Science

    En Route to Designer Babies?

    Renée Schroeder
    A discussion with the biologist Renée Schroeder and the philosopher Peter Kampits about the opportunities and risks of genetic engineering and the ethical considerations involved.

    Can a person be reduced to their genes?

    Renée Schroeder: No, certainly not. There are many factors involved, epigenetics as well as various environmental factors, but also personal memory and experience. We mustn’t forget that only one per cent of the genome consists of conventional genes. However, the extent to which reaction to one’s environment is genetically determined is still an open question. Research in this area is still in its infancy. I think it would be very important for new findings in the field of genetics to become common knowledge among the general population more quickly than they have done up till now. Unfortunately, strongly popularised states of anxiety have developed in Europe with regard to aspects of genetics and genetic engineering.

    You mean it’s no longer possible to have a rational public discussion?

    Schroeder: Nobody wants one. Everything is geared towards irrationally short messages.

    Peter Kampits: I agree with you there. There is far too much manipulation and far too little clarification going on with regard to the actual significance of achievements in genetic engineering in a scientific context. On the other hand, it does beg the question of what exactly is expected, generally speaking, of the relevant research in genetic engineering.

    Schroeder: One could just as well ask what is expected of philosophy. Philosophers can discuss the same topic for 3000 years, yet the same old questions are still unresolved.

    Kampits: I wouldn’t say it was that extreme. You’re right, of course, the questions have remained the same, but in the course of time there have been great variations in the answers. What one expects of philosophy is, in the first instance, guidance. Whether it is able to offer this is another question.

    Schroeder: Fine, but when do philosophical questions really become topical?

    Kampits: At the latest when they become existential, for example when they deal with death or dying. But back to genetic engineering. In this regard I am of the opinion that there is something positive in genetic alteration, for example the creation of disease-resistant plants.

    Schroeder: China is going to completely overtake us in this field. The Chinese are investing massively in the development of new plants, which will in turn act as a source of raw materials for a vast number of things. Initial attempts with cotton and rice have resulted in farmers being much healthier, because they are using far fewer sprays. Unfortunately the discussion in Europe has come to a standstill. An institute for genetic engineering in Basel has even had to be closed.

    What kinds of things can really be produced using genetic engineering?

    Schroeder: Any number of things: new raw materials, medicines, chemical products, vaccines, new foodstuffs that may even be far better than conventional products. I’m keen to see how the new industrial potato will be received.

    Kampits: Can you name some other new foodstuffs?

    Schroeder: Caffeine-free coffee, for example. Previously the caffeine was removed using carbon tetrachloride, which is toxic. Now it would be possible simply to switch off an enzyme using genetic engineering.

    And the plant would then grow caffeine-free?

    Schroeder: Yes, coffee plants are already being cultivated this way.

    Kampits: Do you see a qualitative difference between that which is described in the broadest terms as genetic manipulation, and that which is cultivated in the so-called ‘natural way’?

    Schroeder: The difference is huge. How do you create new plants in the conventional way? You take seeds and mutate them using irradiation, chemicals, or other mutagens. Like this, many genes are altered in an uncontrolled way. Afterwards the plants are sown in a field and you look for seedlings that possess the characteristics you wanted to cultivate. Then you begin to crossbreed them. This is the conventional, ‘natural’ method, which is not controllable, because you’ve mutated thousands of genes. In genetic engineering this process is more controllable, even if it’s not fully controlled because it’s not possible to steer where exactly the new gene is integrated into the chromosomes. That’s why you have to make several attempts until you achieve the required characteristic.

    Kampits: Does this also work in veterinary genetics, or in human genetics?

    Schroeder: Experimentation in these areas is not permitted. There is an ethical boundary.

    Kampits: That brings me to the topic of value neutrality. What is your view of the oft-asserted value neutrality of the natural sciences?

    Schroeder: There is no such thing as value neutrality.

    Peter Kampits
    Kampits: That’s also my opinion. The simplest example is the axe. With this technical artefact I can cut wood, but I can also kill someone. And when the topic of the development of the sciences comes up in public discussion, for example stem cell research, people suddenly start talking about a threat to value neutrality. Yet one cannot, on principle, speak of such a thing as value neutrality.

    Schroeder: The best example of this is pre-natal diagnosis. Conducting a pre-natal diagnosis is absolutely not value-neutral. It is, after all, done for a specific purpose.

    Kampits: What position do you take with regard to pre-implantation diagnosis?

    Schroeder: You have to take a very differentiated approach to this subject. Individual cases must be distinguished from one another slowly and with great care. For me, the topic of stem cell research is very important. On the one hand it’s about egg donation. When women donate eggs in order to earn money, it is the equivalent of the commercialisation of the body. I am utterly opposed to this, because it is after all a surgical intervention. On the other hand I do not see why the killing of superfluous embryos should be more ethically justifiable than the use of these embryos for research.

    The Catholic Church offers the following solution: a single egg is removed, a single egg is fertilised and a single egg implanted. With this procedure the success rate would probably be one per cent. The church is turning a blind eye to the suffering of the mother. Many ethical standards are upheld at women’s expense. In general I am of the opinion that the public debate often misses the point. The primary ethical question relates to the scale of values in society, not the discussion about stem cell research and such things. What would be important would be to place the same value on the feminine as on the masculine.

