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Genetic engineering

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Ethics, laws and religion

Many people believe genetic engineering is a technology which needs to be controlled, but there is a division of opinion on how and why this should be done. Some people think it is wrong for intrinsic reasons: that the risks of genetic engineering may not be fully understood and may outweigh the benefits and therefore the technology should be not used or should be very strictly controlled. Others think it is wrong for extrinsic reasons: that genetic engineering is inherently evil and should be avoided under all circumstances.

One of the main extrinsic arguments with genetic engineering is that it alters what is naturally right by ‘playing Mother Nature’ or ‘playing God’. You therefore might think that genetic engineering is always morally wrong in the eyes of religion – but this is not strictly true. Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England recognise genetic engineering is only morally bad if it is used badly (an intrinsic reason). They argue that malnutrition is still far too common in many countries, and this will only get worse as rising populations will require more food but changing climates and environments will mean that it is harder to grow. Both churches believe that genetically engineered crops are a possible solution – although they emphasise that these crops should only be used to benefit the poor (not the rich), only be grown and sold in areas where the population is aware and consents to genetic engineering, and that scientists should proceed with caution.

Furthermore, both churches also believe that gene therapy has potential benefits - as long as it is limited to somatic gene therapy treated on a case-by-case basis. This should be carried out with the patient’s (or their representative’s) consent and full knowledge of the risks, and only if the benefits undoubtedly outweigh the hazards. Neither church supports germ cell therapy, as this alters the genetic material of more than one person and would have a far greater effect if there were unforeseen problems. Most other major religions have not announced an official view, although Jews and Muslims agree that they would not eat food or have a transplanted organ which contained a pig transgene. Moreover, both Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism agree that genetic engineering is justified when used to produce medicines, alleviate suffering and illness and save lives. These are mostly the only cases in which genetic engineering would be allowed by these religions. It would never be seen with good eyes to use it to enhance physical abilities or appearance of a person1,2,3.

Genetic engineering laws are quite complicated and vary from country to country – which can be a problem as genetically engineered crops are exported around the world. Many are based on intrinsic arguments as the potential uses of genetic engineering are too important to ban outright. In the UK, each genetically engineered organism or product must be authorised before being grown or marketed. Foods (for both humans and animals) containing or consisting of genetically engineered organisms must be labelled as such, although food from animals fed on genetically products do not have to be labelled. Foods produced using genetic engineering technology but not actually containing a genetically engineered organism (such as cheese made using genetically engineered enzymes) also do not have to be labelled.

The law in the UK is in line with that of the EU. A large study carried out by the European Food Standards Agency found that recombinant DNA fragments and proteins from genetically engineered plants were detected in tissues or the edible products of farm animals – but not above the levels of DNA and proteins from ordinary plants. Despite this, the EU is taking a cautious approach to genetically engineered foods and respecting the views of many of its citizens by insisting that all foods from GMOs must be labelled. This is in contrast to the US, where genetically engineered foods do not have to be labelled, and so often aren’t – which has led to problems when these foods are exported to the EU. Once the UK leaves the EU, the stance taken on GMOs may change as the country will no longer be tied to the opinions of the EU organisation. However, if plant and animal-based foods are to be traded freely between the UK and the EU, their legislation will presumably need to maintain similar standards.

As far as genetically modifying humans goes – there are very strict laws and standards. Editing somatic cells to treat genetic conditions is allowed with strict ethical approvals needed before research can take place. But editing the germ cell lines, or early embryos, is not usually allowed. In 2016 a single group of UK scientists were given permission to use CRISPR-Cas9 on human embryos before 14 days of development. Other than that, gene editing of embryos is simply not allowed. In the UK, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority acts as a regulator, making sure that all research institutions comply with the law. The HFEA sets the standards and issues licences to researchers.