The Biotechnology Debate: A Way Forward

Michael McCabe
Issue 1, August 2000

In late June this year President Clinton and Prime Minister Blair jointly announced the completion of the first phase of the Human Genome Project. They compared the significance of this achievement to Gallileo's discoveries, the landing of a man on the moon and the first circumnavigation of the earth. There was extensive media coverage of this achievement in New Zealand, with many questions being asked about its implications.

The Human Genome Project is but one aspect of the rapidly-advancing field of biotechnology, which is a veritable minefield of complexity and possibility. To understand the issues involved we need first to understand the types of work being carried out in biotechnology, and the moral and ethical concerns they raise:

Research into genes and DNA 

This includes the Human Genome Project and its equivalent for other species. Applications of this research include DNA fingerprinting, lineage and ethnic studies, and genetic testing. Many new moral and ethical concerns arise from the patenting of genes, the uses of genetic testing and the potential for humans to be perceived almost exclusively in terms of their genetic component.

Genetic modification – genetic engineering

This involves moving genes between species or altering an individual's genes. Potential applications include developing herbicide resistance or increased yields in crops, and using animals, plants or bacteria to produce pharmaceuticals. In humans, potential applications include somatic therapy, which is the alteration of a gene within the body cells of an individual, and germ-line therapy which involves the alteration of genes within the reproductive cells, with the result that changes are inheritable. Moral and ethical concerns arise from our responsibility as stewards of creation for future generations. These include crossing the species barrier, the use of genetic engineering to produce food and medicines, and the potential exploitation of indigenous plants and animals. Most of the public debate in this field has focussed on the safety of genetically modified food, with an associated debate about the effect of genetically modified crops in the environment. This aspect of biotechnology is the primary focus of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification.

Manipulation of groups of cells

Groups of cells with a similar purpose are called tissues. Tissue culture involves growing an organ or whole organism from a cell which may have been genetically engineered. Applications of this technology include production of uniform plants or animals, for example, roses or pine trees; the use of stem cells to grow new tissues or organs for transplantation; cloning; and xenotransplantation (organ transplants between humans and animals). Moral and ethical concerns include the use of embryos as a source of stem cells, and the creation of embryos for research or for "spare parts". With the possibility of human cloning there are ethical concerns about identity and parentage. Xenotransplantation raises questions about the use of animal parts in humans.

Safety issues in many applications of biotechnology have dominated the public debate. A single focus on safety ignores deeper moral questions about the nature of the actions involved in the use of some forms of biotechnology. When considering the safety of particular applications we need to ask, how might the potential benefits of biotechnology be realised while any harm is avoided in the use of this technology? By itself this question is insufficient. Other questions must also be asked. What are the moral limits in the use of biotechnology? Are there some boundaries that we should never cross? These questions need to be at the centre of the debate in our community.

There are a variety of approaches to the debate, which reflect its complexity and simultaneously contribute to it. One approach is based upon a distinction between "natural" and "unnatural". Needless to say, many aspects of biotechnology fall into the "unnatural" category! This implies that the past is natural, whereas the new is unnatural and to be avoided. Inevitably, this leads to simplistic answers, and can also lead to either uncritical acceptance of specific applications of biotechnology or total opposition to any use of biotechnology.

The conduct and scope of the debate in the community is a matter of concern. Much hope has been pinned on the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification as a way forward, but its terms of reference do not cover all aspects of biotechnology. The Commission itself will need to make decisions about how to analyse and synthesise the complex information it will receive. The complexities of the issues highlight the need for an agreed framework of principles to guide decision-making at an individual and collective level. Such a framework of principles would enable penetrating moral and ethical questions to be discussed in a fruitful way, and assist in the development of the necessary regulatory and legislative processes.

Reaching agreement on the need for a framework of principles is easier than establishing which principles, and whose principles, are to be included. However relevant principles, whatever their source, would provide a starting point for discussion among many different groups within the community, and between many differing perspectives on the use or non-use of biotechnologies. In considering which principles to include we need to ask a new series of questions. Do we need a new morality or will established moral precepts be sufficient? What principles would be acceptable to most New Zealanders? Beyond those principles what specific insight does the Catholic moral tradition offer?

In a January 1999 article in Time magazine, Walter Isaacson asked whether advances in biotechnology would require the development of new moral philosophies. "Probably not" was his reply to his own question, and he quoted the maxim of philosopher Emmanuel Kant:

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Treat each person as an individual rather than as a means to some end."

Isaacson then went on to show how this maxim could be applied in the current debate:

"Under this moral precept we should recoil at human cloning because it inevitably entails using humans as means to other humans ends, valuing them as copies of others we loved or as collections of body parts, not as individuals in their own right."

Within New Zealand legislation there are some broadly accepted ethical and moral principles which recognise the equality of human persons. The equality of human persons implies that we do not use another human as a means to an end. In this respect most New Zealanders would have little difficulty accepting Kant's maxim as one of the principles to guide our thinking in the biotechnology discussion.

Principles help to establish personal and communal limits. Some of these limits are becoming obvious within the debate. For example, there is an interesting difference in attitude in the community towards the use of genetic engineering in crops and food production, and its use for the production of medicine and the cure of disease. Medical techniques and products based on genetic modification are frequently seen as acceptable while genetically-modified food and crops are not. There are multiple factors involved in this distinction. These include the belief that regulatory processes make medical applications of genetic engineering safer. Reaction to the removal of choice when genetically-modified food is unlabelled is also a factor. These factors imply an acceptance of the therapeutic use of gene technologies. However, this is often accompanied by disquiet about other uses of gene technologies such as producing "designer babies".

Isaacson also noted this distinction and identified it as an accepted moral limit:

"We should also draw a line, however fuzzy, that would permit using genetic engineering to cure diseases and disabilities (cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy,) but not to change the personal attributes that make someone an individual (IQ, physical appearance, gender and sexuality)."

These principles find an echo in the Catholic moral tradition. Kant's statement, ""Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Treat each person as an individual rather than as a means to some end," is in accord with Catholic teaching on the dignity of human life and the equality of persons. Isaacson's observation about the need for limits when considering human uses of genetic modification echoes the teaching of Pope John Paul II on genetic manipulation:

"A strictly therapeutic intervention, having the objective of healing various maladies – such as those stemming from chromosomic deficiencies – will be considered in principle desirable, provided that it tends to real promotion of the personal well-being of men and women without harming their integrity or worsening their life condition." (1983)

As New Zealanders we would insist on the inclusion of principles from the Treaty of Waitangi, and those principles which are reflected in our human rights legislation. The Catholic moral tradition would also emphasise the need to include other fundamental principles, such as the belief that human life begins at conception and is sacred; our relationship with the physical and living resources of the earth which is a form of stewardship; concern for the poor and vulnerable; and respect for the integrity of life in all its forms.

A framework of principles would enable a truly fruitful and interdisciplinary dialogue between all members of the community. Such a framework has the potential to unite us in a common purpose, rather than increasing the fragmentation caused by the maintenance of polarised positions. Perhaps the greatest need in this debate is for the human virtues of tolerance and cooperation, which are made real in honest and patient listening, and a willingness to learn from one another.

Rev Michael McCabe, PhD
The Nathaniel Centre