Since the very beginning of research in the field of gene therapy, the presence of numerous social and ethical issues related to this topic was evident. On the one hand, gene therapy still has largely experimental character and thus may not be considered entirely safe. On the other hand, the aim of certain gene therapy applications consists in permanent modification of the individual’s genetic characteristics, thus representing important ethical implications. The most significant ethical issue here is problem of the acceptability of such modifications that could potentially be applied to the embryo or fetus prior to birth (Mitrovic, 2010).
Germ-line gene therapy poses particular ethic concerns, as it involves experimentation on human embryos. Opponents of the germ-line therapy believe that the early embryo bears significant moral worth or even regard it as human person in a moral sense, rejecting the possibility to experiment on it (Szebik & Glass, 2001). Another important ethical issue is related to genetic enhancement. The germ-line technology, when commercialized, could potentially be used for modification of the genetically determined non-pathological characteristics. This could involve genetic modifications aimed at improving intellectual performance, aesthetic or physical appearance of individuals (Mitrovic, 2010). Gene therapy is expensive. If such therapy was made accessible to public, individuals with more financial means would be first to benefit all of its advantages, thus creating the privileged class of “super humans” free of hereditary diseases, smarter and healthier than the rest of the population.
It should be mentioned as well that every medical intervention influences human evolution by prolonging lives that would otherwise end. Germ-line gene therapy, however, brings this influence to a new level. It has a potential to affect evolution faster and to a greater extent. Any failures or errors, if made, would be passed to the following generations, thus posing risks for separate individuals and for the entire humanity.
Certainly, there are risks involved in the use of this technology. Germ-line alterations for humans should undergo strict control. Taking into account the specific risks represented by germ-line modifications, every proposed alteration has to be carefully researched, evaluated, not only from the perspective of immediate benefits and harms, but also from the perspective of the influence on further generations, the effects that the proposed modification may have on the social and cultural spheres.
- Mitrovic, V. (2010). Arguments pro and con of the ‘enhancement’ of human beings through genetic intervention. Sociologija, 52(1), 75-96. http://dx.doi.org/10.2298/soc1001075m
- Szebik, I. & Glass, K. (2001). Ethical Issues of Human Germ-cell Therapy. Academic Medicine, 76(1), 32-38. http://dx.doi.org/10.1097/00001888-200101000-00009