Choosing Tomorrows Children: The Ethics of Selective Reproduction (Issues in Biomedical Ethics)

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Stephen Wilkinson. To what extent should parents be allowed to use reproductive technologies to determine the characteristics of their future children? And is there something morally wrong with parents who wish to do this? Choosing Tomorrow's Children provides answers to these and related questions. In particular, the book looks at issues raised by selective reproduction, the practice of choosing between different possible future persons by selecting or deselecting for example embryos, eggs, and sperm. You can thank our distant ancestors for kickstarting the agricultural revolution, using artificial selection for crops, livestock, and other domesticated animals.

When Edward Jenner invented vaccines and when Alexander Fleming discovered antibiotics, they were harnessing the power of biotechnology. And, of course, modern civilization would hardly be imaginable without the fermentation processes that gave us beer, wine, and cheese! Biotechnologists do this by sequencing, or reading, the DNA found in nature, and then manipulating it in a test tube — or, more recently, inside of living cells. In fact, the most exciting biotechnology advances of recent times are occurring at the microscopic level and smaller!

After decades of basic research into decoding the chemical and genetic makeup of cells, biologists in the midth century launched what would become a multi-decade flurry of research and breakthroughs. In the coming decades, scientists will use the tools of biotechnology to manipulate cells with increasing control, from precision editing of DNA to synthesizing entire genomes from their basic chemical building blocks.

Choosing Tomorrow's Children

And biotechnology may be a crucial ally in the fight against climate change. But rewriting the blueprints of life carries an enormous risk. To begin with, the same technology being used to extend our lives could instead be used to end them. While researchers might see the engineering of a supercharged flu virus as a perfectly reasonable way to better understand and thus fight the flu, the public might see the drawbacks as equally obvious: the virus could escape, or someone could weaponize the research.

And the advanced genetic tools that some are considering for mosquito control could have unforeseen effects, possibly leading to environmental damage.

Choosing Tomorrow's Children by Stephen Wilkinson (ebook)

While the risks of biotechnology have been fretted over for decades, the increasing pace of progress — from low cost DNA sequencing to rapid gene synthesis to precision genome editing — suggests biotechnology is entering a new realm of maturity regarding both beneficial applications and more worrisome risks.

Adding to concerns, DIY scientists are increasingly taking biotech tools outside of the lab.

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For now, many of the benefits of biotechnology are concrete while many of the risks remain hypotheticals, but it is better to be proactive and cognizant of the risks than to wait for something to go wrong first and then attempt to address the damage. Satellite images make clear the massive changes that mankind has made to the surface of the Earth: cleared forests, massive dams and reservoirs, millions of miles of roads. If we could take satellite-type images of the microscopic world, the impact of biotechnology would be no less obvious.

The majority of the food we eat comes from engineered plants, which are modified — either via modern technology or by more traditional artificial selection — to grow without pesticides, to require fewer nutrients, or to withstand the rapidly changing climate. Manufacturers have substituted petroleum-based ingredients with biomaterials in many consumer goods, such as plastics, cosmetics, and fuels.

Your laundry detergent? It almost certainly contains biotechnology. So do nearly all of your cotton clothes.

Choosing Tomorrow's Children : The Ethics of Selective Reproduction

But perhaps the biggest application of biotechnology is in human health. It follows us through childhood, with immunizations and antibiotics, both of which have drastically improved life expectancy. And one company is betting that organ transplant waiting lists can be eliminated by growing human organs in chimeric pigs. Along with excitement, the rapid progress of research has also raised questions about the consequences of biotechnology advances. Biotechnology may carry more risk than other scientific fields: microbes are tiny and difficult to detect, but the dangers are potentially vast.

Further, engineered cells could divide on their own and spread in the wild, with the possibility of far-reaching consequences. Biotechnology could most likely prove harmful either through the unintended consequences of benevolent research or from the purposeful manipulation of biology to cause harm.

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  5. One could also imagine messy controversies, in which one group engages in an application for biotechnology that others consider dangerous or unethical. So, they reasoned that importing a natural predator , the cane toad, could be a natural form of pest control. What could go wrong? Well, the toads became a major nuisance themselves, spreading across the continent and eating the local fauna except for, ironically, the cane beetle.

