Bioethics promises a future far from Frankenstein
Bioethics: Perhaps you have heard the term and know what it means, maybe you have heard it but are not exactly sure what it means, or perhaps you have never heard the phrase. Even though I have been interested in bioethics for quite some time, I have realized only recently that the majority of people fall into the latter two categories — and for a good reason. I first became interested in bioethics during the genetics unit of my biology class. The concept of manipulating the genetic makeup of organisms was fascinating to me, and when we briefly covered the Human Genome Project in class, I knew I wanted to know more. Only when I actually tried to search for information on my own did I realize how inaccessible it actually is. Not only were there not many articles about the ramifications of genetic manipulation, but the ones that did exist were written in a way that was not friendly for general audiences. My column, “Under the Microscope,” seeks to solve this problem by making the ethical issues that arise from scientific and medical advancement comprehensible and (hopefully) interesting to the average Joe.
I will begin by defining the somewhat scary-sounding term that is the subject of my column. Bioethics is the study of controversial moral issues that result from advances in medicine and biology. Simply put, bioethics examines the consequences of bioscience technologies and poses the question, “Should we?” Just because we have the ability to cure a genetic illness by altering the patient’s genome, should we? Just because we can make clones of certain animals, is it ethical to do so? Bioethicists take a step back from the scientific race to discovery in order to analyze the societal and cultural effects of rapid advances in the biosciences.
At this point, you may be wondering why you should even care about these issues. After all, if most people have not even heard of the term, and if most people do not understand the intricacies of these bioethical issues, then these dilemmas are probably not significant, right? Wrong! The truth is that many people do not know much about bioethics because it is a relatively new field. It only became a legitimate field of study in the last few decades, and only a handful of universities currently offer degrees in bioethics. Bioethics became more popular during the past few decades because biological and medical technologies were advancing at an accelerated rate during this time. With thousands of new developments, it soon became more imperative to study their ethical consequences. But perhaps more significantly, these biological developments were ones that actually had more ethical consequences to examine. With the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953, scientists had uncovered the crux of life itself, and in doing so had opened the door to an entire series of ethical issues that had not existed in the past. It became possible practically overnight to alter the characteristics of life forms by changing their genetic blueprints. And what is more morally perplexing than tinkering with the very essence of life? Only once biological developments straddled the line between amazing and scary did it become clear that a system of bioethical analysis was necessary to prevent Frankenstein-like creations from popping up overnight. (Ok, that is bit of an exaggeration, but you get the idea.) Now that we have the ability and power to alter living organisms’ characteristics, create new forms of life and do a host of other amazing things with biology and medicine, it has become more important to ask the question, “Just because we can, should we?” And because almost everyone in a society has slightly different moral values and perspectives, it is important that everyone develop an independent answer to the question. The more you know about bioethics, the better you will be able to defend your moral perspective, and the more influence on scientific progress and policy you will have. Everyone’s voice has the potential to shape the future of science, so why wouldn’t you care?