Thursday, 4 June 2015

[Today] Ethics, gene research and the start of personhood

I refer to the commentary “Designer babies may soon be possible — but ethical questions abound” (May 29). Gene research will continue to advance, but the discussion would be about the kind of moral boundaries that should guide it.
Genetic research is of concern to everyone because it has to do with the basic metaphysical question: What is human personhood — a purely material being, or a dualistic being with a body and a soul?
Different views of this have different implications for gene research, from the application of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to researching gene editing.
Regarding human personhood, what is the moral status of extracorporeal embryos? Are they potential persons who, with time and the right environment, could become full persons, or are they persons with the potential to mature according to their kind?
If one accepts the dualistic view, then embryos are not potential persons, but persons.
This means that every embryo should be given a chance of implantation and, thus, PGD violates the embryo’s right to life.
It would mean that genetic editing of embryos without a 100 per cent assurance of safety would be considered unethical.
Choosing a better embryo over others or even choosing the sex of a baby would also mean deeming embryos, at that stage, to be products, not persons. This would be a form of discrimination against the unborn person.
If a material view of embryos is accepted, the boundaries would be larger — as embryos would only be potential persons — and stretch towards the point where one thinks the unborn deserves respect to be a person.
It could start from the 14th week of the foetus or towards foetal viability. The issue here is the subjectivity in deciding where research should not proceed: When is it a point where we would hurt a person?
There are other implications of human personhood for PGD and gene editing. The science of DNA has informed us that our genes show the potentiality for certain diseases, but should not determine our personality and thus our future.
A material approach to human personhood is a deterministic approach to human life, and could result in designer babies as a form of product for parents to select.
But is it for the better?
Would it lead to a eugenic approach to human living in society? Would designer babies achieve the outcome of their design?
In conclusion, the discussion of reproductive technology and gene research has to do with, and is affected by, the most basic issue: When are we considered a person — at the embryonic stage, foetal stage or at birth?