The human genetic composition is what determines our health, personal traits and even our behaviour. Genes are passed on to us from our parents, and can also be the source of many imperfections as well as hereditary diseases. As humans we are always trying to make everything better, including ourselves. This has resulted in the desire to modify the genes in embryos, and foetuses, in order to improve our genetic make-up. The biggest controversy associated with genetic engineering is whether or not it is an ethical practice and should be continued, or even advanced.
‘Gene therapy’ is currently as far as human genetic engineering has extended, meaning that the process is applied to non-reproductive cells. Doing this has facilitated the ability to find cures for certain diseases. As a result, it has become a revered application in the medical field.
These advancements have also made it possible for us to clone entire species, and in 1996 the first ever fully cloned mammal, Dolly the sheep, was ‘born.’ She lived for six years and, even after her death, is still the cause of much speculation about whether this is a procedure that should ever have been undertaken because with the ability to clone another mammal comes the ability to ‘make’ a human. This is a possibility that comes too close to playing God for the majority of society to handle.
Europe, for ethical reasons, has a ban on the cloning of human embryos. There is no limit on what many other countries can experiment with, however, and China has recently genetically engineered embryos with the intention of modifying the gene responsible for thalassaemia (a fatal blood disorder). The embryos used in their experiments were non-viable and obtained from IVF banks where they had been fertilised by two sperm, and had no possibility of a live birth. There has still been public demand that action be taken to stop this from continuing, due to the fact that nobody can be certain whether or not the embryos used will remain non-viable.
China isn’t the only country experimenting with human genetic engineering, and in the western world there is a lot of development in the field as well. In the United States, James Grifo has found a way to transfer cell nuclei from eggs of older women to younger ones with the aim of overcoming infertility. The infants that will be born, from these eggs, will genetically have three parents.
The search for perfection has always been a fascination for humans, and James Watson conducts seminars promoting the use of genetic engineering for enhancing ourselves. He is adamant that as soon as the technology is available people should be able to add genes to themselves, to improve who they are. There has also been the suggestion made by French Anderson, a US gene therapy pioneer, that we do gene therapy on foetuses to treat genetic conditions. These modified genes will then continue to be passed on to all future generations, stopping the undesirable genes from returning altogether.
Human genetic engineering does bring with it the possibility of becoming ‘perfect.’ The question that arises from this, however, is whether this should really be our aim? It is quite possible that our imperfections are what actually make us human in the first place.