Hoover Daily Report

Designer Genes: Will They Wash?

Monday, March 31, 2003

A process called gene therapy has enabled scientists to create significantly smarter mice, demonstrating that a seemingly minor genetic alteration can improve performance on a wide range of learning and memory tasks. Aside from being bad news for cats, the success of gene therapy for purposes of "enhancement" heightens the debate about the ethics of making designer humans.

Gene therapy, the introduction of new genes into an animal or a human, can be performed for two purposes. Most commonly, physicians try to correct genetic or acquired disorders by getting the new genes to synthesize missing or defective gene products. But it can also be used for non-therapeutic purposes, such as overcoming baldness or enabling us to run faster.

Joe Tsien, the Princeton University molecular biologist who led the mouse-improvement research, has posed some ethical questions raised by genetic enhancement. "There will be issues of access and who can afford it. Whether the social wealthy class will have the intellectual advantage over poor people, these are real questions coming down the road."

But society already has come to terms with similar issues. Gene therapy for enhancement should be considered in light of society's permissiveness toward experimental medical and surgical interventions in general and those intended for non-therapeutic purposes in particular. Cosmetic surgery is performed for all sorts of non-therapeutic purposes. Drugs are frequently used for relatively trivial indications, such as modest obesity, age spots, and baldness. And there have been numerous clinical trials of appetite suppressants, memory- and performance-enhancing drugs, and human growth hormone for hormonally normal but shorter-than-average children.

Patients' psychological well-being and freedom to choose are also important considerations. "Mere" enhancement is not trivial to the adolescent boy who is six inches shorter than anyone else in his class or to many people of either sex who suffer hair loss. One need look no further than the huge societal demand for cosmetics, cosmetic surgery, and health clubs to be reminded how important people consider it is to look and feel good.

The issues surrounding whether a patient suffers from a condition that warrants treatment, the kinds and magnitude of risks, equal access to therapy, and the relationship between medical intervention and discrimination are fundamentally no different for gene therapy than for other interventions. Therefore, innovations such as gene therapy, even when used for enhancement, should be treated similarly to other analogous medical and quasi-medical interventions, except as scientific considerations may dictate.

The Economist asked in an editorial, "What of genes that might make a good body better, rather than make a bad one good? Should people be able to retrofit themselves with extra neurotransmitters to enhance various mental powers, to change the color of their skin, or lift heavier weights?" Its libertarian answer, "Yes, they should. Within some limits, people have a right to make what they want of their lives."

In view of what people want and what society permits in other realms, should not those limits be very wide?