The Genetic Screening Debate
Within the past thirty years, researchers have found strong evidence linking genes and disease. The development of predictive genetic tests followed shortly after the isolation of certain candidate genes. Although predictive genetic screening is only available for a handful of diseases, its effects and ramifications have become hotly debated issues in a wide range of areas, from government to religion. The debate began in the 1993 when researchers isolated the BRCA1 gene, which is associated with increased risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer.
Genetic testing involves examining an individual’s DNA and identifying abnormalities within the chemical makeup of specific structures. It, essentially, maps the person’s genome and can be interpreted to predict future issues. By analyzing the chromosome, genes, and even certain proteins, physicians and researchers can find changes that lead to inheritable disorders. These changes can lead to possible diagnosis or cure for the disorder in question. In most cases, genetic testing is used to determine the probability that an individual will develop a certain disorder. It is not used to specifically diagnose a disorder, as there are no techniques that are 100% accurate. Genetic testing techniques do give good evidence to confirm a physician’s findings, but it is not the first act a physician takes to diagnose a disorder. It can narrow a search or rule out a specific disorder very confidently, but making a diagnosis based solely on genetic testing is not an action that a qualified medical professional would consider.
Given advancements in technology and medicine, genetic screening and testing is becoming more commonplace in our society. The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) defines genetic screening as “a search in a population for persons possessing certain genotypes that (1) are already associated with disease or predispose to disease, (2) may lead to disease in their descendants, or (3) produce other variations not known to be associated with disease” (NHGRI, 2005). The term genetic testing is similar, but differs in that it only targets those individuals believed to be at high risk for a genetic disease. For example, testing an asymptomatic person in a family with relatives affected with the condition would constitute genetic testing (NHGRI, 2005). For the purpose of this paper, the two terms will be used interchangeably. Given the growing number of genetic tests available for identifying genetic diseases, it is important to examine the ethical implications of genetic screening as well as the arguments for and against this practice.
Genetic testing, also known as screening, is a rapidly advancing new scientific field that can potentially revolutionize not only the world of medicine, but many aspects of our lives. Genetic screening is the sequencing of human DNA in order to discover genetic differences, anomalies, or mutations that may prove pathological. As genetic screening becomes more advanced and easily accessible, it presents society with difficult questions that must be asked about the boundaries of science and to what degree we are allowed to tamper with the human genome. To better understand the potential impact of genetic screening on our society, we must examine the potential benefits in comparison to the possible negative impact it may cause. With this knowledge in hand, we can examine what the future holds for this field of study and the best possible direction to take.
The technologies available to aid in diagnosing genetic diseases and disorders have developed extraordinarily over the years. As a result, one topic up for discussion is how the technology should be used in the realm of diagnosing children before birth, mainly, using it to selectively screen embryos for genetic diseases. Leon Kass is one author who opposes genetic testing. He provides two main reasons why he feels it is morally wrong to use genetic screening on unborn children.
But first what are genes? Genes are often described as 'blueprints' or 'computer programs' for our bodies and all living organisms. Genes are specific sequences of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) that are used in the production of proteins. They are a single factor among many. "They provide the 'list of ingredients' which is then organized by the 'dynamical system' of the organism." That 'dynamical system' determines how the organism is going to develop. A recipe of ingredients alone does not create a dish of food.
Genetic testing has become a highly controversial issue among both the general population and the scientific community. It is a process that exposes a person’s entire genome sequence, allowing it to be read and evaluated to identify potential risks for genetic diseases or diseases that could be passed onto offspring (Holt Productions, 2012). With thousands of genetic tests already being used, and more being established, it seems logical to put this growing technology to use. Some agree that it is a person’s right to know and understand his or her genetic makeup. However, others argue that, despite the benefits of genetic testing, caution should be used to carefully inspect the risks associated with this new technology.
Healthcare in America is in a crisis. By 1996, more than 43 million Americans were uninsured. By 2010, the number is expected to rise to 57 million. These figures are already shocking, but they are even more so considering that the healthcare costs of the US total $1.2 trillion or 15% of the gross national product (GNP) – the highest in the world.
Genes are composed of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). DNA is shaped like a spiral ladder. On each “step” of this ladder there are two paired chemicals called bases. There are four types of bases, adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C), and guanine (G). Certain bases pair together for example adenine pairs with thymine, and cytosine pairs with guanine. Different combinations of base pairs join to form coded messages in our DNA. For example the different combinations of A, T, C, and G determine the genes function. There are tens of thousands of genes and base pairs of DNA repeated in the nuclei of human cells which can determine an individual’s characteristics. These genes are arranged in specific locations along 23 pairs of chromosomes. One chromosome from each of the pairs comes from that person’s mother, and the other from their father. There is one specific pair which is the 23rd pair which determines the sex of an individual. Other than that the other pairs are similar in bot...
Eng, C., and J. Vijg. 1997. Genetic testing: the problems and the promise. Nature Biotechnology 15:422-426.