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Stephen Wong: Genetic Engineering PDF Print E-mail
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Saturday, 18 October 2014 17:37

Genetic Engineering

Referee: Dr. Benedict Kwok

Anthor: Stephen Wong

1. Introduction

In the past 50 years, there has been exponential understanding of the biology of genetics, and there is more and more discovery each day. The growth in knowledge of genetics has led to advances in genetic engineering which can manipulate or modify the genes and DNA of organisms.  Areas of use include research, agriculture, medicine, industrial biotechnology, vaccine production, disease diagnosis, medical therapy, vaccine production, treatment of viral diseases etc.

These advances in genetic engineering are making increasing impact towards the society and the world at large. With the success in the use of genetic engineering in agriculture and medicine, the use of the technology has been extended to human therapy. As a result, the ethical issues associated with genetic engineering appeared and are being hotly debated. This paper will give a brief background of the biology and the technology, followed by a discussion on the theological and logical arguments both for and against the technology in general. The paper will conclude by an analysis on the ethics of the various uses of genetic engineering.

2. Gene and Genetic Engineering

Gene: the basic unit of heredity

The figure below shows the relationship between DNA, chromosome, and gene.[1]


DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) contains the hereditary material of most organisms. The hereditary information in DNA is stored as codes made up of nucleotides of four different chemical bases: adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C), and thymine (T) which link to each other to form a DNA strand.  These nucleotides are arranged in two long strands in which the DNA bases pair up with each other: A with T and C with G, to form units called base pairs. These two strands form a structure of double helix which resembles a spirally-twisted ladder. The order or sequence of these “codes” determines the information available for building and maintaining an organism. An important property of DNA is that it can be replicated by other cellular machineries which use each strand of DNA in the double helix to be the template for the duplication.

In the nucleus of human cells, DNA is packaged into thread-like structures called chromosomes. The genes are located within stretches of DNA in the chromosomes. These are the basic physical and functional units of heredity. Each gene holds the instructions for how to produce a single protein which is the building block of life. The genome is the genetic material of an organism. In June of 2000, the first draft of the sequence of the human genome was completed. The human genome has between 20,000 and 25,000 genes which vary in length.

Genetic Engineering

The availability of this information dramatically increases the interest in the use of genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is the artificial methodology to modify the gene(s) of a host organism. The ways which the genes can be modified in the host organism include: insertion of a new gene; removing a gene of interest; or changing the DNA sequence of a gene. As a result of these changes, the function of the protein of interest can be altered, consequently the organism can have a change in phenotype (for example, more resistant towards herbicides). While the use of genetic engineering can have many applications, the focus of this paper will be on the followings: genetically modification to crops and farm animals; genetic therapy; genetic enhancement; and human cloning.

3. Arguments for and against genetic engineering: Theology and Ethics

For Christians, the key questions for genetic engineering are: (a) Does human has the right to change what is in nature? (b) If so, by how much? (c) Who can decide and by what standard? Below will list the logical and theological arguments against genetic engineering and their respective counter arguments.

3.1 Objection #1: Genetic engineering is “Playing God”

A common objection against the manipulation of genes to form new organisms is commonly known as “Playing God”.  One key verse from the Bible about the “Playing God” argument is:

And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. (Genesis 1:31)

The interpretation of this verse is that when God created everything, it was “very good” or using one of the translations of the original Hebrew: “exceedingly good”. Why should human change it any further?

Similarly, in 1 Timothy 4:4:

For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.

All of God’s creation is good and worthy of care and respect. This is even more so for the human body as humans are made in the image and likeness of God:

Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." (Genesis 1:26).

"Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image. (Genesis 9:6)

Genetic engineering can, at least in theory, opens up the possibility to create new life forms which was not intended by God. Also, such practices can “reduce life to its physical components, mechanize it, and bring it under human control and design.”[2] One example is the eugenics philosophy which advocate “the improvement of human genetic traits through the promotion of higher reproduction of people with desired traits (positive eugenics), and reduced reproduction of people with less-desired or undesired traits (negative eugenics).”[3] Such technology can be used as an attempt to rebel against God’s control of nature. Therefore, the control of nature and life by human without any concern for God’s end is essentially “Playing God”.

The rationale of this objection is that God made the natural world to function in a certain way, but genetic engineering is not a natural process which brings up an issue on ethics.  This argument was put forth by the Roman Catholic Church. In the Church’s statement “Instruction on respect for human life in its origin and on the dignity of procreation”: [4]

"The transmission of human life is entrusted by nature to a personal and conscious act and as such is subject to the all-holy laws of God: immutable and inviolable laws which must be recognized and observed. For this reason one cannot use means and follow methods which could be licit in the transmission of the life of plants and animals"

“Advances in technology have now made it possible to procreate apart from sexual relations through the meeting in vitro of the germ-cells previously taken from the man and the woman. But what is technically possible is not for that very reason morally admissible.”

