Ethics in Genetics

1. Introduction
When we talk about ethics in medical science what we refer to are the practices followed in delivering a suitable solution that would not only help the patient but would also not affect or jeopardise the life of any other living being. There is a very thin line demarcating ethical or unethical practices. Bioethics is the study of the moral principles with reference to the advancement in biotechnology and medicine and often delves into politics, law and theology.

Genetics is the latest branch of science that promises solutions for countless diseases that are known to have caused deaths or trauma to the patient as well as family members in the years before the advent of genetics. This branch of science goes deep into the matter that causes these diseases and tries to cure them from the root. Study of genomics deals with the constitution or the make up of every living body.

The term bioethics was coined by Fritz Jahr in 1927 from Greek bios  life and ethos- behaviour. This incorporates human values as well as our contribution towards the preservation of our biosphere. But since the middle of the last decade there has been a surge in this branch of studies. What can be defined as ethical and what cannot, and why not has been subjected to debates along political, religious and socio-economic concerns.

One must keep in mind that genetics has been used by man since time immemorial to create hardy pest-resistant and high-yielding varieties of crops and cattle. However, since the advancement in genetics has got a sudden boost due to the other advancements in technology like electroplating and electron microscopes, geneticists have received an impetus in the form of new equipment and motivation in the discovery of the secrets of life. In more recent years, the concerns that have been coming to the forefront, have been regarding the disclosure of the results concerning populations in a particular region and more specifically of individuals and how those results may lead to a bias in judgement.

2. Contents
This paper will deal with some of the immediate issues of involving genomics in our daily lives.
Artificial fertilization in reproduction
Human genomics
Sex selection during prenatal diagnosis
Privacy of genetic data and screening
Human gene therapy
Genetically Modified Organisms

2.1. Artificial fertilization in reproduction
The scientific developments that have taken place in the field of in-vitro fertilization and its use in reproduction and gene therapy, since the publishing of the Ethics, Reproduction and Genetic Control in 1987, have led to an increased interest in social and ethical aspects of tampering with nature. The fact that there has been a drastic increase in the number of couples who have problems with fertility, gives the chance of modern techniques like in-vitro fertilization and artificial insemination to prove their worth and help these couples conceive and reproduce. How these methods could be used to manipulate traits in progeny and other factors is voiced by those who study ethics in genomics. Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act that was passed in the year 1990, Chadwick, 1987 has been a significant step towards legislation of the applications of human genomics. It makes allowance for the issuing of licences for storage of gametes, treatment and research in fertility and conception disorders.

2.2 Human Genomics
Human genome analysis or genomics is the identification and analysis of the sequence of genes in the genetic make up of an individual. Decoding the genetic sequence of an individual will enable us to analyse the parts of genetic material that contribute towards a particular disorder and would provide opportunity for rectification of those that have been researched. However, the success rates of these processes and how much authority is to be given to the individual to change the genetic constitution of a living being are to be given serious thought.

Sydney Brenner, the Nobel laureate from South Africa, has said that this is the most important, most interesting and the most challenging scientific project that we have 1990, cited in Chadwick, 1992 with regard to pursuing the human genome project as he feels that this will help us understand the nature, structure and functions of our species. However, Roger Lewin disagrees and thinks it would be inappropriate allocation of research funds as others too believe that sequencing human genome will encourage stereotyping of individuals which might ignore the influences of environment on an individual. But, since the completion of this project in 2003,  man has benefitted immensely. The first instance of gene therapy was tried on a young girl in 1990, being treated at National Institutes of Health for ADA or adenosine deaminase deficiency who is now leading a normal life. The possibilities of accurate diagnosis of diseases or prediction of the kind of diseases that a patient may fall prey to are of immense interest. On the other hand, the moral implications include causing excessive anxiety among individuals who have been tested for certain disorders. Because of the results, parents whose children have been diagnosed for vulnerability towards certain ailments may end up blaming themselves for their condition, leading to guilt and other related psychological conflicts.

