From the time when Sir Isaac Newton discovered the first law of motion to the time when James Watson and Francis Crick identified the double-helix model of DNA, scientific discoveries have typically been lauded for their contributions to the common good of mankind. Recently however, the focus of scientific research has shifted away from the fundamental basics to more complicated conquests. Light is shed upon one of such discoveries in a recent statement by Dr. Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, who recently asserted that the ability to test for the likelihood of developing 25 major diseases will soon be available for humans and even developing embryos (“Director”).
Despite its groundbreaking qualities, an advancement like this bears weights dissimilar to the discoveries of Newton, Watson, and Crick. Though it is important to recognize the important benefits that this discovery beholds, we must realize that this form of genetic finding poses evolutionary, ethical and legal issues for people everywhere.
However, if standards and rules are put in place to prevent such misuse of this genetic test, it can give our world a greater understanding of how advancements like this have the potential to change the way illnesses are treated for years to come.
Through the lens of evolution, ethics, and legality, it is possible to foresee the future benefits and disbenefits of prenatal genetic testing— allowing the current generation to decide if genetic tampering is worth the future risks.
One of the most problematic issues with any preemptive genetic exam is that it may lead to artificial selection taking the place of natural selection from an evolutionary standpoint.
Just like many other scientific issues at hand, people may not see the disastrous long-term effects, such as in the example of global warming. Global warming seemed harmless at first, but as time progressed the negative side-effects became ever-so-present. In fact, global warming was simply treated as a phase that would soon pass upon its discovery.
However as more data and research was published on the matter, it became clearer that the increasing temperature of the globe would eventually become a disastrous problem causing crop loss, famine, and death (Richardson). Similar instances of unforeseen calamity have the potential to occur with prenatal genetic tampering. If parents were to know that their future children may be at risk for developing a certain disease before implantation of a fertilized egg into the uterus, then they could pick an embryo that has the least potential for future health problems (Steinbock).
At first, allowing parents to choose the path of least resistance for their children may seem beneficial, but there are some serious biological implications to this method. From an evolutionary perspective, giving parents the option to substitute for natural selection has the potential to throw evolution off of its natural path. Natural selection is defined as, “The gradual process by which biological traits become either more or less common in a population (“Director”)”.
Though the initial intentions of this embryo selectivity may be good-hearted, it could quickly turn into a biological catastrophe. The results of such a biological catastrophe are vague and unknown but, “Many geneticists believe that any interference with the random offerings of nature is inherently wrong and question our right to toy with the product of years of natural selection and evolution (Hanna).” On a global level, genetic scientists agree that human interference in a multi-billion- year progression can lead our natural evolutionary process astray.
Changing the course of evolution does not have a specific set of consequences that have been studied, but in other species, it has been known to change the way in which organisms mutate to adapt to their environment. This is clear in species that have changed recently due to human impact, such as the Peppered Moth, whose appearance changed over time to adapt to the pollution caused by humans, only to experience a shorter life span due to other accompanying complications (Lodren).
The experience of the Peppered Moth’s unnatural human influenced evolution is not very different from modern scientists using genetic exam data to alter human evolution via embryo selectivity and alteration. Intentional human influenced evolution (artificial selection) in the human population, has the potential to cause humans to adapt adversely to their surroundings and may even result in a lower chance at survival (similar to the Peppered Moth) in the attempt to rid the our species of a handful of treatable genetic illnesses.
However, if genetic embryo selection is only used to prevent severe birth mutations that drastically lower the quality of human life, then it should be a considered approach. This test, nevertheless, should not be used to dispose of embryos with easily treatable diseases that can be even more treatable if known about early on in life (Sagredo).
According to modern data dating back to Charles Darwin’s discovery of evolution, evolution has been steadily occurring for as long as organisms have existed and any alteration to evolution at the hands of human tampering could have unforeseeable negative consequences (Altman). This is, however, only one of several concerns pertaining to genetic testing; a more humanly relatable concern is that genetic testing would allow for parents to selectively weed-out embryos, raising ethical concerns along the way.
The evolutionary downsides of preemptive genetic testing may be scientifically disastrous, but it also has many detrimental ethical implications. As technology and genetic research advances, expecting parents will ultimately be able to fertilize several embryos and select the embryo that has the health and physical features of a baby that they most desire. Parents may enjoy the option of selecting the ‘perfect looking fetus’, but using a highly lauded genetic exam (that was originally intended for testing predisposition to various diseases) for aesthetic purposes, undervalues the technology behind that test same test whose aim was to improve human life (Sagredo).