Under the article, reproductive technologies such as artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, surrogate mothering are all condemned as unnatural means of conceiving a child.

Counter arguments:

If such logics are allowed to be taken to extreme, human should not be allowed to change anything in nature. That includes building dams, roads, houses, automobiles, electricity plants, creating new medicine with novel chemical structure are all “unnatural”. The bottom line is that being “unnatural” does not necessarily make things immoral.

Second, there is a question on the outcome of genetic engineering versus other means. For example, if it is morally correct to change the color of the hair by dying the hair, one would question why it would be immoral to change the hair color by changing one’s gene.

Third, the manipulation of genes was carried out in the farming industry before the age genetic engineering. This includes artificial cross pollination between different crops to improve the quality of the crops (e.g. wheat with better yield and seedless water melon). Why is modifying the genes by genetic engineering any different?

Besides the counter-argument by logic, there are also bible verses which indicate that God gave human the power to have dominion over all the other creatures.

And God blessed them (male and female of human). And God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth." (Genesis 1:28)

You (God) have given him (human) dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. (Psalm 8:6-8)

The Hebrew word for “have dominion” in both of these verse is רָדָה , which also have other meanings such as: to rule, or to dominate. The Hebrew word for “subdue” in Genesis 1:28 (כָּבַשׁ) can also mean “bring into bondage”. From these verses, one can say that human were given the power by God to put other creatures in bondage and to rule over them. From this interpretation, human can also create new things. In this thinking, human are “co-creators”. This would justify the building of dams, creation of new chemical entities as medicine, using genetic engineering to produce new crops, create new bacteria to produce therapeutic biomolecules such as insulin, and alter the genes of human for therapeutic reasons.

3.2 Objection #2: Genetic engineering put us on slippery slope

The slippery slope argument states that “a relatively small first step leads to a chain of related events culminating in some significant effect, much like an object given a small push over the edge of a slope sliding all the way to the bottom.”[5] When applied to genetic engineering, Keith Boone reasoned that, “y will inevitably follow from x, since doing x contains the principle of permission for doing y.”[6]

Currently, genetic engineering is being developed to correct genetic defects which are hereditary (e.g. cystic fibrosis, sickle-cell anemia). Down the line, this technology can be used to for eugenic purposes. It is not clear how to differentiate (a) using the genetic engineering to fix a genetic disease, and (b) to improve the phenotype of the existing human population. This includes: improvement of IQ; have better appearance; have stronger physique etc.

The other related issue is that the modified gene will pass onto future generations. This can have unforeseen side effects. For example, if a newly created species can dominate other species, this will result in a disturbance of the ecology of the world. The past history of man-made pollutions such as the massive production of carbon dioxide resulting in global warming, is an example of how little human know when to stop, once a temporal benefit is seen in using certain technology.

Counter arguments:

The logic of the slippery slope argument is fallacious because there is no reason to believe that one event must inevitably follow from another without an argument for such a claim. This is especially clear in cases in which there are a significant number of steps or gradations between one event and another.[7] The assumption that “if some kind of modification of human genetic makeup is allowed, all kinds would be allowed” is logically invalid. This is because the reason that justifies the therapeutic use of genetic engineering would not justify the use towards eugenics. The same analogy can be drawn for the use of nuclear power.  In this case the same technology can be used to generate clean energy also allows the development of nuclear bomb.  Justification to use the technology to generate power and electricity does not justify the building and use of the atom bomb. The technology of genetic engineering is not necessarily immoral, only that each use need to be justified.

3.3   Objection #3: The fallen world argument

Even if the use of genetic engineering can be regulated, the question still remaining is: where to draw the line between moral and immoral; under which principle; and who has the authority and the right to decide?

This line of thinking follows the reasoning of a theological idea of a “fallen world”. The word “fallen” used in the Bible means someone or something spiritually and morally degraded, and fallen away from God’s good will for them, and fallen into sin. For example, Israel was described as “fallen”

"Fallen, no more to rise, is the virgin Israel; forsaken on her land, with none to raise her up." (Amos 5:2)

As a result of Adam's sin, the whole world of mankind has fallen,

The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Genesis 6:5)

God looks down from heaven on the children of man to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all fallen away; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one. (Psalms 53:2-3)

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (Romans 3:23)

Human are sinners by nature and have the inbuilt desire to sin. In this fallen world, we struggle with sin on a daily basis, and all creation “groans” under the consequences of our sin:

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:22-23)

In this fallen world in which all man are sinners (Romans 3:23), it is reasonable to assume that it would be difficult for human to made the right decision which is pleasing to God. This would apply to the area of genetic engineering. While one can boast that the technology can improve human health or living condition, the underlying motive can be greed to increase profit, or increase competitiveness of people (e.g. eugenics). The morality standard between different countries can be very different. For example, though US can ban certain use of the technology (e.g. human cloning - below); the same use can be allowed in other countries.