    2017 Public Health Ethics Forum

    To avoid blundering into disaster, the errors of the past should be acknowledged. The world recently witnessed the devastating effects of disease outbreaks, in the form of Ebola and the Zika virus — but those were natural in origin. The malicious use of biotechnology could mean that future outbreaks are started on purpose. Whether the perpetrator is a state actor or a terrorist group, the development and release of a bioweapon, such as a poison or infectious disease, would be hard to detect and even harder to stop.

    Unlike a bullet or a bomb, deadly cells could continue to spread long after being deployed. The US government takes this threat very seriously , and the threat of bioweapons to the environment should not be taken lightly either. Developed nations, and even impoverished ones, have the resources and know-how to produce bioweapons. And new gene editing technologies are increasing the odds that a hypothetical bioweapon targeted at a certain ethnicity , or even a single individual like a world leader, could one day become a reality.

    While attacks using traditional weapons may require much less expertise, the dangers of bioweapons should not be ignored.

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    It might seem impossible to make bioweapons without plenty of expensive materials and scientific knowledge, but recent advances in biotechnology may make it even easier for bioweapons to be produced outside of a specialized research lab. And the openness of science publishing, which has been crucial to our rapid research advances, also means that anyone can freely Google the chemical details of deadly neurotoxins.

    In fact, the most controversial aspect of the supercharged influenza case was not that the experiments had been carried out, but that the researchers wanted to openly share the details. On a more hopeful note, scientific advances may allow researchers to find solutions to biotechnology threats as quickly as they arise. Recombinant DNA and biotechnology tools have enabled the rapid invention of new vaccines which could protect against new outbreaks , natural or man-made.

    For example, less than 5 months after the World Health Organization declared Zika virus a public health emergency , researchers got approval to enroll patients in trials for a DNA vaccine. While humans have been altering genes of plants and animals for millennia — first through selective breeding and more recently with molecular tools and chimeras — we are only just beginning to make changes to our own genomes amid great controversy.

    For instance, if gene therapy in humans is acceptable to cure disease, where do you draw the line? Many others lie somewhere in between. How do we determine a hard limit for which gene surgery to undertake, and under what circumstances, especially given that the surgery itself comes with the risk of causing genetic damage? And what about ways that biotechnology may contribute to inequality in society? Advances in biotechnology are escalating the debate, from questions about altering life to creating it from scratch.

    For example, a recently announced initiative called GP-Write has the goal of synthesizing an entire human genome from chemical building blocks within the next 10 years. The project organizers have many applications in mind, from bringing back wooly mammoths to growing human organs in pigs. But, as critics pointed out, the technology could make it possible to produce children with no biological parents , or to recreate the genome of another human, like making cellular replicas of Einstein. In response, the organizers of GP-Write insist that they welcome a vigorous ethical debate, and have no intention of turning synthetic cells into living humans.

    Since virtually all of biology centers around the instructions contained in DNA, biotechnologists who hope to modify the properties of cells, plants, and animals must speak the same molecular language. Since the publication of the complete human genome in , the cost of DNA sequencing has dropped dramatically , making it a simple and widespread research tool.

    Benefits: Sonia Vallabh had just graduated from law school when her mother died from a rare and fatal genetic disease.

    What is biotechnology?

    DNA sequencing showed that Sonia carried the fatal mutation as well. But far from resigning to her fate, Sonia and her husband Eric decided to fight back, and today they are graduate students at Harvard, racing to find a cure. For example, researchers were able to track the Ebola epidemic in real time using DNA sequencing. And pharmaceutical companies are designing new anti-cancer drugs targeted to people with a specific DNA mutation. Entire new fields, such as personalized medicine , owe their existence to DNA sequencing technology. Risks : Simply reading DNA is not harmful, but it is foundational for all of modern biotechnology.

    As the saying goes, knowledge is power, and the misuse of DNA information could have dire consequences. Finally, DNA testing opens the door to sticky ethical questions, such as whether to carry to term a pregnancy after the fetus is found to have a genetic mutation.