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15 - Ethics and the Gene Map page 6
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6. Ethical issues Link to the Medical Research Council web site
 
What ethical issues does the Human Genome Project raise?
When considering ethical issues it is important to remember that the aim of all medical research is to increase the chance of finding treatments for diseases and thus reduce suffering and unhappiness for those people affected with diseases, as well as their friends and relatives. In addition, looking after sick people costs a tremendous amount of money, so there are economic arguments for finding treatments too.
Figure 6
Figure 6. The genes of this mouse have been altered to give it muscular dystrophy.

 

One necessary consequence of medical research is the use of experimental animals. Mice are most commonly used and many have been genetically engineered to have the faulty genes that cause human diseases. These genetically engineered mouse models include mice with cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, various cancers, sickle cell anaemia, artherosclerosis, high blood pressure or Alzheimer's disease (Figure 6).
 
There is little doubt that such mice are proving to be of some medical value - though perhaps less than was first hoped. After all, we are very different from mice, and drugs developed to cure mice of certain diseases don't always work when used on humans.
 
However, the obvious ethical argument against the development and use of such mouse models is posed by asking the question, 'Do we have the right to breed animals, knowing that they will, at least to some extent, suffer and, in any event, are being used solely for our benefit?'. Unfortunately, ethics rarely produces clear-cut answers to such questions! Ethics is an intellectually respectable discipline but it is not like Mathematics where there are typically definite right or wrong answers. What ethics can help people to do is to think clearly and rationally about moral questions. For example, if your objection to the use of genetically engineered animals is that they are being used solely for our benefit, should you also object to the use of guide dogs for the blind on the grounds that such animals are also being used solely for human benefit?
   
The Human Genome Project will also throw up ethical issues that have nothing to do with animal experiments. For example, many (but not all) human geneticists think that we will find alleles that contribute to such human traits as susceptibility to alcohol and the probability of behaving aggressively. Suppose it is found that men aged between 15 and 35 are inherently more likely than women to behave aggressively. Does that mean that we should tolerate such behaviour more in males than in females on the grounds that it is 'natural'?
 
Most ethicists would answer 'No' to such a question for two reasons. First of all, it would not be fair to women for them to receive heavier punishments than men for behaving aggressively. Secondly, a very important part of what it is to be human is to be capable of going beyond our biological tendencies. Alone of all species we can make moral choices and rise above, as it were, much of our biological heritage.
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