Counter arguments:

It is true that we are living in a fallen world, and similar to other technologies (e.g. nuclear energy), genetic engineering can be used for the wrong purpose by the wrong people. However this does not mean that the technology per se is immoral.

Precisely because man are living in a fallen world, proponents of genetic engineering argues that we should use everything we can to cure diseases and prolong life to counteract the misery and sufferings in this fallen world, as sickness and death are both the results of the fall of Adam.[8]

And to Adam he (God) said, "Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, 'You shall not eat of it,' cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return." (Genesis 3:17-19)

The sickness and death we experience in this fallen world is very different from the world which was "very/exceedingly good" when it was created by God. All creation is now subject to “bondage and corruption”, but is waiting to be set free from this bondage:

For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (Romans 8:20-21)

The healing ministry of Jesus was a demonstration of the power of the kingdom of God to set the people free from the bondage and the corruption of as a result of the effects and the curse of sin from the fall of man.

And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. (Matthew 9:35)

And great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute, and many others, and they put them at his feet, and he healed them, so that the crowd wondered, when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled healthy, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they glorified the God of Israel. (Matthew 15:30-31)

The alleviation of genetic diseases by genetic engineering is consistent with God’s redemptive purpose towards this fallen world. [9] Also, if there is a potential to use a technology to alleviate pain and sufferings, there is a moral issue of not pursuing a cure.[10]

The above analysis indicates that the “fallen world” argument can be used by people both support and reject the use of genetic engineering.

Issues relating “fallen world” and human diseases

While it is apparent from the bible that after the sin from Adam, man have fallen spiritually (having a sinful nature) as well as physically (having a limited life span), it is not clear if having disease is a result of the fall. The reason is that death is not necessarily associated with diseases. In the animal world, organism will die when certain life process had been completed. For example, salmon fish will die after they lay their eggs and sperms. There are people who die as a result of an aging process of bodily function (senescence), not as a consequence of disease. In fact, of the roughly 150,000 people who die each day across the globe, about two thirds die of age-related causes.[11] In the bible, there are people (e.g. Isaac, David, Jehoiada) who died because of “old and full of days”. This is more vividly described in the case of Moses:

Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eye was undimmed, and his vigor unabated. (Deuteronomy 34:7)

The occurrence of blindness was thought by the Jesus’ disciples and the Pharisees as closely associated with sin (John 9:2; 9:34). However Jesus clearly separated the blindness with sin (John 9:3).

Jesus answered, "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:3)

In the case of Job, his terrible diseases were also not associated with his sins (Job 2). These scriptures bring the association between disease and the fallen world into question.


The above listed the arguments for and against the use of genetic engineering. Though there is no definite conclusion as to which side is correct, there are several general observations:

(a) Genetic engineering per se is not necessarily immoral.

(b) The ethics of each of the use in genetic engineering need to be examined separately.

4. Ethical Issues on the various use of genetic engineering

Currently, the technology of genetic engineering has been mainly used in generating genetically modified organisms (GMO) from bacteria, crops, animals, and currently being extended to human. Below is a brief summary of the use of these GMOs and their potential ethical issue(s).

4.1 Genetically modified bacteria

Genetically modified bacteria are bacteria whose DNA has been modified by genetic engineering.  The first genetically modified bacteria were generated in 1974. Since then, there have been significant advances in the area. At present, genetically modified bacteria are being used in the following areas:

(a) Production of recombinant biomolecules for scientific research or biomedical use - These include human insulin (the medication for diabetic patients); clotting factors (for hemophilia), vaccines for Hepatitis B, and human growth hormone (for dwarfism).

(b) For pollution control in the environment - Genetically modified bacteria have been developed to clean up mercury pollution[12] and detect arsenic in drinking water[13].

(c) For agriculture - Improvement of crop production by facilitating symbiosis between plants and microorganisms (e.g. nitrogen fixation); produce chemicals which are toxic to crop pests.

(d) For food production - fermented foodstuffs like alcoholic drinks and dairy products.

(e) For the mining industry - Leach copper from ore.[14]

(f) For bioremediation - A bacteria named Deinococcus radiodurans which is resistant to nuclear radiation, has been modified to consume and digest toluene and ionic mercury from highly radioactive nuclear waste.[15]

Ethical concerns:

Genetically modified bacteria are mainly used to produce materials that are useful for human therapy or for industrial use. There is little direct exposure of these microbes to human or other animals, and there is little concern towards its direct effect on human. However the main issue is for the potential hazard of the microbes towards the environment. Upon disposal into the environment, these genetically modified bacteria can potentially alter microbial ecological balance; or transfer their modified genetic material to other microorganisms, thus generating new strains of bacteria with unknown impact on the environment. This is the reason for the banning of the use of these GMOs in the manufacture of fermented food products for commercial purposes in Europe.

