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Discussion on Ethics of Biotechnology

Ko: This session is on Ethical Issues in Biotechnology. The first speaker is Peter Singer.
Are there any questions for Peter Singer?

Qiu: Very interesting paper, good topic. I have a question. As far as genetic enhancement is concerned, it seems like there are two presuppositions in your conclusion. One presupposition is scientific that is, the gene plays a dominant role in determining which kind of trait a future human being will have including the behaviour. This is despite the fact that some traits like intelligence are determined by a complicated interaction between many genes and the environment. The second presupposition is an ethical one; that is, the commercialization of human genes as well as gametes can be ethically justified.

Singer: Thank you Prof. Qiu for two very important points. I don't think that what I've said requires us to assume that genes play a dominant role in traits like intelligence or whatever other characteristics may be desirable. I think that it's enough that they play a significant role. I'm sure you're right that intelligence is a result of the interaction between genes and the environment. And other traits also, probably to a greater or less degree are a result of that interaction. But suppose the gene plays 40% in the determination of intelligence, which is probably, from what I've read, is the lowest reasonable estimate. Most estimates say between 40 to 80%, but let's say 40%. Still most parents would leap at the chance to influence that 40%. Think about how much effort parents go to send their children to the best schools, so that they could get in to the best universities. I know there is a lot of pressure to do that here in Korea and many other countries as well. Now that doesn't guarantee that they will get into those good universities, but it increase the chances. And certainly, I think parents would take almost any reasonable chance, even if it weren't going to determine that their children would be successful. So I think the scientific presupposition that I'll need is one that is reasonable to believe is fulfilled by the fact. The ethical question, of course, if one believes that it is wrong to intervene genetically to enhance the characteristics of a child, then one would want to ban it, I agree. I didn't really say whether I do or do not think that, I just pointed out that the results of some countries banning this and other countries not banning it maybe a kind of tourist industry of wealthy people going to countries who do not ban this. On the actual question of whether it is always right or wrong, I don't have the view that it is somehow intrinsically wrong to use genetic selection of some sort. I think that if it were wrong, one would have to argue in each particular case, that a particular kind of genetic selection is wrong because of the bad consequences it will have for the child or for society. I haven't seen convincing arguments that show that genetic selection of the sort that I was talking about would have bad consequences either for the child or for society. But certainly that's a debate that we also need to have.

Awaya: I think fundamentally and theoretically the issue of eugenic gene enhancement is different from shopping for eggs or other human tissues or cells. So we shouldn't confuse them.

Singer: Can you say why you think it's different?

Awaya: I think theoretically they are different issues.

Singer: Well the question is whether they are ethically different. Obviously it is different to buy egg, sperm and to use genetic selection. One of the differences is that if we really can discover which gene has what effect, genetic selection will be more precise. The couples who now are spending a lot of money buying eggs of some student who may have very good scores might be disappointed because, as you know, genetics is a lottery and it might be that the child is not gifted at all. So there is that difference. But they are both attempts to achieve the same goal; that is, in some way "genetically superior", I put that in quotation marks, a child that is more likely to have qualities that they regard as genetically better. The question is why would you say that one is acceptable and the other is wrong. I can't really see a clear ethical argument for saying that we are right to allow one of these, but would be wrong to allow the other, provided there are no further risks or complications. There is always that question.

Ko: Thank you. The next speaker is Professor Osamu Kanamori. Are there any questions?

Leavitt: My comments apply to both talks. Prof. Kanamori spoke about redesigning the genome according to our cultural values. The problem is that what you think is a cultural value, might be dependent on the fact that we as academics and scientists live in a very close world. So we value certain things that are not always so widely valued. For example, Prof. Singer said that most parents would want their children to be more intelligent. This is true within our academic environment. But I know plenty of working people who do not think being intelligent to be more desirable. In fact I know plenty of working people who have emphasized to me that the fact that you are more intelligent doesn't necessarily make you more moral. I also think that if a family that is not so intelligent chooses to redesign their baby to be more intelligent; I have serious doubts about the harmony of family life. It might cause more serious problems, especially when they reach adolescence, than it can cause good. So consequently I am more conservative and careful about this whole eugenics business.

Kanamori: I agree with you. But for example the promoters of eugenics wrote about other traits like delay of aging, or improved eyesight. If technology becomes possible we will have many people who prefer this.

Zhang: You said that the new eugenics is different from the previous eugenics. One reason is that it is not state controlled eugenics. There are several ways we can deal with new science and technology. I wonder what is your personal opinion?

