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Access to the Genome: The Challenge to Equality

By Maxwell J. Mehlman; Jeffrey R. Botkin | Go to book overview

4
The Impact of Genetic Technologies

The previous chapter described the new technologies that can be expected to flow from the genetic revolution. These technologies will create unprecedented benefits and risks. Critics of the genetic revolution warn of terrible dangers that could arise if mistakes are made in developing and perfecting these technologies. New and terrible genetic scourges may be unleashed on mankind. We may create monsters. We may damage our genes so that the we cannot survive future assaults of disease. We may homogenize the human gene pool so that the species lacks the diversity to respond to future environmental challenges.1

In a realm of scientific endeavor as virgin as decoding and manipulating the human genome, we must take these concerns extremely seriously. The utmost care is required in designing, carrying out, and monitoring the results of genetic research. We must be on guard to protect the rights of experimental subjects, especially when human genetic experiments are carried out on children, embryos, fetuses, and others who cannot protect themselves. We must have a clear understanding of the risks and benefits of genetic research and of the interventions it produces, so that we may avoid doing more harm than good.

At the same time, we cannot be blind to the fact that genetic technologies offer unprecedented opportunities. Individuals with access to information about their genetic endowments will be able to gaze into the future and predict their susceptibility to genetically related disorders. Couples will be able to learn the genetic characteristics of their fetuses and selectively abort those with dread genetic diseases. Those couples fortunate enough to have access to in vitro fertilization will be able to choose among embryos and implant into the mother's uterus the one that is free from significant genetic impairment. Carrier testing, such as that now being carried out on Americans of European Jewish descent, can prevent the conception of children with genetic disorders such as Tay-Sachs. Therapeutic advances in genetics will permit the treatment and ultimately the

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