However so far, there is little evidence that the use of genetically engineered bacteria posting any danger to the environment in countries (e.g. USA) where these microbes are used. These bacteria are grown under controlled laboratory conditions and their disposal can be regulated to prevent the leakage to the environment. Based on existing data, the apparently benefits of using these recombinant organisms outweighs the potential risks from a safety perspective.

In terms of Christian ethics, the use of genetically engineered bacteria in principle does not alter the genetics of human, nor does it intentionally violate any of the ten commandments. This is similar to the use of other “non-natural” technology to improve human living condition. As God gave human the power to have dominion over all the other creatures, (Genesis 1:28; Psalm 8: 6-8; section 3.1), this would include the use of genetic engineering on bacteria.

4.2 Genetically modified crops

Genetically modified crops are plants in which the DNA has been modified by genetic engineering.  Table 1 in the appendix shows the various genetically modified crops that are being grown in the world nowadays. In general, these crops have many favorable properties such as: increased crop yields, mature faster, reduced costs for food production, reduced need for pesticides, enhanced nutrient composition and food quality, resistance to pests, herbicides, and disease, reduction of spoilage resulting in increased shelf life in stores. Also, advances have been made in developing crops that can tolerate environmental stressors such as aluminum, boron, salt, drought, and frost and allowing plants to grow in harsh conditions.

Genetically modified crops are well received by farmers. Between 1996 and 2011, the total surface area of land cultivated with GM crops had increased by almost 100-fold. In 2010, genetically modified crops are grown in 10% of the world's crop lands in 29 countries. Some of these genetically modified crops (e.g. soya beans) are already supplying a majority in today’s world’s supply. All these can significantly increase food supply to provide for the world's growing population.

Besides the use for food supplies, genetically modified crops are being developed for the production of hepatisis B vaccine from banana[16], and biofuels from seaweeds[17].

Ethical concerns:

Currently the countries in EU have been resistant to use the technology as well as genetically modified crops. The main concern is the unknown safety risks, both to human health as well as to the environment. The concern is heightened by a report in 1999 which cited that a soybean allergy was increased by 50% in the UK, soon after genetically modified soybean was introduced.[18]

Moreover, there are environmental issues related genetically modified crops. Since the genetically engineered crop is grown in the open field, the impact on the environment by the crop is much more than that of the genetically engineered bacteria which are grown in an enclosed environment. One example is the “Bt corn” which was modified to be toxic to caterpillars. The pollen from these modified corns was shown to be fatal to some of the Monarch butterflies.[19] However this result was disputed in a later study which concluded that “the commercial large-scale cultivation of current Bt-maize hybrids did not pose a significant risk to the monarch population.”[20] The controversy surrounding these genetically engineered corns highlights the sensitivity of these crops by the public. Most of these crops (e.g. soya beans) are being used as animal feeds, rather than for human consumption.

In terms of ethics, the main issue is public safety. Given what is known about the issues of genetically modified crops on human health and the environment safety, it would be morally irresponsible if each of these products is not tested vigorously before launching into the market. The expense and duration for the clinical trial will be prohibitive for companies to develop such products for human consumptions. Currently most of these crops are used for animal feed.  Assuming that the genetically modified crops are safe for use as animal feeds, there is still an unknown risk towards the environment. The pollens of these crops can spread through the air to far away locations to post danger to other bacteria, plants, insects, animals and even human. The short and long term effects growing these genetically modified crops need to be evaluated.[21]

Even the Vatican expressed concerns on the genetically engineered crops. From a speech to an estimated 50,000 farmers at the Vatican on November 11, 2000, Pope John Paul II mentioned the followings:

“Without doubt, the most important value at stake when we look at the earth and at those who work is the principle that brings the earth back to her Creator:  the earth belongs to God! It must therefore be treated according to his law. If, with regard to natural resources, especially under the pressure of industrialization, an irresponsible culture of "dominion" has been reinforced with devastating ecological consequences, this certainly does not correspond to God's plan. "Fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air" (Genesis 1: 28). These famous words of Genesis entrust the earth to man's use, not abuse. They do not make man the absolute arbiter of the earth's governance, but the Creator's "co-worker":  a stupendous mission, but one which is also marked by precise boundaries that can never be transgressed with impunity.

