Researchers in Oregon have successfully raised monkeys created from the genetic material of one male and two females. The research is the first major step in using “good genes” from a third party to partially genetically engineer a child from two other main parents. The research was done with the best of intentions.
The germline genetic engineering process was used to replace a bad mitochrondria gene in the mother’s genetic material with a good mitochrondria gene from another female. This resulted in children born with nearly all the genetic material and characteristics of the parents, but with the potentially fatal mitochrondrial defect corrected. The applications of this research to ‘editing out’ hereditary genetic ailments while still allowing parents to basically have a child of their own is obvious.
The problem we still face is that scientific progress is advancing at a rate far greater than our legal or ethics systems. We are opening the door to possibilities for which our laws and our society are entirely unprepared. Once you start manipulating genetic material, the problems we face today become multiplied a thousand times.
I don’t advocate the abandonment of this research. I don’t advocate banning its use on humans. Having been born with a congenital heart defect that should have resulted in my death as an infant and would have if not for ground-breaking surgical techniques, I see the good applications of this research as well worth pursuing. However, we need to quit dragging our heals on the legal issues raised by this research and the ethical considerations.
It isn’t just the concern about making designer babies. While the concern that there will be pressure to make every male born over 6 ft with blond hair, blue eyes, heavy musculature and a large penis and every female born with blond hair, blue eyes, a disposition to be thin and large breasts, the real immediate concerns are far different. Long before we reach that level of ability in genetic engineering, we will have already found ourselves faced with serious legal and ethical issues.
For example if homosexuality is genetic, would it be reasonable for potential parents to edit out that genetic trigger to eliminate homosexuality forever? On the other hand, what if a couple with a known risk of sickle cell anemia refused genetic manipulation and their child was born with a “preventable” disorder – would that be child abuse or endangerment?
As a society we have refused to face these kinds of issues. We hail the benefits of scientific research, but we pretend the problems raised by the same will just go away on their own. One of the main reasons why is because we don’t know how to address these issues.
As a conservative constitutionalist Republican, I am at a loss to find any jurisdiction to address these issues beyond the medical care regulations set in various States. I am forced to admit that on this fundamental issue of manipulation of genetic material in creating human life, we need a more uniform and clear set of rules for the whole United States. The only way to do that properly is to adopt a new Constitutional amendment granting the federal government the power to regulate the use of genetic engineering in humans.
The very idea of a government bureaucracy run at the whim of partisanship that has control over the genetic engineering of humans makes my stomach churn. With or without a constitutional amendment, we are likely headed in that direction. That is why taking action now and setting the limits, structure and guidelines for such an entity today is so important. If we wait, this will become yet another partisan football. The time to act is before the crisis comes.
We have time to debate how this regulatory body should be created. I would propose something akin to the Federal Reserve (basically independent from government partisan control) except run by a board representative of the various facets of this issue from medical researchers to doctors to psychiatrists to, yes, members of religious groups representing ethical and moral positions. But that is just one idea and very likely not the best one. That is why we need to start considering this issue now and take the time to get its regulation and oversight right rather than wait and get a political solution that benefits no one.
Science is moving quickly and our window of opportunity to proactively address this issue is rapidly closing. It is time to stop ignoring the issue and start addressing it. While we battle over health care, this issue is being ignored and has the potential to radically change health care in this country forever in ways that are almost unimaginable. Let’s learn the lesson from this current health care fight: waiting until things are starting to fall apart and then engaging in forced partisan fighting is not the smart way to handle an issue.
We need to do better on this matter. We can’t afford to do the same shoddy job with which government has been involved in everything else. Genetic manipulation is the apex of power. In our society, all power is derived from the consent of the people. Genetic engineering changes the people. We, the people, need to get a handle on it before we, the people, literally become the creations of bureaucratic rules and regulations that require or preclude us to be born with certain characteristics. If we fail to act, that will be the result.