Did you know: we can now make sperm from embryonic stem cells (in mice). Not
only can we create this sperm, but we can use it to successfully fertilize an
egg and develop into a fully grown mouse.
And what is the role of bioethics in this scientific discovery,
according to the article? A brief
mention of theoretical ethical issues relegated to the end of the news article
that no one reads far enough to see, anyway.
Scientific advancements in
reproduction have occurred at an unbelievable rate. We not only have the ability to create sperm,
but we can also create an embryo using three genetic donors, choose or reject
embryos based on their genetic traits, such as sex, and correct genetic defects
by essentially cutting and pasting healthy DNA sequences over defective ones. Conversely, using such technology, we also
have the potential to clone human beings, choose or reject embryos based on
traits such as hair color or athletic ability, and irreversibly alter a germ
cell line, potentially leading to unknown negative effects in later
While breakthroughs in
reproductive technologies have the potential to address issues as important and
varied as male infertility, uterine factor infertility, mitochondrial disease,
genetic defects and disease, and even artificial gestation, one wonders whether
anyone is stopping to ask: to what end? How
will we use this technology? What are
the short- and long-term effects? How
might this technology be misused? And,
my personal favorite, when will we start to regulate how and when we tinker
with biology at a genetic level?
Despite the promise of
treatment or eradication of genetic diseases using this technology, there is
still a persistent and very realistic fear that this technology will be
misused. Even worse, the misuse may become
so common as to be considered acceptable, particularly in our profit-driven
fertility industry. Will the desire to
prevent Huntington’s disease also lead to the desire to enhance
intelligence? Can we really resist the
urge to create so-called designer babies, and should we accept that while some
may win the genetic lottery, others will be able to afford to stack the deck?
Bioethicists are sometimes
viewed as obstructionists on the path of progress, unnecessarily blocking scientists from discovering
all that can be accomplished through science and medicine. (For an excellent
rebuttal, read here). But the very purpose of
the vast and diverse field of bioethics is to identify and acknowledge the
normative implications of scientific advances and engage in a dialogue that
directly addresses the “should” in a world of “could.” Hence, the age-old question that is often
asked but rarely answered: just because we can do it, does it mean we should?
In the world of reproductive
technologies and germline manipulation, perhaps the answer, sometimes, is no.
The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI’s online graduate programs, please visit our website.