This is a principle to be remembered in agricultural production itself, whenever there is a question of its advance through the application of biotechnologies, which cannot be evaluated solely on the basis of immediate economic interests. They must be submitted beforehand to rigorous scientific and ethical examination, to prevent them from becoming disastrous for human health and the future of the earth.”[22]

Given the potential risks associated with using the genetically modified crops, it is therefore a moral imperative to evaluate the safety risks towards animals, human, and the environment for each crop. International consortiums have been formed for these safety evaluations.[23]

4.3    Genetically modified animals

A genetically engineered animal is one that contains a recombinant DNA (rDNA) construct inserted to its genome with the intended to give the animal new characteristics or traits. A number of farm animals have been genetically engineered to increase yield and decrease susceptibility to disease. For example, Atlantic salmon fish have been engineered to mature faster and grow 2 to 6 fold larger than its non-transgenic control. The largest transgenic fish was 13 times that of the wild type.[24] In 2011, Chinese scientists generated dairy cows genetically engineered with genes for human beings to produce milk that would be the same as human breast milk.[25] However none of these products have been approved for human consumption thus far.

In 2009, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a guidance for industry on the regulation of genetically engineered animals. The guidance, titled "The Regulation of Genetically Engineered (GE) Animals Containing Heritable rDNA Constructs," clarifies the FDA's statutory and regulatory authority, and provides recommendations to producers of GE animals to help them meet their obligations and responsibilities under the law. The key paragraph is listed below:

"articles (other than food) intended to affect the structure or any function of the body of man or other animals" as drugs. An rDNA construct that is in a GE animal and is intended to affect the animal's structure or function meets the definition of an animal drug, whether the animal is intended for food, or used to produce another substance. Developers of these animals must demonstrate that the construct and any new products expressed from the inserted construct are safe for the health of the GE animal and, if they are food animals, for food consumption.”[26]

The genetic engineered animal is therefore defined as “an animal drug” in which the developer needs to provide evidence that it is safe and effective for its intended use. This approval rationale would be similar to that of a drug.

Ethical concerns:

Similar to that of genetically modified crops, the genetically modified animals also have unknown safety risks, whether for food consumption or towards the environment. US government has set up an approval process for these animals. However many other countries (e.g. China, Korea, Japan) also have the capability to produce genetically modified animals. Unless these countries follow the same rigorous regulation as in the US, or there will be potential safety and environmental risks to the use of these animals.

Besides safety concerns, there is also a concern of the necessity of producing such transgenic animals. For example, the production of transgenic salmon may lower the cost for salmon fish, but would have questionable impact on solving the hunger in the developing countries. Also most salmon fish nowadays are farm raised and there is no supply issue. Given the unknown safety risks of these genetically modified animals towards the environment, one can whether or not it is justified at all to develop and produce such animals.

4.4 Gene therapy in human

Following the advances in genetic engineering of bacteria, cells, and animals, the technology has been applied to human to use genes to treat diseases, the so called “gene therapy”. Gene therapy involves delivering a gene to replace the patient’s gene that wasn't working properly. In most cases, the DNA that encodes the gene is packaged within a "vector", which is used to deliver the therapeutic DNA to the cells that need repair within the body. Generally the vector is an engineered virus which is not recognized by the human body’s immune system, and can deliver the DNA through the bloodstream into the target cells. Once the DNA is inside the cell, the therapeutic protein will be produced by the cellular machinery, resulting in treating the disease of the patient.

There are two types of gene therapies. One type is called somatic (σὠμα/soma = body) gene therapy in which the treatment is upon somatic cells which are cells that form the body of an organism. These cells are not involved in reproduction and their DNA will not pass on to further generations. Therefore any modification(s) of the DNA of the somatic cells as a result of the gene therapy, would not be inherited by the offspring of the patient.

Somatic cell gene therapy aims to cure or treat genetically-based diseases and more recently attempted for non-inherited diseases such as cancer.  In 2012, the first clinical use of gene therapy was approved in Europe and the United States. The approval was granted towards a treatment for a disease caused by a defective gene encoding lipoprotein lipase, an enzyme that is essential to break down fat molecules.[27] Currently gene therapy was still generally in clinical trial stage, but successful treatments have been reported for patients with the retinal disease Leber's congenital amaurosis, X-linked SCID, ADA-SCID, adrenoleukodystrophy, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, acute lymphocytic leukemia, multiple myeloma, haemophilia and Parkinson's disease.[28] These successes have led to an increase in interest in gene therapy. Between 2013 and April 2014, over $600 million was invested in gene therapy by US companies.[29]

The second type of gene therapy is germline gene therapy in which germ cells (sperm or eggs) are modified by the introduction of functional genes into the genome. Upon fusion between sperm and egg, a zygote will be generated which will divide to produce all the other cells in an organism.  Therefore if a germ cell is genetically modified, the modified gene can be passed onto later generations.

Ethical concerns:

(a) Somatic gene therapy

At least in principle, there is little concern about using somatic cell gene therapy for curing diseases. However there is an ethical concern about using this technology for gene enhancement, which refers to the use of genetic engineering to modify a person's non-pathological human traits. Examples of gene enhancement would include: preventive measures to strengthen one’s immune system; use of human growth hormone muscle building, use of erythropoietin to improve the performance of athletes; improved cognitive ability of children, increased life span etc. Though gene enhancement in human is still largely hypothetical, the ethical concern is that it can further widen the gap between the people that “have” and “have not”s.

