Ethical issues on the rise with biomedical advances

by Omer Ismail | 5/10/00 5:00am

A pregnant woman walks in to her gynecologist's office for her periodic checkup. Her doctor performs a few tests, only to realize that the woman's child has an unfortunate future. He will be born with Hemophilia A -- a disease which prevents one's blood from clotting.

The information sparks an ethical dilemma in the woman's mind. Should she abort her first child, whose birth she has been anxiously awaiting since she first got married five years ago? Is the availability of this information a blessing or a curse?

Biomedical research has reached new peaks in the last couple of decades. Humans today have the ability to influence their reproductive process, to interfere with the genetic makeup of individuals and to breed genetically modified crops. And while biomedical technology is cruising along to unknown heights, it is simultaneously leaving behind a plethora of unresolved moral issues.

"The technology is way ahead of where the ethics are," biology professor Robert Gross said. "I think that this generation of college students will have more complex bioethical decisions to make than any other generation."

Indeed, the dilemmas our generation must deal with today were simply unheard of 40 years ago.

Cloning, the production of organisms genetically identical to the parent, has become a controversial topic in medical ethics. The birth of an identical sheep, Dolly, from the cell of an adult female sheep made it likely that human cloning will be possible at some point in the future

Researchers Glenn McGee and Arthur Caplan write that this possibility has sparked a wide-ranging debate on the possible circumstances of creating human clones and the possibility of using this technique to manipulate the traits of children.

"The issue remains unresolved," McGee and Caplan write, "and will continue to challenge medical ethicists well into the 21st century."

Recent advances in biomedical technology have enabled scientists to analyze one cell of an embryo to determine if the child is likely to suffer from any disease and to determine some of his or her physical characteristics. One must then decide where to draw the line and determine the circumstances under which testing should be allowed.

While most people are likely to agree to test a cell for a deadly disease like Tay-Sachs, far fewer people will agree to testing for physical characteristics such as eye or hair color.

However, Gross emphasized that in no case is the ethical answer simply black and white. No matter what the occasion or which side of the ethical divide one is on, there are always people on the other side.

The Human Genome Project, a 15-year, federally-funded effort to code the entire human genetic map, will give individuals more information about themselves. This advancement raises ethical concerns about availability of information to employers and insurance companies -- a problem that is likely to influence the lives of college students strongly in the future.

Congress passed a law last year making it illegal for federal employers to discriminate on the basis of genetic make-up. However, whether this law is extended to the general employment arena remains to be seen.

"New genetic technologies promise to make medical ethics an even more central part of social decision making," McGee and Caplan predict.

Gene therapies are also being developed that use genetically-engineered viruses to manipulate the patients' cells. Many people, however, criticize the manipulation of human cells, arguing that it breaks natural and religious laws.

Genetic manipulation is also used extensively to grow healthier, more productive crops.

Scientists have proposed adding Vitamin A to rice -- a staple food that is deficient in it -- which will lead to healthier immune systems for rice-consumers, particularly in developing countries. While some have supported this trend, many environmental scientists and others argue that these crops could adversely affect their consumers in ways that are still largely unknown. Again, many others argue that this manipulation interferes with the work of nature.

Society is also facing bioethical issues such as the legality of euthanasia, moral concerns related to the sale of body parts, the controversial use of artificial respirators and many more -- and with many moral issues still unresolved, many more are being created as you read this.

"This explosion of technology has opened up so many areas of questions that we're not ready to handle," Gross said.

Proposing a solution, he said, "Maybe it should be up to the individual to decide." But then Gross qualified his statement by adding, "But then who decides whether the individual is fit enough to decide."