises ethical questions for it can be argued that any changes made to somatic cells are restricted to one individual, whereas changes to germline cells have the potential to be passed onto future generations and thus may have effects on the whole of humanity as an evolving species.

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Indiscriminate use of genetic modification may have the potential to do irreparable harm to the individual and society as a whole. Relevant questions need to be asked with regard to the use of genetic engineering. These include:

  • Could manipulating a gene to effect a somatic cure for a particular condition cause serious side effects to the patient?
  • If genetic manipulation promises to eliminate disease, will all members of society have access to this treatment?
  • Is there a possibility that, in the future, some individuals will be conceived with the assistance of genetic technology and, as such, may be positively discriminated for, while those not being conceived in this manner could be regarded as second class citizens?
  • Could an individual who receives either germline or somatic cell genetic manipulation suffer psychological problems as a result of the treatment?
  • Will information from gene technology be used in the workplace to determine a person's suitability for a particular job?
  • What is the implication of the development of legitimate gene therapy as used in the treatment of a disease as an application for nefarious purposes - e.g. the applications of genetic technology in warfare?
  • If genes can be can be manipulated to produce superior physical attributes, should such knowledge be used to humanity's advantage?
  • Just because we have the power and technological ability to facilitate aspects of genetic engineering, should we actually use it and, if so, according to which philosophical, ethical, scientific, and legal guidelines?

Gene therapy

The ethical questions already raised above pose a direct challenge to ensure that knowledge derived from the HGP will lead to proper ethical investigation and appropriate scientific application where the conditions for human beings can be improved.

From a Christian viewpoint we argue that the formulation of appropriate theological guidelines would provide a starting point in determining the ethics of employing genetic therapy. Such guidelines would adopt the principle of respect for human life and carefully balance the scientific and therapeutic benefit to the individual against the possible medical, sociological and psychological dangers involved in the procedure.

The technical or medical use of genetic engineering must always preserve human dignity, human freedom and the right to the fulfilment of human potential. The elimination or treatment of disease, and the alleviation of human suffering by using genetic interference, are worthy and ethical goals provided that the client is fully informed about any of the possible negative as well as positive consequences of the treatment. As unique individuals, created for an eternal destiny with a loving Creator, our principal concern should always be for the preservation of our individual humanity and dignity.

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Much of the developing science surrounding genetic engineering implies enormous economic and commercial concern. Ethical issues are raised as matters of equity and social justice where considerations for just and proper allocation of resources need to be ensured. In terms of such resource allocation, one needs to consider if the costs of genetic manipulation can be justified in light of more urgent health problems presently not being addressed due to lack of funding.

Genetic screening in the workplace

Advancement in genetic technology has also led to complex problems of social justice where individuals may be denied basic rights due to outcomes in genetic screening. Whether for political, economic or personal use, the use of genetic information could be used in a positive way to screen employees that may be at risk in a polluted workplace. For example, there are genes that predispose some individuals to certain cancers where the risk may be increased in the presence of certain environmental factors. Thus, screening for the relevant marker genes may help an individual use that information to make the decision not to work in a particular environment.

A genetically tailored human race?

Where does one draw the line in genetic research? Though we see the present benefits of genetic engineering to treat disease, perhaps even history would have shown humanity and civilisation to be poorer as a result, had such procedures been available in the past. For example, Justice Kirby in Australian Biologist (1996:104) muses: "If the deafness marker were found and eliminated, might we lose a Beethoven? If the blindness marker were found, would we lose a Milton? ... How many great spirits of the past would have been eliminated?" Perhaps this is a forewarning, and a caveat: we must carefully reflect on the principle that the deliberate selection of characteristics in the unborn may be a dangerous path for human civilisation to take.

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Article edited by Jenny Ostini.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This article first appeared in the February, 2004 Issue of The Australian Ejournal of Theology.



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About the Authors

Yuri Koszarycz is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology, McAuley Campus, Australian Catholic University. He has degrees in philosophy, theology and education and lectures in bioethics, ethics and church history.

Gary Curran holds graduate and post-graduate qualifications in science, education and theology. He has extensive experience in both science and educational employment having worked as a Medical Technologist, Microbiologist and Laboratory Manager. Currently he is Head of Science at St. Columban's College.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Yuri Koszarycz
All articles by Gary Curran
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National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC)
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