(b) Germline therapy

Because there is insufficient knowledge about the possible risks of germline therapy to future generations, this application in human is banned, at least at the present, in many countries including Australia, Canada, Germany, Israel, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.[30] In the US, there is currently no federal legislation specifically addressing human germ-line or somatic genetic therapy other than the FDA testing regulations mentioned earlier.

Besides the above technical issue, there are two ethical concerns about the many human embryos generated for experimentation during germline therapy. (a) Each of the embryos has the capacity to form a human, and there is no right for anyone to destroy the human life as present in the embryo. The same ethical issue is true for in vitro fertilization in which many fertilized embryos are not used and are frozen.[31] (b) The technology can enable the generation of more people with desired traits (positive eugenics), and reduced reproduction of people with less-desired or undesired traits (negative eugenics). This is similar to what the Nazi did during WWII.

4.5    Human cloning

Human cloning is the artificial creation of a genetically identical copy of a human. The procedure used is called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), which involves transferring the nucleus of a somatic cell (donor cell) into an egg cell (recipient cell) from the same species whose nucleus has been removed (figure below).

SCNT is in essence an asexual method of reproduction, where fertilization or sperm-egg contact does not take place. The “fertilized” egg is allowed to develop into form clonal cells which can be used in one of two ways: therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning.

(a) Therapeutic cloning

Therapeutic cloning involves using the clonal cells from human for use in medicine and transplants. Currently, therapeutic cloning is still in research stage. In 2013, the first report of generation of embryonic stem cells from human fetal somatic cells was published.[32] Recently human embryonic stem cells were reported to be generated using dermal fibroblasts from 35- and 75-year-old males.[33] These embryonic stem cells can be used to differentiate into cells of different tissues (e.g. heart, lung) and even the organ to be used in human therapy.

(b) Reproductive cloning

Reproductive cloning involves developing the clonal cells into an embryo, which is then implant into a surrogate mother to generate a whole animal. In 1996, a Finn-Dorset ewe sheep named “Dolly” was the first mammal to have been successfully cloned from an adult cell by SCNT. Dolly was formed by taking a (somatic) cell from the udder of a 6 year old female sheep. Dolly's embryo was created by taking the cell and inserting it into a sheep egg in which the nucleus was removed. The embryo was implanted to another surrogate female sheep. Since then, there are reports of success in cloning other mammals such as pig, cattle, cat, rat, mule, horse, dog, wolf, camel, and goat. [34]

Cloned sheep, cattle, goats, and pigs produced via SCNT have been used for food consumption in the US. These animals are generally used as breeders to produce offspring with good meat or milk qualities. Though still banned in Europe, in the United States, the human consumption of meat and other products from cloned animals was approved by the FDA in the US in 2006, with no special labeling required. Another potential benefit of SCNT is that it can be a solution to clone endangered species that are on the verge of going extinct.[35]

Ethical concerns:

(a) Therapeutic Cloning

Advocates supporting therapeutic cloning cited the potential benefits of use the tissues and organs with near-identical genetic makeup as the patients who otherwise cannot obtain transplants. Also there is little need for immunosuppressive drugs in the organ transplant.

The main ethical issue is the use of fertilized human egg in the technology. Scientifically, there is no other point during development which can be called the beginning of life besides the moment at which the egg was fertilized by the sperm. As written by the Supreme Court Justice Byron White in his dissenting opinion in Thornburgh v. American College of Obstetricians & Gynecologists (1986) (a case which failed to overturn the ruling of Roe v Wade) that "there is non-arbitrary line separating a fetus from a child or indeed, an adult human being."[36]

If one take the stand that human life begins at conception, each fertilized human egg is therefore a human being, the SCNT process have generated and destroyed many lives. Therapeutic cloning is rejected by the Vatican based on potential health risks and questionable health benefits.[37]

(b) Reproductive Cloning

The success in cloning of mammals opens up a real possibility that human with identical genetic makeup as one’s adult cell can be created. Advocates for reproductive cloning believe that parents who cannot otherwise have offspring should have access to the technology.