    Kampits: I think in our society we’re already on the way to this. Unfortunately these are processes that only develop very slowly.

    What is the precise reason why it is not permitted to use superfluous embryos for research purposes?

    Kampits: The primary argument is the prohibition of instrumentalisation. There is a fear that in the context of being used for research purposes these embryos are robbed of their dignity. Although the dignity argument is a very ambivalent one, in my opinion.

    What positions does philosophy take with regard to dignity?

    Kampits: There are various opinions in the philosophical tradition. According to the religious school of thought, dignity lies in the fact that humans were created in the image of God. According to Immanuel Kant, human dignity arises from human autonomy and reason. In the case of embryos – and this is where the debate starts – this would exist only in potential. The utilitarists, on the other hand, represent the view that there must be an ability to have an interest in something, a possibility of designing one’s own future. Otherwise one cannot speak of dignity. Then there is also the opinion which, in my view, has much to be said for it, that dignity has a lot to do with socialisation, i.e. reciprocal acceptance.

    Schroeder: That’s my view as well! Dignity, for me, is closely linked to respect. I would regard all human beings as entitled to have a voice – also when they are dying, which is a time when the subject of dignity is especially relevant. The fact that today a doctor is not permitted to allow a patient who wants to die to do so, because he has a duty to provide assistance, can often mean the loss of dignity.

    Kampits: There are some efforts being made at the moment to resolve this problem with a patient testament. However, in this context I envisage that we will be confronted with another problem, namely that of second-class medicine. A patient testament must be attested by a notary – that costs hundreds of euros.

    Schroeder: From the scientific point of view I consider second-class medicine to be the biggest ethical problem. Not least because medicine is increasingly becoming a question of cost. Many medicines are going to become very expensive.

    Kampits: Here we see the ethical problem of fairness in distribution. Finding an adequate way of dealing with this will not be easy. The English model, for example, is age-linked and correspondingly harsh.

    Schroeder: Apparently if you’re older than 68 you’re no longer eligible to receive dialysis.

    Kampits: Unless you pay for it yourself.

    Schroeder: Imagine the kind of situations doctors will find themselves in! On the one hand they have to do their job, on the other hand they are forced to make extremely difficult decisions.

    In bioethical matters there are two different trends. Some people base their opinion on the value of the action, others on the consequences of a ban or regulation. Where do you stand?

    Kampits: I can’t summon any enthusiasm for either of the extreme positions. I would rather advocate a kind of middle way in which one has to heed both the intention and the consequences. If you only orientate yourself by the intention and don’t think about the consequences you are operating in a transcendental, sterile realm. On the other hand, if you see only the consequences, the cost-usefulness equation would in the long term also influence ethical considerations, which would also be undesirable. I am opposed to a strict, principles-based ethical code. In this context, I would be very interested to know whether, in your opinion, we are en route to designer babies?

    Schroeder: No, I don’t think so. Carrying out modifications to the germ line, i.e. performing gene therapy, will only be possible for genetic engineering in the distant future. On the somatic level, however, gene therapy will certainly soon increase.

    Kampits: What about cloning? The Dolly experiment went wrong, after all.

    Schroeder: Actually it didn’t really go wrong, but it does demonstrate the problems involved. Many of the problems with Dolly came about because her DNA was at some point in the somatic world and came back into the germ line, and this is something that I reject on technical grounds, for the very reason that many things can go wrong in the DNA replication.

    What’s the cause of this increased source of error?

    Schroeder: The perpetual reproduction of DNA takes place in the germ line, and something that comes out of the germ line into somatic cells should not get back into the germ line because reproduction in somatic cells is marred by a higher number of errors. In cloning, a genome is taken from somatic cells and returned to the germ line, and in my opinion that is not do-able, because the division of cells, the doubling of the DNS, is less precise in the somatic world. Mistakes have to be taken into account; this is, quite simply, a risk factor that cannot be controlled. Besides which the cloning of humans is unnecessary, and I would quite simply be against it.

    Kampits: On the other hand there are religions that have no problem with it. Anyone who believes in reincarnation has no problem with cloning.

    Schroeder: Precisely. An American once had his dog, which had died, cloned. There again you have this incapacity for logical thought! It would never occur to anyone to say, when identical twins are created, that one of them is a clone and that the twins are one and the same person. They are two individuals. But when the subject is cloning, people want to create the same individual, in this case the same dog. That brings us back to the question you posed at the beginning as to whether it is possible to reduce a person to their genes alone. You have your answer in the identical twins. They are two individuals, even if they look very alike. Each has his own history, and it’s this that distinguishes a person. They have identical DNA, but they are not identical people.

    Renée Schroeder, b. 1953 in João Monlevade, Brazil, is a researcher and professor at the Institute for Microbiology and Genetics at the University of Vienna. She has long been active in the promotion of women in the scientific field.

    Peter Kampits, b. Vienna 1942, has been Professor of Philosophy at the Philosophical Institute of the University of Vienna since 1977. In 2003 he was nominated to the Advisory Board of the European Ethics Network.

    This interview was held by Christine Dobretsberger.

    Translation: Charlotte Collins

    This article first appeared in the Wiener Zeitung (Extra) on Friday, 8th December 2006.

    © Wiener Zeitung, Vienna 2006