Ever since the discovery of DNA and the ability to manipulate it, genetics research has remained one of the most controversial scientific topics of the 21st century. The key concepts around this topic consist of genetics (the study of genetic material and mechanisms responsible for the transmission of characteristics) and eugenics (a complex of practices aimed at improving people’s genetic features). The potential abuse of power using this scientific specialization, misconceptions about the process, and value-based ideology serve as the primary challenge and controversy. This paper will explore the societal impacts of genetic research and its perceptions in mass media and public policy, providing argumentation for support and opposition to the topic.
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Genetics research has led to the rise of ethical concerns due to their potential impacts on society. Mass media has represented genetics research in a manner which is detrimental, used for the purposes of manipulation of human genes. Mechanisms of eugenics are increasingly complex and are portrayed in media as the ultimate outcome of genetics research, resulting in a negative association of genetic research with this purpose (Thomsen & Gloy, 2017).
One of the major contributing factors to social concern is the use of eugenics for unethical purposes such as abuse of power that will only benefit a specific group of people. Genetic improvements will be used to provide certain advantages (i.e., increased mental or physical capacity) over others. This can be used for a wide variety of discriminatory practices which would create a segregation schism within society. Human genetics can be seen as a threat to justice and equality due to the lack of ethical boundaries (Biller-Andorno & Capron, 2016).
Another ethical concern is the concept of “playing God” through the use of genetic engineering. Since DNA is the most fundamental basis of life known to science, it can be theoretically used to create life. Even a slightly altered gene placed in a living organism cannot be reversed. As a result, the ethical concern arises of what can be considered a person and the limits that can be established on cloning DNA, particularly human.
As a science, genetic engineering is at its infantile stages but has tremendously powerful implications. There is potential for the use of the technology to create deadly biological weapons or genetically altered organisms which would be used for detrimental purposes. Even the full effects of inherently beneficial products such as genetically-engineered food are yet unknown (Patra & Andrew, 2015). It creates an extensive network of dangers to society which questions the ethicality of genetic research.
The potential dangers and benefits of genetic research have made the issue a leading topic of debate. Discussions are commonly basedon ideology which makes a difficult transition into public policy. Both supporters and opponents of the issue generally agree on the necessity of regulation. An open and unbiased discussion of ethical concerns will allow international consolidation on the subject of genetic research in public policy.
It is acknowledged by researchers in the field that genetics can have endless possibilities for improvement of disease management and public health. However, the interaction between genome-based technologies and societies is complex. Therefore, methodologies and applications of the research from a biological perspective needs to be considered in tandem with social sciences and ethical boundaries. Understanding basic scientific concepts underlying the research will help drive public policy.
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International bodies and many developed nations have passed legislation banning reproductive cloning of human beings. Policy makers need to balance the benefits and public concerns about the use of genetics. While the technology presents opportunities to improve the delivery of care, it requires strict oversight on the concept of security which would ensure the privacy, safety, and lack of discrimination based on personal genetic data (Sarata, 2015).
Even though human genetics is associated with threats for ethnical minorities and economically disadvantaged people, there are substantive arguments for the support of continued research. The study of the human genome offers potential to expand the knowledge of a variety of genetic-based diseases. More than 4,000 diseases have identifiable molecular causes and another 1,100 with certain genetic risk factors, but only 200 of them have existing therapies (Sarata, 2015). Further, it can improve conditions and provide information in planning a child. Genetic testing can provide information which would allow patients to make informed decisions about managing healthcare while greatly increasing the efficiency of providers. For example, a patient can potentially prevent, monitor, and treat a hereditary genetic condition through the focused use of such testing.
In some cases, the use of genetics-based testing is highly recommended. Genetic predisposition to certain conditions in patients’ families introduces the risk of childbirth in which the newborn will have a high probability of inheriting it. This fact creates several ethical and moral issues. In the extreme cases, impacted families may choose to accept the risk. Genetic testing can eliminate this uncertainty by providing accurate estimates and assessing the predisposition of a fetus to genetic conditions. Based on this information, a person can plan large future decisions such as family, career, and retirement (“Information about genetic testing,” n.d.).
Another healthcare aspect that would benefit from genetics is associated with the implantation procedure. By submitting samples of male donors to genetic testing, it is possible to detect those that contain undesirable genetic markers, ranging from existence of specific conditions to the overall predisposition to diseases (Scott et al., 2013). By extension, it becomes possible for a woman to select a sample that is less likely to be predisposed to certain conditions. Such a practice has tremendous potential for improvement of public health and may have a net positive effect on public health management.
