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Biotechnology: Ethical Issues - New Challenges

social genetic genetic cloning plant naturally

Another objection to biotechnology is that it interferes with nature, but so do traditional agriculture and medicine. However, the changes that biotechnology can introduce are usually quite unlikely to occur naturally, such as a tobacco plant that glows thanks to a firefly protein, or cloning a human. We place limits on some biotechnologies, but not on others, based on our perceptions and on the intents of the interventions. The glowing tobacco plant was done as an experiment to see if a plant could express a gene from an animal, but many countries ban human cloning because it is seen as unnecessary, dangerous, and unethical. Still, time can change minds. When Louise Joy Brown, the first baby conceived using in vitro fertilization, was born in 1980, objection to "test tube baby" technology was loud. The procedure is now routine. In general, it seems that a biotechnology will eventually be considered ethical if evidence accumulates demonstrating that it does no harm.

A biotechnology that by its very definition causes harm is bioterrorism, especially when genetic manipulation is used to augment the killing power of a naturally occurring pathogen. Bioterrorism dates back to the Middle Ages, when Tartan warriors hurled plague-ridden corpses over city walls to kill the inhabitants. The British used a similar approach in the eighteenth century, when they intentionally gave Native Americans blankets that carried smallpox virus. Efforts in the former Soviet Union to create bio-weapons from the 1970s until the 1990s introduced genetic modificiations. For example, they engineered plague bacteria to be resistant to sixteen different antibiotic drugs and to produce a toxin that adds paralysis to the list of its effects. International efforts to ban bio-weapon development in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001, might put an end to this subversion of biotechnology.

Ricki Lewis


Burgess, Michael M. "Beyond Consent: Ethical and Social Issues in Genetic Testing." Nature Reviews Genetics 2 (Feb., 2001): 147-151.

Dale, Philip. "Public Concerns over Transgenic Crops." Genome Research 10 (Jan., 2000): 1.

Stolberg, Sheryl Gay. "The Biotech Death of Jesse Gelsinger." The New York Times Magazine (Nov. 28, 1999): 17.

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