The idea of human cloning has been hotly debated. The Vatican, scientific community in the US has banned human cloning[38], as well as many nations in the world. The reasons for the ban are well summarized by a statement from the Vatican, based on biological, anthropological, and the issue upon human dignity:

Scientists, philosophers, politicians, and humanists agree on the need for an international ban on reproductive cloning. From a biological standpoint, bringing cloned human embryos to birth would be dangerous for the human species. This asexual form of reproduction would bypass the usual "shuffling" of genes that makes every individual unique in his/her genome and would arbitrarily fix the genotype in one particular configuration, with predictable negative genetic consequences for the human genepool. It would also be prohibitively dangerous for the individual clone. From an anthropological standpoint, most people recognize that cloning is offensive to human dignity. Cloning would, indeed, bring a person to life, but through a laboratory manipulation in the order of pure zootechnology. This person would enter the world as a "copy" (even if only a biological copy) of another being. While ontologically unique and worthy of respect, the manner in which a cloned human being has been brought into the world would mark that person more as an artifact rather than a fellow human being, a replacement rather than an unique individual, an instrument of someone else's will rather than an end in himself or herself, a replaceable consumer commodity rather than an unrepeatable event in human history. Thus, disrespect for the dignity of the human person is inherent in cloning. [39]

Though there is consensus among many countries that reproductive cloning of human should be banned, there is no guarantee that this would not occur in other countries (e.g. North Korea).  Once a breed of people with higher intelligence or physical stature can be generated, it would be difficult to stop countries from competing with each other to clone human with superior phenotypes.

5. Conclusion

This paper gives a brief overview of the current status of the technology of genetic engineering and its ethical concerns. The technology itself is not necessarily immoral and can generate many benefits, e.g. increase food production to feed the world, treating genetic defects in human etc. However the technology can also be misused to cause environmental damage or create ethical issue upon human dignity. The question is, where to draw the line, by what standard, and would it be enforceable across all the countries in the world?

In this “Brave New World” where technology advances with little consideration on ethical issue, human is risking to build another “Tower of Babel” (Genesis 11:1-9) and think that we have the freedom to do anything we like. If we can use the technology it upon other animals, we can also use it upon ourselves. The result is a loss of human sanctity and dignity, as we have lowered ourselves to be no different from any other animal. Can we afford to pay this cost?

6. References

1) Brim H, McFarlan SC, Fredrickson JK, Minton KW, Zhai M, Wackett LP, Daly MJ (2000). "Engineering Deinococcus radiodurans for metal remediation in radioactive mixed waste environments". Nature Biotechnology 18 (1): 85–90.

2) Chung YG et al.:  "Human Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer Using Adult Cells."  Cell Stem Cell. 2014 Apr 15. Epub ahead of print. PMID 24746675

3) Osborn, Frederick  (1937). "Development of a Eugenic Philosophy". American Sociological Review 2 (3): 389–397

4) Gatehouse AM, Ferry N, Raemaekers RJ (May 2002). "The case of the monarch butterfly: a verdict is returned". Trends Genet. 18 (5): 249–51

5) Meilaender, Gilbert : Bioethics – A primer for Christians (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan).

6) http://cen.acs.org/articles/90/web/2012/02/New-Portable-Kit-Detects-Arsenic.html

7) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloning

8) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloning#cite_note-39

9) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gene_therapy#cite_note-Gallagher-18

10) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Senescence#cite_note-doi10.2202.2F1941-6008.1011-4

11) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slippery_slope#cite_note-1

12) http://www.bbc.com/news/health-20179561

13) http://www.businesschile.cl/en/news/negocios/making-microbes-better-miners

14) http://www.dnapolicy.org/policy.international.php?action=detail&laws_id=38

15) http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/2009/ucm109066.htm

16) http://www.forbes.com/sites/matthewherper/2014/03/26/once-seen-as-too-scary-editing-peoples-genes-with-viruses-makes-a-618-million-comeback/

17) http://www.genomenewsnetwork.org/resources/whats_a_genome/Chp1_3_1.shtml

18) http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0476_0747_ZD1.html

19) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3180271/

20) http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/slippery-slope.html

21) http://www.responsibletechnology.org/health-risks#8

22) http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/06/16/us-china-cows-idUSTRE75F10K20110616

23) http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278691508000884

24) http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/jan/19/gm-microbe-seaweed-biofuels

25) http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/speeches/2000/oct-dec/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_20001111_jubilagric_en.html

26) http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19870222_respect-for-human-life_en.html

27) http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/secretariat_state/2004/documents/rc_seg-st_20040927_cloning_en.html

28) Rifkin, Jeremy: “Playing God,” Sojourners 9 (August 1980): 10

29) Davis, John J.: Evangelical Ethics – Issues facing the church today (P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, New Jersey, 2004).

30) Feinberg, John S., and Feinberg, Paul D.: Ethics for a brave New World. (Crossway, Wheaton, Illinois, 2010)

31) Boone, Keith: “Bad Axioms in Genetic Engineering,” Has Center Rep 18 (August-September 1988): 11

32) Kumar, G. B. Sunil; T. R. Ganapathi, C. J. Revathi, L. Srinivas and V. A. Bapat (October 2005). "Expression of hepatitis B surface antigen in transgenic banana plants". Planta 222 (3): 484–493.

