DNA Testing: Ethics for the Future

April 4, 2008
By Dexter Zhuang, Northville, MI

Imagine a world where social hierarchies are constructed upon peoples’ genetic makeup— the tainted condemned to the bottom and the pure elevated to the top—and where genetic stigmatization prevents people from attaining high-paying jobs, welfare benefits and stable relationships. While seemingly far in the future, this world draws nearer as deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) testing for genetic mutations and abnormalities becomes a realistic proposition. Although DNA testing might placate hypochondriacs and even prevent suffering and death, its limited benefits are greatly outweighed by its far-ranging societal and ethical consequences.

Proponents of DNA testing mainly argue that testing could detect harmful, disease-inducing genetic mutations, offering doctors the opportunity to prescribe treatments before critical symptoms of the diseases emerge. In a person’s DNA makeup, there are billions of base pairs, with nearly a million single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), the genetic deviations where mutations can be found. Scientists examine a person’s SNPs to determine if they hold any mutations connected to diseases like cancer or diabetes. While DNA testing is currently rudimentary, startup groups like Sequenom are in hot pursuit of industrializing the SNP identification process. By classifying SNPs strands tied to certain diseases, pharmaceutical and biotech companies are hoping to learn more about the diseases—in the process discovering “wonder drugs” that could save many lives and bring the companies significant financial success. Although DNA testing appears to be a panacea for permanently ridding the world of illnesses, it certainly is not so beneficial. For example, many persons tested positive for a heart condition that magnifies the likelihood of a stroke—while recognizing that death is the inevitable end of life—would allow fears of an impending tragedy to plague their thoughts, constantly replaying the image of their sudden, dizzying collapse as their closest loved ones dial 9-1-1. These thoughts reveal the harmful psychological tolls DNA testing can take for patients. Even though scientists are unsure that possessing a mutated gene indicating higher probability of a stroke directly translates into a near hundred-percent chance of a stroke by old-age, patients will exaggerate such hypothetical consequences in their minds—narrowing their focus at all times onto their looming downfall and thus, neglecting their focus on work, family and even other parts of their health, an action that could ironically lead to their deaths by lung cancer or diabetes. The escalation of fear is threatening to patients; however, it pales in comparison to ramifications that have far broader societal and ethical impacts.

Genetic testing provides strong incentive for the proliferation of a genetic recoding and cloning industry, where human embryos that are ridded of genetic mutations can be fertilized and nurtured. This introduces a severe ethical dilemma: at what point does it become morally hazardous for humans to enhance its gene pool? Firstly, the actual process of genetic improvement, vitro fertilization, is potentially hazardous; it can over-stimulate a woman’s ovaries and risk multiple births. There is also a great risk of birth defects or medical problems as the baby ages, proving the present techniques are still too unsafe for widespread practice. As safety becomes less of an issue however, there are additional moral qualms connected to genetic enhancement that arise. The future “designer babies” could reduce humans to mere strands of DNA, easily reconstructed on the assembly lines of cloning factories. In the classic debate between nature vs. nurture, nurture becomes irrelevant as mothers and fathers insert genes of physical strength, wisdom and good looks into their sons and daughters to elevate them to perfection. Hard work, rigorous education and development of skills decline in importance so that the future of humanity is no longer determined by individualism and freedom of choice and opportunity, but by genetic equalization across an entire spectrum of traits. While scientists might claim that the environment is still a significant influence on the distinctive development of a person, genetic modifications could be enhanced so greatly that alternate influences and barriers could be easily overcome. For instance, while a person’s happiness is often dependent upon social interaction, academic and workplace achievement, and physical and mental health, genetic strands connected to a person’s happiness may be stimulated to such an extent that these external factors become irrelevant. Such eerie perfection could only fuel a pre-determined future, a world of sameness and artificial happiness and aptitude comparable to the world in Brave New World that Aldous Huxley conceived.

Another devastating implication of DNA testing lies in the plot of the film, Gattaca, where a society filled with perfectly bioengineered persons discriminates against lesser-gened persons, sentencing them to the vilest jobs such as scrubbing toilets. While difficult to imagine a parallel in reality, this society is symptomatic of genism—discrimination based on one’s DNA”. Society-wide stigmatization of lesser-gened persons could have the same effects as discrimination by diseases. AIDS-infected persons, for instance, are often shunned by many communities, denied properly-paid jobs, welfare benefits and deep relationships and treated with hidden contempt and scorn by others they encounter. The history of racial and sexual discrimination hold an even gloomier forecast for the future—socioeconomic classes based on genetic purity, facilities separated to prop up genetic segregation, inter-marrying prohibitions between the pure and the impure. To avoid such an atrocious repeat of intolerable history, genetic differences must not be highlighted by DNA testing and exploited by prejudiced systems and people.

DNA testing holds the prospect of a dismal future, where the advancement of technology ironically leads to the decline of human society, spawning excessive fear, imperfect perfection and a new era of prejudice. While the recent advancements—uncovering the causes of certain diseases and discovering innovative methods to treat them—made in DNA testing might strengthen its appeal, its implications farther down the road will most likely not only unravel but reverse the progress made. Like a distressing nightmare, thoughts of DNA testing could be the source of many rude, early-morning awakenings for lesser-gened persons, clutching their skins in dismay and horror over their visions of a world of genetic conformity or discrimination. However, in the future of DNA testing, this nightmare could likely be the world these persons awaken to.

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