Perspectives: Ethical Issues In Biotechnology

Scientists have used biotechnology for centuries to enhance the production, availability and quality of food and medicine. Some conventional biotechnology techniques that has been documented for decades includes the use of microorganism in fermentation to make bread, wine or applying rennin to make cheese. However in recent times, the development of modern biotechnology has involved powerful new techniques better known as Molecular Biology that allows scientists to tackle the previous goals with more finesse and speed such as recombinant DNA and genetic engineering, cell fusion, bioprocess and structurally-based molecular design.

Given that the technology is new, has immense potential, is rapidly developing, and can be applied to all living beings, it can be used for beneficial purposes but there are also risks. It is a sophisticated technology that needs advanced laboratory facilities and particular environmental conditions that require investment. Modern biotechnology has been particularly successfully used and applied in food, agriculture, medicine and pharmacy.

Because modern biotechnology is still considered as a new technology and the advancement in these areas have been so rapid, it has been the object of some doubts, fears, concerns as well as an intense and divisive debate worldwide on the potential risks to human health, the environment and society. These concerns has in many countries given rise to ethical considerations in the practice and development of biotechnology 

Bioethics is the study of ethical principles and values that guide behavior and policy in biomedicine and other life science related disciplines.

Bioethics in biotechnology asks questions such as:

Is biotechnology morally good or bad?

Is working to create biotechnology morally right or wrong?

What ethics is not

- Personal beliefs
- What polls and surveys reveal
- The law
- Religious beliefs

What ethics is

- Justified principles and values
        Convincing argument
        Pragmatic payoff
- Values that have appeal outside your own group or nation
- Character and virtues that produce trust

Why ethics matters

- Ethics leads the law
- Ethics sometimes is all there is
- Ethics is what people care about when it comes to medicine and biotechnology!
        - Duty to protect patients and public health
        - Economic incentives are not enough and.                  may well be mistrusted
Those who pursue health have a higher moral standard to meet.

Basic categories of moral or ethical concerns regarding modern biotechnology fall into two classes: intrinsic and extrinsic.

Extrinsic objection refers to the concerns regarding the application of the technologies such as the possible risks of different application of biotechnology, consumer’s right and patenting issues. All these issues need to be addressed as they have far-reaching consequences on the safety of human, environment and society.

Intrinsic objection alleged that the process of modern biotechnology is objectionable in itself. This belief is associated with the unnaturalness claim, changing nature and to play ‘God’. People’s beliefs about nature play a role in their evaluation of the products of biotechnology . They embody values and prescriptions about what is morally right or wrong to do to the natural world. The argument is as follows: ‘Nature and all that is natural is valuable and good in itself; all forms of biotechnology are unnatural in that they go against and interfere with nature, particularly in the crossing of natural species boundaries’.

In some cases the general moral concerns include a religious dimension when they are accompanied by an underlying set of religious beliefs and principles concerning the relationships between God, nature and human beings. The central problem underlying biotechnology is not just its short term benefits and long term drawbacks, but the overall attempt to ‘control’ living nature on an erroneous mechanistic view. Many religions does not allow unrestricted interference with life such as genetic engineering. In Islam for example, scientific research is encouraged in order to understand natural phenomenon and the universe, and to observe the signs of Allah’s glory and ultimately to find the truth.

However, not everything that is applicable is necessarily applicable, it is important to consider fully the purpose and any harmful effect towards human, environment and society and must be in line with the rules of Shari’ah. Issues of halal products and sources of genes are also important for the Muslims and for the vegetarians too.

There are many ethical traditions or principles proposed by philosophers. Spier (2002) proposed that ethical traditions can be classified into two broad divisions: secular and spiritual. The secular (western) division composed of the many ethical or moral philosophy theories or traditions available while spiritual refers to the religion. Nicholas (2000) suggested two strand of thinking around ethics and life sciences: bioethics and environmental ethics. Each strand of thinking highlights and frame issues in related but different ways.

Majority of philosophers believe that there is no single principle or tradition that should determine our conduct or the making of policies. More than one approach is needed to deal with the range of issues raised by genetic modification. The BABAS report by EFB Task Group on Public Perception of Biotechnology (1999), The Nutfield Council on Bioethics (1999), Comstock (2000) and Thomas (2001), recommended the use of at least three different theories to make decision on GMOs related issues. The three most common theories or principles relevant to GMOs are the rights theory, utilitarianism and the theory of justice.

Nicholas (2000) also suggested the use of those theories under the bioethics branch. Nutfield Council on Bioethics (1999), and Thomas (2001) also highlighted the need to consider environmental ethics as well. Another important principle that should be considered is the Precautionary Principle that have been incorporated into the Rio Declaration as Principle 15 and have been rectified by most countries. Besides the earlier mentioned theories and principles, another important tradition that need to be seriously considered is the religious or spiritual aspects and cultural values of people in certain country. 

Ethically justifiable conclusions depend on two kinds of judgements: factual (based on scientific evidence and theories), and ethical (based on the best available moral philosophy theories). Decisions on what is right to do will be made after balancing the benefits of a technology like genetic engineering with its potential harms. However, ethical decisions concerning genetic modification has proved to be very challenging because it brings together so many ethical aspects of our life that include personal, medical, environmental, political, business, animal and scientific ethics besides religion.

A method for addressing ethical issues related to modern biotechnology as recommended by many experts with several modifications is working methodically through a series of questions such as:






Modern biotechnology if applied responsibly, have vast potential to benefit mankind and the environment. At the same time, the speed of genetic change by genetic engineering may represent a new potential and unexpected impact on biosphere (FAO 2000). It is not possible to make sweeping generalizations about modern biotechnology; each application must be fully analyzed on a case-by case basis. 

Through complete and transparent assessments (scientifically and ethically) of modern biotechnology applications, and recognition of their short and long term implications towards human, environment and society and acknowledging scientific uncertainties and taking possible precautionary measures, only then, the controversies can be less contentious and more constructive, and the full benefits of modern biotechnology may be maximized.





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