Almost three decades ago, on July, 25, 1978, Louise Brown, the first "test-tube" baby was born. The world's first test-tube baby arrived amid a storm of protest and hand-wringing about science gone amok, human-animal hybrids, and the rebirth of eugenics. But the voices of those opposed to the procedure were silenced when Brown was born. She was a happy, healthy infant, and her parents were thrilled. The doctors who helped to create her, Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards, could not have been more pleased. She was the first person ever created outside a woman's body and was as natural a baby as had ever entered the world. Today in vitro fertilization (IVF) is often the unremarkable choice of tens of thousands of infertile couples whose only complaint is that the procedure is too difficult, uncertain, and expensive. What was once so deeply disturbing now seems to many people just another part of the modern world. Will the same be said one day of children with genetically enhanced intelligence, endurance, and other traits? Or will such attempts--if they occur at all--lead to extraordinary problems that are looked back upon as the ultimate in twenty-first century hubris? (Stock, 2006.)
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Soon we may be altering the genes of our children to engineer key aspects of their character and physiology. The ethical and social consequences will be profound. We are standing at the threshold of an extraordinary, yet troubling, scientific dawn that has the potential to alter the very fabric of our lives, challenging what it means to be human, and perhaps redesigning our very selves. We are fast approaching the most consequential technological threshold in all of human history: the ability to alter the genes we pass to our children. Genetic engineering is already being carried out successfully on nonhuman animals. The gene that makes jellyfish fluorescent has been inserted into mice embryos, resulting in glow-in-the-dark rodents. Other mice have had their muscle mass increased, or have been made to be more faithful to their partners, through the insertion of a gene into their normal genetic make-up. But this method of genetic engineering is thus far inefficient. In order to produce one fluorescent mouse, several go wrong and are born deformed. If human babies are ever to be engineered, the process would have to become far more efficient, as no technique involving the birth of severely defective human beings to create a "genetically enhanced being" will hopefully ever be tolerated by our society (Designing, 2005). Once humans begin genetically engineering their children for desired traits, we will have crossed a threshold of no return. The communities of the world are just beginning to understand the full implications of the new human genetic technologies. There are few civil society institutions, and there are no social or political movements, critically addressing the immense social, cultural, and psychological challenges these technologies pose.
Until recently, the time scale for measuring change in the biological world has been tens of thousands, if not millions of years, but today it is hard to imagine what humans may be like in a few hundred years. The forces pushing humanity toward attempts at self-modification, through biological and technological advances, are powerful, seductive ones that we will be hard-pressed to resist. Some will curse these new technologies, sounding the death knell for humanity, envisioning the social, cultural, and moral collapse of our society and perhaps our civilization. Others see the same technologies as the ability to take charge of our own evolution, to transcend human limitations, and to improve ourselves as a species. As the human species moves out of its childhood, it is time to acknowledge our technological capabilities and to take responsibility for them. We have little choice, as the reweaving of the fabric of our genetic makeup has already begun.
The Basic Science
Biological entities are comprised of millions of cells. …