33) Losey JE et al. (1999) Transgenic pollen harms monarch larvae. Nature 399: 214

34) Shao Jun Du, Zhiyuan Gong, Garth L. Fletcher, Margaret A. Shears, Madonna J. King, David R. Idler & Choy L. Hew (1992)  Growth Enhancement in Transgenic Atlantic Salmon by the Use of an "All Fish" Chimeric Growth Hormone Gene Construct. Nature Biotechnology 10, 176 – 181.

35) Singh OV1, Ghai S, Paul D, Jain RK. (2006) Genetically modified crops: success, safety assessment, and public concern.Appl Microbiol Biotechnol. 2006 Aug;71(5):598-607.

36) Trounson, Alan and DeWitt, Natalie D.: Pluripotent Stem Cells from Cloned Human Embryos: Success at Long Last. Cell Stem Cell 12.6 (2013): 636-638

7. Appendix

Table 1 Genetically Modified Crops[40]

[2] Jeremy Rifkin, “Playing God,” Sojourners 9 (August 1980): 10

[3] Frederick Osborn (1937). "Development of a Eugenic Philosophy". American Sociological Review 2 (3): 389–397

[4] http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19870222_respect-for-human-life_en.html

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slippery_slope#cite_note-1

[6] Keith Boone, “Bad Axioms in Genetic Engineering,” Has Center Rep 18 (August-September 1988): 11

[9] John J. Davis: Evangelical Ethics – Issues facing the church today, 280.

[10] Gilbert Meilaender: Bioethics – A primer for Christians (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan), 42.

[11] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Senescence#cite_note-doi10.2202.2F1941-6008.1011-4

[12] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3180271/

[13] http://cen.acs.org/articles/90/web/2012/02/New-Portable-Kit-Detects-Arsenic.html

[14] http://www.businesschile.cl/en/news/negocios/making-microbes-better-miners

[15] Brim H, McFarlan SC, Fredrickson JK, Minton KW, Zhai M, Wackett LP, Daly MJ (2000). "Engineering Deinococcus radiodurans for metal remediation in radioactive mixed waste environments". Nature Biotechnology 18 (1): 85–90.

[16] Kumar, G. B. Sunil; T. R. Ganapathi, C. J. Revathi, L. Srinivas and V. A. Bapat (October 2005). "Expression of hepatitis B surface antigen in transgenic banana plants". Planta 222 (3): 484–493.

[17] http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/jan/19/gm-microbe-seaweed-biofuels

[18] http://www.responsibletechnology.org/health-risks#8

[19] Losey JE et al. (1999) Transgenic pollen harms monarch larvae. Nature 399: 214

[20] Gatehouse AM, Ferry N, Raemaekers RJ (May 2002). "The case of the monarch butterfly: a verdict is returned". Trends Genet. 18 (5): 249–51

[21] Singh OV1, Ghai S, Paul D, Jain RK. (2006) Genetically modified crops: success, safety assessment, and public concern.Appl Microbiol Biotechnol. 2006 Aug;71(5):598-607.

[22] www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/speeches/2000/oct-dec/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_20001111_jubilagric_en.html

[23] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278691508000884

[24] Shao Jun Du, Zhiyuan Gong, Garth L. Fletcher, Margaret A. Shears, Madonna J. King, David R. Idler & Choy L. Hew (1992)  Growth Enhancement in Transgenic Atlantic Salmon by the Use of an "All Fish" Chimeric Growth Hormone Gene Construct. Nature Biotechnology 10, 176 – 181.

[25] http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/06/16/us-china-cows-idUSTRE75F10K20110616

[26] http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/2009/ucm109066.htm

[27] http://www.bbc.com/news/health-20179561

[28] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gene_therapy#cite_note-Gallagher-18

[29] http://www.forbes.com/sites/matthewherper/2014/03/26/once-seen-as-too-scary-editing-peoples-genes-with-viruses-makes-a-618-million-comeback/

[30] http://www.dnapolicy.org/policy.international.php?action=detail&laws_id=38

[31] John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg: Ethics for a brave New World. (Crossway, Wheaton, Illinois, 2010), 428-432.

[32] Trounson, Alan and DeWitt, Natalie D.: Pluripotent Stem Cells from Cloned Human Embryos: Success at Long Last. Cell Stem Cell 12.6 (2013): 636-638

[33] Chung YG et al.:  Human Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer Using Adult Cells. Cell Stem Cell. 2014 Apr 15. Epub ahead of print. PMID 24746675

[34] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloning#cite_note-39

[35] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloning,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

[36] http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0476_0747_ZD1.html

[37] http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/secretariat_state/2004/documents/rc_seg-st_20040927_cloning_en.html

[38] http://www.aaas.org/page/american-association-advancement-science-statement-human-cloning

[39] http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/secretariat_state/2004/documents/rc_seg-st_20040927_cloning_en.html

[40] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetically_modified_crops

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