2.3 Sex selection during prenatal diagnosis
The advantages attributed to prenatal diagnosis are also fraught with other kinds of dangers. One must keep in mind what kind of information is to be disclosed to the individuals or their family and what can be kept away from them. For instance, in a feudal economy where preference is given to a male child Kumar, 1985 disclosure of the gender of the foetus may lead to the unethical practise of foeticide. He mentions the presence of three groups the strict anti-abortionists, modified anti-abortionists and neutralists depending on their intensity of opposition to abortion. The neutralists believe that there is nothing wrong with the act of abortion itself, though unlimited free choice of individuals in this matter may lead to dire social consequences. The role of Church in disapproving some of these practises may be mentioned here, as it has raised several issues regarding humans playing god and going against nature.  However, one cannot do away with these tests altogether as banning these tests would also mean being left completely unaware of the presence of other grave conditions in the foetus. Pre-natal diagnosis has been one of the major breakthroughs in diagnosing human ailments and has been widely-known to prevent health complications in the foetus.

2.4. Human Gene Therapy
Gene therapy is a technique that will find wide application once it gains popularity. According to the Report on Human Genome Therapy by Prof. Harold Edgar and Prof. Thomas Tursz, UNESCO Edgar  Tursz, 1994 human gene therapy is defined as the deliberate alteration of the genetic material of living cells to prevent or treat diseases. This report mentions the cases in which gene therapy has been approved and some cases in which somatic cell gene therapy was disapproved to enhance human traits. The International Bioethics Committee engages in promoting human rights and creates awareness regarding the benefits of genetic engineering and the dangers of manipulating them for selfish gains.

2.5. Eugenics
Eugenics has been defined as an effort to improve the gene pool of a population Miller, 1997. Advocates of eugenics propound that the practise of selective breeding in humans can help in improving genetic qualities like congenital defects and overall intelligence. Chan in his paper on Eugenics Chan, 1993 writes how Singapore Ex-Premier Lee Soo-sung, blatantly expressed his belief in the endowed few who have sustained the impressive economic growth of Singapore. How this belief can affect human population and society can only be open for debate.

2.6. Biotechnology
Biotechnology is a field of biology that involves using modern technology to engineer the modification of living cells to provide some definite positive results. Biotechnology, in recent years, has been used extensively in the field of medical care, agriculture, crop production, animal rearing and environmental uses. Genetic manipulation of certain microorganisms has led to the development of many vaccines or cures for other diseases. For instance, in a very recent work by S. Lacombe and others Lacombe et al., 2010, it has been shown that interfamily transfer of plant recognition receptor bestows broad spectrum resistance to bacterial diseases.

A new development in this field has been the discovery of the immortality gene. Nanog, the master gene that allows the pluripotent stem cells to multiply limitlessly, while retaining their ability to differentiate, is predicted to help in developing embryonic stem cells for medical treatments. Bhattacharya, 2003 Even with its potential for great achievements, the use of biotechnology has been impeded time and again by certain sections of society who consider themselves the upholders of morality. The reason cited for opposition is usually that biotechnology is unnatural and blasphemous as it seeks to emulate and thereby defy god.

2.7. Cloning
Cloning may be defined as the creation of an identical genetic copy of a cell, tissue or an individual. Joshua Lederberg, the Nobel Prize winning geneticist advertised the use of genetic engineering in American Naturalist in 1966. The ethics revolving around cloning have become highly controversial. Cloning has come under the scanner because of its alleged transgression of the natural laws. The Vatican especially, has expressed its displeasure at the proliferation of research in stem-cell technology. On December 12, 2008, the Vatican released a document that opposed among other things, designer babies, human cloning and embryonic cell-research Pullela, 2008. With some people paying hundreds of dollars to create copies of their lost pets, others are wondering how long the process of cloning can be restricted before its use on humans.


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