Science has come a long way in the last few decades, and for the most part it has been all good things. But there is one project that has caught the attention of animal rights activists across the world. Genetic Engineering has only existed in sci-fi movies for quite a while, until recently. In 1973 Herb Boyer and Stanley Cohen started playing with the subject, but in the last decade it has started to take a turn much darker than we could have ever anticipated.
Some types of genetic engineering have been normalized already by parents wishing to have the “perfect” baby. Beauty standards are changing everyday but some things never seem to go out of style: blonde hair, blue eyes, thin body, spotless skin (no freckles). And for some more privileged families having a child with all of these traits in entirely attainable, even if they themselves don’t carry the genes for those traits. These kids are being called “designer babies”. It all starts in the lab, where parents can have their embryos genes edited to fit their standards and expectations, then they put the embryo back into the female to carry out the pregnancy like normal. But this raises the question; what will happen if we make everyone the same? If everyone is designed to be smart, beautiful, and athletic, then what traits will we deem unique? Will brown hair and brown eyes with average intelligence and athletic ability be considered ugly? Will average today be ugly tomorrow? Will beautiful today be average tomorrow? There are so many questions that we have no way of answering if we start to edit our DNA. What will happen to diversity? How will we be able to tell one person from another if they all look the same? The world is already quite divided by race, religion, gender, intelligence, and wealth, but if we were to combine the best of all of these we would end up with the “perfect” human being. Would designer babies end up splitting society into social classes more than normal? Will these kids be shunned for their perfection or accepted simply because of it? Will they be more valuable as adults because of this? Are they more likely to get a job than someone who is unaltered?
This could also be an issue because genes usually have more than one function. For example the gene for intelligence also controls insanity. Will we have insane intelligent kids or less than intelligent sane children? A child that is genetically engineered is likely to stand out in a crowd. Will this put them in more danger? Is being genetically engineered as a child like wearing around a price tag with a high price as an adult? Luckily, as easy as this process is, the majority of families are rejecting the idea due to its shaky moral base and the concept that we should not operate on an embryo that can not decide its fate. In the end, any parent that makes this choice for their child, are stripping them of the chance of a future where they must fight for what they want, and must choose what they will become. Maybe we are more humane than we give each other credit for.
Some examples of genetic engineering are completely ethical, like enlarging salmon so they they are less likely to be preyed on while growing up and so that we need less of the to get the same amount of meat for a meal. These salmon were the first genetically engineered animal deemed safe to eat, so this is not harmful at all, in fact it has improved the quality of the salmon that we eat. And there are also bulls that have been worked on so that they will never grow horns, while this may sound unusual, the idea for this is completely in the animal's best interest. Once the bulls have grown these horns they need to go through the painful procedure of having them removed so they are not putting people in danger. We are also working on getting rid of the parasite that carries malaria in mosquitoes in hopes to stop the disease before more outbreaks can occur. Scientist have made countless improvements through the process of genetic engineering. So why the uproar from the community of animal lovers?
Well, some projects have begun to move into the less ethical range. Some labs are working on things straight out of a horror movie. One of the most documented examples being the human-pig hybrid. But that’s not to say that there isn’t good reasoning behind their work. New people are added to the list of people who need organ transplants every minute, but stem cell workers can’t keep up with the numbers. In the last few years stem cell workers have been using tissue samples to build the organs needed from the DNA sample of the patients. But this has lots of risk, one of the most concerning is the risk of rejection from the host. If a working heart is grown for a patient in desperate need, but the heart is rejected during surgery then that is lots of money being wasted, not to mention the pain and risk the the patient has to experience because of the surgery. And scientist believe that the human-pig hybrid may be the solution to these concerns. While organs grown for humans are suited for humans, they have to survive life in a petri dish before they can be put into the patient they were grown for. But in human-pig hybrids, the organs can be grown in a safe environment (the animal) with less chance of failure. But I know what you’re probably thinking. How can human-pig hybrid organs be the same as purely human grown organs? Well… they’re not, but they are closer to anything we have come across since we started the search for organs for transplant. The list of patients in need of new organs in growing faster that doctors can find donors. In most cases, the donors need to have passed before they can give their organs, and if they pass there may be health complications, if a donor was signed up to give their heart, but died of a heart attack, they are off the list. If they were on the donor list but their organ is rejected by the patient then that’s one more bump in the road. But the appeal of the human-pig hybrid is that with the patient’s DNA and a pig’s DNA, a hybrid organ close enough to that of the patients original will grow without risk of dying in the petri dish and without risk of rejection during the procedure.
But animal rights activists are fighting back, calling these experiments cruel. This work has been called “inhumane” and equal to “playing god”. There have even been people pointing out the cruelty of bringing a Frankenstein of sorts to life, only to take out it’s organs and kill it once it’s not longer of use. This raises the hypothetical issue of rights for these hybrids. In the event that these hybrids end up being of significant intelligence, should they have the same rights as some animals alive today? How will the research, data, and procedure information be regulated? Considering that under the right circumstances, high schoolers could also be performing the procedure of splicing the DNA together. What are the consequences of blurring the lines between species? Will the hybrids be aware of their fate? How human do these hybrids have to behave before they can be accepted as “humans”? Will they be accepted by those who oppose scientific discoveries like this? Or will they be shunned? Will experiments like these finally redefine “normal”? Work with genetics is similar to playing with fire. It has the power to change our societies as a whole, it could change our entire outlook on life and creation. So now we must ask ourselves if we can support work like this? Because we can’t enjoy the benefits, without working through the consequences.