Eventually parents would be able to fertilize as many eggs as they desire, and dispose of the fertilized eggs that do not meet their aesthetic standards. According to the National Human Genome Research Institute, “Although the distinctions between cure and enhancement might be obvious to some, they can lose meaning in medical practice or in formulating health policy…..interventions that begin in an effort to cure [disease] could slide quickly toward interventions that [physically] enhance (Hanna).” These concerns raised by the National Human Genome Research Institute, an organization devoted to researching genetics, are validated by the fact that this type of scenario is highly possible if no legal roadblocks are set in place.
This aspect of newly discovered genetic tests not only potentially complicates the evolutionary chain but can also send a message to society that human life is superficial and can be dwindled down to what physical traits a person has (DiMento). Furthermore, using a genetic exam for selecting a child’s appearance and not their health devalues the initial intent of this specific type of genetic testing that took several decades of scientific research to develop (Altman). On a religious basis, “Philosophical and religious objections have also been raised, based on the belief that to intervene in such fundamental biological processes is ‘playing God’ or attempting to place us above God (Hanna)”.
For this reason, these genetic tests may lead to medical practices that are deemed objectionable to followers of the three Abrahamic religions (Hanna). Moral objections to the potential outcomes of preemptive genetic testing are remarkably not the only arguments against it; the innovative genetic studies mentioned by Dr. Francis Collins have the ability to uproot the healthcare system in the United States citizens for years to come.
Though artificial embryo selection could be viewed as an ethically distasteful road to tread on, Dr. Francis Collins’ assertion has another more short-term negative effect that is visible to the current generation. The issues with preemptive genetic exams are widespread but unnoticeable at first glance. Yet, there are many deeper problems on a national level with these developing genetic tests that affect all citizens who either have health insurance or are applying for health insurance.
The discovery of the test that Dr. Francis Collins described would pose a logistical threat to people who need healthcare in the United States because this type of genetic exam blurs the lines between “predisposition” and the popular term “preexisting condition” (“Genetic”). Due to the fact that healthcare providers want to minimize costs, they will not cover preexisting conditions. If a genetic test has the ability to foresee an individual’s likelihood of developing a disease (predisposition), insurance carriers may begin to require that applicants take this test in order to see if an individual is a future financial drain on that particular insurance company. This would bar many people from accessing the healthcare that they need and ultimately would be a huge disadvantage of this simple exam (Director).
If legislation could be passed that would prevent insurance providers from using this test against people, then the test should absolutely be used. Being better prepared for future health problems can help reduce cost and future morbidity if know about in advance (Director). Towards the end of 2013, the Affordable Care Act was enacted and has helped mitigate some of the concerns involving preexisting conditions. The Affordable Care Act is reforming the ways in which healthcare is provided: “The law…prohibits issuers of health insurance from discriminating against patients with genetic diseases…because of ‘pre-existing conditions’ (“Genetic”).” This quote shows the benefits of the controversial Affordable Care Act by displaying how it does not discriminate against people with preexisting conditions or against people who are predisposed to developing certain diseases.
Unfortunately, a majority of the U.S. population does not receive healthcare from the Affordable Care Act but rather from private insurance companies that have large monopolies in the insurance business, such as Anthem Blue Cross and Cigna (Altman). These insurance providers are only a couple of the conglomerate healthcare providers that bar people with preexisting conditions from being covered under their healthcare plans. Even though the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) was signed into law in 2008 to, “Protect Americans against discrimination based on their genetic information when it comes to health insurance and employment (“Genetic”),” big insurance companies have since found legal loopholes in GINA that ultimately make it a useless law.
Further legislation in addition to GINA needs to be passed in order to assure people who remain with private insurance providers that they will not be discriminated against on the basis of helpful genetic data. In a country where the field of medicine exists only to treat diagnosed illnesses, a preemptive approach is a much- needed change to how we tackle the management of diseases, something that is very possible with this genetic exam and protective legislation.
At first, one may say that any advancement in the field of science is a benefit to society. This concept has been a long-held ideology within the minds of many. Sadly however, this philosophy is wrong and problematic. Genetics is a field of science that is only blooming and continues to do so each day. The research that comes out of geneticists’ labs is profound but not entirely practical when applied to a larger scale. Dr. Francis Collins’ assurance of genetic tests that check for the predisposition to major diseases is arguably amazing but not very practical if further examined.
Evolutionary, ethical, and legal concerns are all massive issues with such genetic exams. In order for these difficulties to be overcome, there need to be careful precautions put in place that prevent the proliferation of evolutionary, ethical and legal issues—something that can only be achieved with time. Henceforth, before any genetic tests become readily available, there must be a considerable amount of precautionary work done on many levels. Despite the fact that discoveries like this could prove to be problematic, a greater understanding of the benefits of preemptive genetic advancements has the potential to change the way we treat illness for years to come, in the United States and across the world.