A discussion about biotechnology wouldn’t be complete without a discussion of the ethics involved. Proponents of biotechnology argue that such research improves our quality of life in a variety of ways, such as treating or potentially eliminating diseases or increasing food supplies. UMR’s ethics expert Dr. Carol Ann Smith, associate professor of philosophy, sat down with Mary Helen Stoltz to discuss possible ethical objections to advances in biotechnology. (From the Winter 2002 issue of UMR’s alumni magazine, the MSM-UMR Alumnus)
When we think of the ethics of biotechnology, often one of the first topics to come up is the issue of cloning.
One of the major objections to the issue of cloning is that you really are experimenting with human beings and experimenting in ways you can’t get voluntary free, fully informed consent, because these are unborn fetuses. There are always concerns that these experiments could go horribly wrong and you would have deformed children, or children with peculiar kinds of disabilities we might not be able to fix, and we would have created these problems. In many ways, it’s not the process, it’s that the process may not go smoothly — that there may be glitches which may be inevitable. We haven’t done that much successful cloning in animals to even have a sense of whether we could ever successfully clone a human being.
The question of abortion can come into the cloning issue as well. Presumably if you had some kind of defective fetus as a result of a cloning experiment, it’s likely the people doing the experiment would want to terminate that. And of course anyone who believes that the fetus is a person with rights is going to be opposed to cloning on those grounds.
So much has been in the news regarding stem cell research. What are the ethical questions raised by that research?
One of the major arguments involved in stem cell research is that you have a fetus formed and you are taking the cells and very likely destroying the fetus. And then of course we do have some stem cells where the fetus was destroyed a long time ago and President Bush has said that was okay. Basically, the "crime" was committed a long time ago but we have the results of the crime and it’s okay to use those results. And even that is a little controversial. There is a question of ethics in using results from research you regard as immoral. But this issue, I think, even more than the cloning issue, can involve the question of abortion. There are those who regard the fetus as a person with rights, and again, this fetus is unable to give voluntary free, fully informed consent to participate. I think that is really at the heart of the issue.
Time magazine recently wrote about Christopher Reeve’s progress in physical therapy since his spinal cord injury seven years ago. A sidebar to that story introduced current research projects to extract stem cells from adult patients — cells from the nasal passages or a region of the brain that involves the sense of smell.
If we could use cells from adults, that would dissolve the ethical issues. People could still have religious objections to that, but there would no longer be ethical questions.
Researchers involved in gene selection theorize that we could reach a time when diseases and abnormalities could be eliminated through the selection process. But opponents say this technology could lead to parents selecting more aesthetic traits in their unborn children, like hair or eye color or athletic ability.
There are ethical questions here, but there are larger issues about public policy. I’m not sure we know enough to know that the gene selection process wouldn’t reduce diversity or reinforce stereotypes, or possibly leave us open to some illness that might just target blond, blue-eyed folk. It’s an issue about what is best policy rather than "Is this inherently wrong?" Somebody could individually do this and we wouldn’t necessarily say it was a wrong thing to do, it’s only when you look at it across the spectrum. If we all did that, what would be the possible consequences for human beings? As far as selecting to eliminate disease, if we could be reasonably sure that we wouldn’t have bad consequences, we would applaud that on ethical grounds in the sense that we would be reducing pain and suffering without too much tampering. Again, if there is a lot of tampering, I’m not sure we can know the consequences of that, and when you don’t know what those consequences are, you’re walking into a big unknown.
In November, Oregon voters were given the opportunity to decide whether the state should require labeling of genetically modified food. Does this come down to a question of ethics?
I’m not sure we fully understand what the consequences might be of seriously tampering with genetic makeup — taking genes from turtles and putting them in strawberries. Maybe we won’t be able to digest those proteins properly. Maybe we won’t be able to stop turtles from eating these strawberries and causing some kind of a chain reaction.
We know there is always a possibility of an allergic reaction to some of these genetically altered items and we know that it is really hard to contain. A commonly altered product is corn, which is grown in open fields, and corn pollen drifts. Some of the fields next to genetically altered corn have turned up with genetic alterations. Now you face an issue where it’s hard to contain your experiment, and you’re experimenting on all of us because we may have to live with consequences that scientists can’t predict. So, how do you give voluntary, free, fully informed consent to consequences when you haven’t a clue what they might be or who may be affected?
This is really tricky because you can’t even get indirect informed consent for a lot of this. The big issue is about what we need to know in order to say, "Yeah, this is going to be okay, I can live with the consequences" in situations where the consequences are so uncertain. It’s often called decision making under uncertainty and there are alternatives from rational decision-making theory. Some people would say, "Try to maximize the benefits." Other people would say, "No, try and minimize the harm." From decision theory it isn’t clear which is more rational.
And you’re really talking now about — and this is really serious — risk that is imposed upon us. If the research escapes, like in the case of the corn pollen drift, then I have no choice now. It will surround me and that risk, if there is any — and there may not be — that risk gets imposed upon me. People generally have a lower tolerance for imposed risk than they do for voluntarily assumed risk. And rightly so.
The product labeling issue is a subset of this. The key for research to be ethical is having voluntary, free, fully informed consent, and I cannot make a fully informed decision if I don’t know. It’s a question of full disclosure of what is in products.