The University of Hong Kong
CCHU9009 Moral Controversies in Contemporary Society
‘What are the Pros and Cons of a Genetic Supermarket?'
Written by: CHAN Kwing Fai (UID:3035579945)
We all have been to a supermarket before, and I would say it is extremely convenient as you are able to pick and purchase whatever you need and want in one place. But could you believe that one day we will be able to pick the ‘desirable ingredients' from the supermarket and ‘build' our own kid? This vision is no longer available only in science fiction anymore – it is happening now and within decades this may be what we practice when we wish to have a baby.
Humans are an intelligent species. We have long been finding what are the ‘genetic materials' which allow parents to give birth to kids who somehow look like or even act like them. James Watson and Francis Crick formulated the basic DNA structure in 1953, which unveiled the secret of such genetic factor – a combination of four molecules, namely adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine. A lot of our appearances and characteristics are significantly affected by these four compounds. As a medical student, it is not to my surprise that a lot of diseases are genetically-linked. A slight alteration to the sequence of those molecules could lower your chance of having cancer or even other genetically linked diseases. All of it sounds great and we could not wait for such a day to come. However, putting science aside, there are numerous moral disputes on whether genetic alteration or even genetic marketing is morally acceptable. I am deeply interested in this issue, as genetic supermarket is seemingly the future of humanity, and it is of paramount importance that we carefully examine its possible benefits and drawbacks to us.
The term genetic supermarket is defined as a way in which people, most of the time couples choose some or even all traits to constitute their children . Traits do not only include the likeliness of having certain diseases, but it is also about one's inborn intelligent level and so. Some of the cons are derived from the points raised in the tutorial reading by Peter Signer. I am going to critically analyze them to see if they are sound or not, which applies to the pros which I elaborated below.
Pros of genetic supermarket
Firstly, genetic supermarket can help to reduce chances of kids having certain genetically linked diseases, and it leads to various advantages in a few senses. It has long been proven that numerous diseases could be transmitted from parents to their offspring. Take Thalassemia as an example. As an inherited disease, kids are born with it, and some of them need to go to the hospital on a monthly basis as to receive blood transfusion. A famous Hong Kong signer C Kwan is a patient of this horrifying disease, and it is surely incurable as it is a congenital disease. Other diseases such as breast cancer is said to be genetically linked. One could not forget the news that the famous Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie had a double mastectomy as to decrease her chances of having breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Genetic supermarket could have already eliminated all of it before the child is even born. Once removed faulty genes in the genome of the baby and replaced them with functional ones, the chances for them to acquire diseases is greatly lowered.
This brings various advantages to different stakeholders. From the point of view of individual kids, they no longer need to bare the chances of having diseases. They are able to live a healthy live, in which they need not visit the hospital once a month to get a blood transfusion, nor do they need to live in a life of uncertainty even there is a family history of breast cancer. They are less likely to get certain cancer and they need not receive chemotherapy which is expensive and is destructive to one's life. This can surely maximize happiness and the quality of life of individuals as they are now born disease-free. Seeing this in a macro sense, it reduces the financial burden of the government. Healthcare expenditure is a recurring expense as there is always a need to heal those who are ill, and there are always people who are ill. Almost 10% of the world's average GDP is used in healthcare, in which 16.84% of it is used in the United States . In an ideal situation when everyone is free of genetically-linked diseases, the government can cut down on the expenses in this area and reallocate this great sum of money to other aspects such as social welfare or even education. In a utilitarian point of view, one can maximize happiness not only in an individualistic sense but can also do good in other disciplines and maximize their benefits at the same time. Regarding this point, it seems to be a win-win situation as I do not see any particular body being hampered, maybe except for some doctors whom nobody will consult anymore as they are free of disease. But isn't it something physicians would be happy to see?
Secondly, there is a greater chance for us to produce individuals who are more intelligent than us, and this might bring benefits to the whole world. It is a known fact that there are a lot of unsolved problems in the society, no matter they are scientifically embedded or are related to different social issues. We are eager for an answer towards all these miseries. Genetics plays a role in determining the level of intelligence of individuals , and we can see that a lot of great scientists or even businessmen have high IQ, including Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton and Bill Gates . All of them have made tremendous contributions to their own discipline and had made the lives of their future generations better. If we are to modify the genes of our future generation and made them to be born more intelligent, we could be cultivating a lot of future Albert Einstein, and they could work together and help us unveil the secrets of nature, or to make a few inventions to let us live a better life. Again, this is going to be extremely beneficial to the society as a whole and is considered to be a pro for genetic supermarket.
As a consequentialist, there is no problem with it, as in the end the whole society can take advantage from the effort of these super babies. However, when we see things in the perspectives of Liberalism, there is a great violation of the rights of the baby ‘produced'. We do respect individual choices, and one would say it is the best for children to realize their own pathway and decide for themselves. In a hypothetical situation, the gene of a baby would make him like music, and possibly drive him to choose music as his career. However, you are now inserting some other gene which make him has a greater ability in science, and you force him to devote most of his time studying science as to nurture him as a future scientist. This is in no way acceptable, as we are not respecting the own preference of the child simply because we want him to excel in an area and subsequently insert certain gene into his body. This is not fair to the children and it nor acceptable morally.