Kanamori: My stance is theoretical and I am not an advocate of the new eugenics. I think the topic is really important and that we should discuss it. I studied history of biology and when we know the mistakes of the first half of the twentieth century, we can discuss the future better. We need to consider how much people understand genetics.

Ko: Thank you. The next paper is by Drs. Koo and Yang. Are there any questions for Mi Jung Koo?

Macer: I was on the UNESCO bioethics committee, which was making the declarations from 1992- 1997. There is also a report that is available on the UNESCO website. The conclusion of this report was that the only type of gene therapy that the international committee could argue to legally ban was genetic enhancement of the germ line. The other types of gene therapy were considered as areas where we could not consider it appropriate to ban in an international declaration. I want to ask you considering human dignity, if there was a genetic factor that could be enhanced to make people respect human dignity and to make them more ethical. Do you think that trait would be a good one to introduce into people as genetic enhancement, to enhance people to respect human dignity? Theologically, would that be co-creatorship with God or would that be against God?

Koo: I believe that when God made the law of evolution or law of scientific activity, he didn't determine everything. That's my point. When you think about human dignity, it is very ambiguous. Can you make your comment clearer?

Macer: If I could get a gene to make a child more ethical to respect human dignity, should I do so?

Koo: That's a very good idea. To make a child have ethical and religious characteristicsc But I think that thinking this way is more dangerous, for scientists to think this. Commercialization is more dangerous.

Lei: I wonder whether it would be more reasonable to produce a child with a higher genetic potential than one with a lower genetic potential? Can it be more reasonable and be morally justified? And my second question is related to this, if it is possible for us to change this kind of social trend of having perfect babies, like as in Prof. Peter Singer's talk of giving a child the best starting life better. I mean to produce a child with high genetic potential not a particular genetic trait.

Koo: But genetic potential is subject to the environment, we have to be cautious not to get into genetic determinism or genetic fatalism. I think genetic fatalism is dangerous and genetic potential is difficult to define. We cannot be sure. While the idea to produce a child with high potential is good for the child. It may also be good for the gene pool.

Ko: I think this concept is difficult to conclude. The next speaker is Prof. Tsuyoshi Awaya on gene-enhanced animals and humans. Are there any questions?

Leavitt: Your talks are always very exciting. However, if we come to recognize the intelligence of animals, and communicate with them, I don't know if this necessarily means we are going to give them equal rights to us. Because the animal ethics in most species is to kill and eat other animals. Animals are usually speciests. Consequently, they might convince us to do as they do. And just as a cat eats mice or birds, or a bird eats insects, so we might start eatingcwe might feel happier exploiting the animal. They may persuade us to imitate their ethics.

Awaya: Yes, let's talk about that later. It is difficult to answer briefly.

Gupta: We recognize giving rights to animals. But what kind of rights would you want to give animals?

Awaya: This is a future story. We may or may not give them the same rights as humans.

Dua: Very good presentation. I think robots will become presidents and take over the U.N. They will dominate us and humans will become second class citizens.

Ko: Thank you we will move to the next presentation, by Yi Sang Wook. We will have some questions at the end, so I will move to the next paper by Masakazu Inaba and Darryl Macer. Are there any questions?

Macer: I just wanted to point out that the scoring algorithm had some software problems on this computer system. But only half the numbers came out.

Ko: Thank you for the clarification. We have no time and need to move on. Are there any questions for Minakshi Bhardwaj?

Leavitt: Minakshi, I think you gave an extremely important talk. And I want to suggest this question to us to be a practical one, how can we as the Asian Bioethics Association encourage more participation from developing countries in the international bioethical discussion. In another bioethics association that recently met in Brasilia, the Western one, every attempt to involve more people from developing countries or to try holding meetings in developing countries has been stymied. This association can do more practical things. I want to suggest to hold a meeting in a poor, developing country; particularly a poor area of a developing country, perhaps somewhere in Nepal, India or Africa. A meeting can be sponsored by a rich developed country, which would get the credit for it, but why shouldn't the venue be in some area in a developing country; and the local expenses would be less. I wanted to suggest that we as an Asian association should look for practical solutions for the issues that you raised.

Bhardwaj: There are some logistical problems to doing this in developing countries. So you need to go to the basics and practical issues, starting from the issues of political problems. To hold not just UN meetings, but meetings like these, there are sometimes problems.

Meng: I have a very small comment. One of the reasons for "lack" of bioethics principles from developing countries might be the language barrier. Particularly the language barrier. For example North Eastern countries like China and Korea have a long history of philosophical thought but it is very difficult to translate.

