Redesigning the World: Ethical Questions about Genetic Engineering

Genetically Engineered Food
Many scientists have claimed that the ingestion of genetically engineered food is harmless because the genetically engineered materials are destroyed by stomach acids. Recent research47 suggests that genetically engineered materials are not completely destroyed by stomach acids and that significant portions reach the bloodstream and also the brain-cells. Furthermore, it has been shown that the natural defense mechanisms of body cells are not entirely effective in keeping the genetically engineered substances out of the cells.48
Some dangers of eating genetically engineered foods are already documented. Risks to human health include the probable increase in the level of toxins in foods and in the number of disease-causing organisms that are resistant to antibiotics.49 The purposeful increase in toxins in foods to make them insect-resistant is the reversal of thousands of years of selective breeding of food-plants. For example when plants are genetically engineered to resist predators, often the plant defense systems involve the synthesis of natural carcinogens.50
Industrial mistakes or carelessness in production of genetically engineered food ingredients can also cause serious problems. The l-tryptophan food supplement, an amino acid that was marketed as a natural tranquilizer and sleeping pill, was genetically engineered. It killed thirty-seven people and permanently disabled 1,500 others with an incurable nervous system condition known as eosinophilia myalgia syndrome (EMS).51
Dr. John Fagan has summarized some major risks of eating genetically engineered food as follows:
…the new proteins produced in genetically engineered foods could: a) themselves, act as allergens or toxins, b) alter the metabolism of the food producing organism, causing it to produce new allergens or toxins, or c) causing it to be reduced in nutritional value….a) Mutations can damage genes naturally present in the DNA of an organism, leading to altered metabolism and to the production of toxins, and to reduced nutritional value of the food. b) Mutations can alter the expression of normal genes, leading to the production of allergens and toxins, and to reduced nutritional value of the food. c) Mutations can interfere with other essential, but yet unknown, functions of an organismís DNA.52
Basically what we have at present is a situation in which genetically engineered foods are beginning to flood the market, and no one knows what all their effects on humans will be. We are all becoming guinea pigs. Because genetically engineered food remains unlabeled, should serious problems arise, it will be extremely difficult to trace them to their source. Lack of labeling will also help to shield the corporations that are responsible from liability.
Junk DNA
The 100,000 or more genes found in the human genome constitute perhaps 5% of the approximately 3.5 billion base pairs of DNA sequence in the haploid human genome. Most of this noncoding DNA lies between genes and has been called spacer, or even “junk” DNA.53
The overwhelming proportion of the DNA-perhaps up to 99% in some genomes-appears to have no known function. It has been described as ‘junk DNA’ or ‘selfish DNA’-selfish because it serves no purpose except to get itself replicated along with the rest of the genome.54
An interesting parallel in thinking exists between junk DNA theory and earlier theories of the prefrontal lobes of the brain as being non-essential to human well-being. In 1955 Egas Moniz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for the treatment of schizophrenia by prefrontal lobotomy. In this procedure a long wire is inserted through the side of the skull and the prefrontal lobes are then stirred like scrambled eggs. In the United States the foremost practitioner of prefrontal lobotomy, Dr. Walter Freeman, a professor at George Washington University Medical School and a president of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, inserted an ice-pick through the tear ducts to sever the prefrontal lobe connections. The procedure, initially used on mental hospital patients, became popular as a way of dealing with mental problems.
A sanitized version of the operation and its consequences was invariably given, and never more so than in an influential article, entitled “Turning the Mind Inside Out”, published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1941. The writer, the science editor of the New York Times, began in dramatic fashion by stating that there must be at least 200 men and women in the United States who had had worries, persecution complexes, suicidal intentions, obsession and nervous tensions literally cut out of their minds with a knife.55
About 20,000 people eventually received the operation. Scrambling the frontal lobes of the brain is, of course, an irreversible process.
The ‘Junk DNA’ concept is a lot like the attitude toward the functioning of the prefrontal lobes of the brain that led to the travesty of prefrontal lobotomies. The attitude in both cases was and is that the latest scientific research does not show that there is any useful function going on there so the prefrontal lobes or the junk DNA must not have any important function and we can, therefore, remove or ignore them. Just as the performers of lobotomies operated “blind”–they could not see what they were doing. So too researchers who insert genes into new organisms operate “blind”, with a scatter-gun approach, not knowing where the gene is going to end up in the new DNA or what effects it is going to have apart from the most crude measures. As with performing lobotomies, creating genetically engineered organisms is an irreversible process. The lobotomies cannot be undone and the organisms, once released, cannot be recalled. In both cases science and the ‘responsible’ popular press lauds the great benefits for humankind of the procedures.
Life as a genetic commodity
In 1971 the United States government issued the first patent on a living organism, a genetically engineered bacterium for cleaning up oil spills. That slippery slope has led not only to the patenting of genetically engineered plants and animals, but also to the patenting of human genes, often without either the consent of the people from whom they are taken or any benefit to them.56
A proprietary attitude toward living organisms is based on philosophies of instrumental values, in which intrinsic value is disregarded. In other words all life is evaluated only in terms of its specific use for the individual. Absent is any sense of respect for life and the right of other living beings to work out their own destiny.
Given the historical role of the United States in championing the notions of equality and individual rights, the legalization of instrumental values with regard to human genes is somewhat surprising. If ‘a man’s home is his castle’, how much the more so our bodies and genetic makeup. One would think that people would have legal control over their own genes; however, that does not seem to be the case.57

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