Furthermore, genetic engineering can be used in a variety of other non-medical fields such as agriculture and horticulture to address environmental damage that is impacting plant and animal life. The most recognizable example of such an application is genetic modification of animal and plant species aimed at improving agricultural practices in the developing countries. Despite the existence of numerous activist groups opposing the practice, current evidence suggests the absence of clinically significant effects on human health. In addition, the approach was already established to have a positive economic impact and, by extension, improve the overall well-being of the population.
Despite the advantages, there is a fortified opposition to genetic research overall citing concerns of ethics and abuse of the technology which can have a detrimental impact on society. The strongest argument suggests that the availability of genetic information, which reveals a tremendous amount of details about a person, can be misused for discrimination, stereotyping, and creation of social doctrines that segregate people with particular genetic features.
A DNA test can identify a particular gene which may be undesirable (for example, it increases the risk of a deadly disease) which is then used by employers or health insurers to ostracize such individuals despite the condition not affecting health nor ability. Admittedly, such a scenario seems implausible with regard to the current state of the technology. Nevertheless, once genetic testing becomes available and inexpensive, the information obtained from it can become mandatory for inclusion during employment.
Next, it is believed that genetic testing will lead to the stereotyping and discrimination of minorities, perpetuating social stratification. An example of such a scenario is the ongoing controversy that surrounds the alleged genetic predisposition to homosexuality (Sanders et al., 2015). Despite the absence of a definitive conclusion, the issue has already gained significant traction in media and polarized the general public.
The controversy stems from the fact that once the genetic basis for homosexuality is established, it becomes possible to dismiss the psychological aspects of the issue. Another concern stems from the possibility that some people may be tempted to resort to abortion based on prejudice and stereotypes. It is also important to understand that in some cultures, homosexuality is discouraged both socially and institutionally. Thus, it would be reasonable to expect that once genetic testing means become commercially available, they will be incorporated by some of such countries as mandatory screening.
The latter argument can be extended to other areas associated with genetic testing. For instance, the availability of the information of some of the demographic characteristics of the child can influence the birth-related decisions. For example, a family member may be tempted to terminate pregnancy based on the gender of a child. Once such decisions become commonplace, they can cover other genetically determined traits, including physiological characteristics and psychological traits.
Next, it should be noted that the advantages offered by genetics can put the naturally conceived individuals at a disadvantage. For example, they can be considered inferior in terms of physical health and hereditary qualities due to the absence of control during the implantation. As a result, these individuals may become subject to social stigmatization. In addition, this information can influence the decisions at the organizational level. For instance, insurance companies may be tempted to deny their services to individuals with an unfavorable genetic profile. Finally, genetic research has been associated with abusive eugenic experiments on human subjects.
During World War II, the raw fundamentals of the human genome were used by the Nazis for experiments to perfect racial hygiene. Many fear that with modern technology, there could be catastrophic consequences if such abuse of power occurs again.
Opinion and Conclusion
In summary, human genetics and the concept of eugenics are associated with a myriad of ethical concerns regarding the improper use of such research and practices. Many of these are associated with a lack of development and, therefore, regulation in the field. Many of the arguments supporting or opposing genetic engineering are based on hypothetical and non-existing technological concepts which makes it difficult to maintain an objective view of the issue. Going forward, it is critical not to limit the path of medical and scientific progress. It should be carefully regulated, to ensure the key task of genetic research is fulfilled with the successful management of public health concern through ethical guidelines and accountability.
Biller-Andorno, N., & Capron, A. M. (2016). Ethical issues in governing biobanks: Global perspectives. New York, NY: Routledge.
Information about genetic testing. (n.d.). Web.
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Patra, S., &Andre, A. A. (2015). Human, social, and environmental impacts of human genetic engineering. Journal of Biomedical Sciences, 4(2), 1-3. Web.
Sanders, A. R., Martin, E. R., Beecham, G. W., Guo, S., Dawood, K., Rieger, G.,… Duan, J. (2015). Genome-wide scan demonstrates significant linkage for male sexual orientation. Psychological Medicine, 45(7), 1379-1388.
Sarata, A. K. (2015). Genetic testing: Background and policy issues. Web.
Scott, R. T., Upham, K. M., Forman, E. J., Hong, K. H., Scott, K. L., Taylor, D.,… Treff, N. R. (2013). Blastocyst biopsy with comprehensive chromosome screening and fresh embryo transfer significantly increases in vitro fertilization implantation and delivery rates: A randomized controlled trial. Fertility and Sterility, 100(3), 697-703.
Thomsen, S. K., &Gloy, A. L. (2017). Human genetics as a model for target validation: Finding new therapies for diabetes. Diabetologia, 60(6), 960–970.