Bhardwaj: In terms of language barrier, many of the European countries don't speak English as well.

Meng: It is one of the reasons for lack of ethical principles.

Bhardwaj: Yes, I do agree. But I think it's not that big a barrier, when you take a look at the holistic, global view of the thing. So that's why I didn't include it. At the United Nations level, Mandarin Chinese is used for instance. But in daily work, English is commonly used because you need to have global, geographical and gender representation at some level in the United Nations system. I agree it is some barrier but there may be more important ones.

Manickavel: Since you are talking about the language, the conflict is between the technical language and the common language. The way technical language is phrased makes it difficult to communicate with the common language. I think this is the main problem with this kind of international dialogue.

Bhardwaj: That was the point that Masakazu Inaba, my colleague was also attempting to point out in the previous presentation. There is an important gap in the dialogue between public, scientists and policy makers.

Ko: Thank you, now we can have some general discussion for the session.

Singer: When we are involved in discussions of human dignity, I think we often use terms in a very vague and general sense. They really need a lot of analysis. I suggest that when we are involved in statements and declarations about human dignity, we should really ask what exactly we really mean and how do we support this claim. Because it is very easy to fall into the language of saying, why yes, of course, all human beings have some sort of inherent dignity, and we should respect this. But there are many questions that can be raised. Why should humans have dignity that non-human animals do not? This is a question that I have raised in my writing. And especially, if you consider, that after all, there are some human beings, as you mentioned, like anencephalic infants, who have no intellectual capacity at all. They are biologically members of the human species. But they are clearly far inferior to many non-human animals in terms of their autonomy, their rationality, and their awareness. So why should we take this concept of dignity, which we usually use to separate ourselves from non-human animals without any further justification. I think we, as bioethicists, we ought to be more critical and skeptical about these terms.

Gupta: My question is addressed to Minakshi. I think that conservation of biodiversity is very important in developing countries. These countries are very poor but they are often rich in biodiversity. India has two global hotspots of biodiversity. Because of poverty and underdevelopment, this resource is being degraded. I think there should be more international effort on this problem, because if lost and degraded before India is economically able to utilize these, it cannot be regained. It is not just the heritage of the gene but also the heritage of human kind.

Bhardwaj: Yes, I do agree it is very important to conserve biodiversity. Developing countries are usually known as the gene bank for rich countries, if I want to use that term. That's why when I say market access and trade pressure, trade pressure not just for biodiversity problems, but it must be taken into the context of many problems of globalization. Each issue has its locus and must be considered on its own and then integrated into the analysis of the problem.

Doering: I would like to point out something in the dignity argument. Of course it's very important to have a clear analytical understanding of the meaning of dignity. This would help us to understand the discourses. We should not forget that there is something else which everybody needs to talk about dignity constructively. That is, we have the duty to understand the meaning between different languages but also among different individuals to try to reconstruct from the meaning of the word such as dignity of human nature, love or like that. So this is the most difficult part in policy. We need a hermeneutic approach or a reconstructive approach to the meaning of each term.

Singer: I don't disagree with that. I think it is important to understand. I wasn't saying the term dignity doesn't have some useful meaning clearly, you know, we don't want people to be humiliated and treated with lack of respect. Obviously, that is at least one of the terms that are important. It was merely the assumption that all humans have this, I guess, which tends to have this opposite side that animals don't. That, I think is something that we need to think a little bit about. But, definitely, I agree with what you just said.

Anstey: You used the term disabling conditions in your talk. And I have some problems with that because it seems like what we are talking about are impairing conditions. The terms are changing in the movements.

Singer: Ok, I think what happens with language are people tend to change when words get associated with terms that they do not like. When I first started writing about this issue back in the '80s the term was not "disabled" but "handicapped". Fairly soon after that, the term "handicapped" was rejected by what we might now call the disability community, because they felt that "handicapped" carries negative connotations. So they moved to " disability". If I understand correctly, they're now trying to introduce further distinction suggesting that "disability" refers to the conditions that are socially constructed in some ways and "impairment" refers to the inherent or physical problems. Yes, I find it's just you've got to keep remembering the current fashionable terminology. But I think it's fairly clear what I meant and what conditions I was referring to.

Anstey: I think it's a lot more than fashionability at stake. You know, if I want heavy glasses, I'm impaired but I'm not disabled because there is social support.

Singer: Have you ever tried surfing? I think I'm disabled.

Ko: It's a difficult question. Thank you to all the speakers. We can see a mixture of optimism and pessimism about the future.

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Eubios Ethics Institute | Book List | TOP - Asian Bioethics in the 21st Century