Cons of genetic supermarket
The first point is about justice. In Peter Singer's reading, it was mentioned that there are worries that genetic supermarket is very likely to be open to rich people only. For richer people, they already have better monetary resources to offer for their kids. For instance, they could provide music classes for their kids, or most commonly allow them to join various tutorial classes as to equip themselves better. For the underprivileged, there are fewer resources available for them to make themselves as competitive as their richer counterparts. There is already inequality here. Yet, with the additional effect of genetic supermarket, kids from richer families are born to be smarter, and further mating among them will continuously give rise to relatively more intelligent offspring. Looking at poor people, their genes are more or less the same, and random mating among them is not going to produce some super intelligent individuals as rich people do with the help of genetic supermarket. As a result, the whole situation is going to be more unfair to underprivileged kids. It is foreseeable that poor kids will be less competitive, and they need to make strenuous effort to make up for the enormous gap between them and the rich kids, or even maybe cannot be on the same par as them as then are born to be more ‘stupid', and any acquired cultivation could not let them be as capable as kids from genetic supermarket in extreme cases. In such a sense, there are no equal opportunities, and poor kids are doomed to work in labor intensive jobs. This is an undesirable situation and is a retrogression of our society where we strive for equality as a virtue.
One may argue, which is also mentioned in the reading that we could make a lottery for this genetic supermarket, where the rich and the poor have equal opportunity to make use of it. I do agree that this is useful within a country. However, would it still be possible to take place among different countries? One cannot deny the fact that human beings are quite selfish in a way. Maybe it is selfishness that make us always aware of our interests and make the best decision for ourselves, and this allows us to survive in adverse environment and not be eliminated. A simple news could already prove the above statement. Ebola was once prevalent in West Africa, where a lot of people there were infected with the disease, not to mention those who lost their lives. One volunteer from the United States joined the humanitarian work there and was then diagnosed with Ebola. Soon as he reached America, he received the vaccine against Ebola and recovered fully. Here comes the question – if America possess such an effective vaccine against Ebola, why did not they provide African countries with them and lessen the agony for those who are suffering? The answer is quite straight-forward. America do not have direct responsibility to help those African countries. They are not altruistic enough to help people other than their citizens, and the destiny of those Ebola patient is totally different from the American. This goes the same for the case of genetic supermarket. I dare to say that wealthier countries are not likely to share this technique with poorer countries. They are also not encouraged to help citizens from poorer countries and make them smarter using their own resources as they could not benefit from it at all. This is only going to make the problem of inequality among countries more severe when citizens from poorer countries could not use this technique. People from wealthier countries will gain a head start, and there is no hope that people from different countries can compete in a fair manner.
Another great worry is that the diversity of human beings will decrease. I could still recall from my Biology textbook that when there is a larger variation or diversity among a species, the species is more likely to survive through a sudden change in environment and to retain the species in nature. This is the theory of natural selection proposed by Darwin. When there is genetic supermarket, it is expected that parents tend to select certain traits of their kids, for example to be smarter, or to have more talent in sports, maybe even modify their kids to be more good-looking. Because of this, humans will be more alike with each other, and it will be like the case of cosmetic surgery in South Korea, where people always tease at them and said all of them look alike. From a scientific point of view, humans having similar genes will be detrimental to the survival of Homo sapiens when there is a dramatic environmental change. Although the chance of having a large scale of extinction of humans are quite slim, one cannot underestimate the power of mother nature and I believe it is a big concern as we are talking about the continuity of our species. I am not proposing whether we should play God or not, but I am sure that we humans are not powerful enough to outsmart nature. A lot more scientific research is definitely necessary to ease our concern in this aspect.
A Chinese scientist recently claimed to have genetically modified the genes of a pair of twins and successfully made them have immunity against HIV. This shows us that genetic supermarket is no longer something which only appears in science fiction – it is happening now, and it is something we should be extremely aware of. A lot of criticism were raised by other scientists, and there are a lot of moral and legal issues to be dealt with and discussed. One cannot deny the benefits of genetic supermarket, as I tend to believe there is some good in it. Yet, I do not think the society or even mankind is mature enough to make use of this technique and to lower the aforementioned cons. Will genetic supermarket bring us utopia where everybody is intelligent and healthy, or will it bring us dystopia like the movie clip shown to us during the lecture where our freedom is hampered? Both of them are possible to take place. We might excel in genetic supermarket now, but we are definitely not prepared for this era now.
1. Current health expenditure (% of GDP). (n.d.). Retrieved December 2, 2018, from https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SH.XPD.CHEX.GD.ZS?name_desc=false
2. Gyngell, C., & Douglas, T. (2014). Stocking the Genetic Supermarket: Reproductive Genetic Technologies and Collective Action Problems [Abstract]. Bioethics, 29(4), 241-250. doi:10.1111/bioe.12098
3. Is intelligence determined by genetics? - Genetics Home Reference - NIH. (n.d.). Retrieved December 2, 2018, from https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/traits/intelligence
4. IQs of Famous People & Celebrities. (n.d.). Retrieved December 2, 2018, from https://iqtestprep.com/iqs-of-famous-people-celebrities/
5. Marsden, S. (2013, May 14). Angelina Jolie: I had a double mastectomy to reduce my breast cancer risk. Retrieved December 2, 2018, from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/celebritynews/10055488/Angelina-Jolie-I-had-a-double-mastectomy-to-reduce-my-breast-cancer-risk.html
6. Singer, Peter (2009) ‘Parental Choice and Human Improvement', in Julian Savulescu and Nick Bostrom (eds.) Human Enhancement. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 277-90
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