Since I wrote my book on Bioethics (Bioethics: An Introduction, CUP 2012: http://amzn.to/HZQwbS) people have often asked me what bioethics is: here is a short reply:
Ethics is the study of right and wrong, of which actions we should and shouldn’t perform. Not all the things we do are morally evaluable of course. If I trip over a carpet something has happened to me I haven’t done anything. The behaviours we choose, our actions, are the only behaviours of ours that are morally evaluable: in choosing them the choices we make are moral choices.
Biotechnology, on the other hand, is the application of science and technology to living organisms and their parts, or to products and models of living organisms. We engage in biotechnology in the hope of producing understanding, goods or services. Biotechnology is both inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary. It is progressing at an astonishing rate.
Bioethics is the discipline in which ethics and biotechnology come together. As biotechnology progresses we become able to perform actions of types we have never been able to perform before. The question therefore arises as to whether these actions are, or are not, morally permissible, and if they are morally permissibile are there limits to that permissibility?
In 1997, for example, Dolly the Sheep was born after the technique of Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT) was used to clone her from an adult sheep. Dolly was the first cloned mammal. Immediately the possibility of our cloning human beings loomed large. Almost every country in the world speedily introduced legislation to ban the cloning of human beings for reproductive purposes. This ban seems morally mandatory, at least until the technology improves (there were 277 failed attempts to clone a mammal before Dolly was born).
But what happens when the technology does improve? Should human reproductive cloning still be banned? Or could human reproductive cloning at that point become just another means of assisted reproduction; helping couples who can’t have children by normal means to have the genetically-related child they long for?
Human therapeutic cloning is permitted in many countries, including theUK and theUS. The aim of human therapeutic cloning is to produce a human embryo for the purposes of research. If we clone a person with Parkinson’s Disease for example, the resulting clone will itself have Parkinson’s, and studying it may tell us a lot about how this terrible disease might eventually be cured. Even in countries that do permit human therapeutic cloning, its use is highly regulated. In theUK, for example, humans may be cloned only under very strict conditions, and all embryos must be destroyed at 14 days.
Is it really morally permissible, though, to use SCNT to produce human embryos for use in research, human embryos that will be destroyed at 14 days? To what extent does the very early human embryo have the right to life?
It is interesting to speculate about what will happen when technology permits safe human cloning. Will we then be able to clone humans for use in research but not to provide babies for childless couples? Would this be a morally reasonable situation in which to find ourselves?
The new technique of synthetic biology, on the other hand, enables us to re-design existing forms of life, and even to create forms of life unknown in nature. In 2010 Craig Venter used it to create Synthia, the world’s first man-made organism. But is it morally permissible to do this? Some say that we shouldn’t even try to ‘play God’ in this way. But such techniques hold out the promise of our being able to create organisms capable of detecting and removing pollution: imagine if we had been able to produce such organisms during the Deepwater Horizon disaster off the Mexican coast? Doesn’t this suggest that it is morally permissible to use such techniques?
Perhaps it is acceptable for scientists to use such techniques but only under very strict regulation? That such regulation is needed is suggested by the fact that these same techniques were used, in 2005, to recreate the virus that caused the ‘Spanish flu’, which in 1918-19 killed nearly 100 million people. Venter described this as ‘the first true Jurassic Park Scenario’. But what if terrorists were to learn how to use such techniques? What if ‘lone wolf operators’ such as the Unabomber were to use it to blackmail his Government?
The scientists who recreated the flu virus published their findings, together with their methodology, in a scientific journal. This, of course, is what scientists do: it enables other scientists to replicate their work. But isn’t this just asking for others to replicate this same work, but for evil rather than good?
Recently the US Government asked a scientific journal to redact a publication describing an experiment producing forms of the H5N1 bird flu virus that spreads quickly amongst humans. The government was concerned about the security implicatios of publication. The journal refused. Was it right to do so? Was the US Government right to ask a science journal to be less than transparent about science?
All these questions are questions of Bioethics. We can ignore them if we like. It is not practically necessary to do bioethics to do biotechnology. Ideally though scientists would work with the public and the authorities to help everyone understand, and think sensibly about, the morality of the actions made possible by biotechnology. If we fail, as a society, to engage with issues of bioethics we may one day sadly regret it.
 Trumpey et al ‘Characterisation of the Reconstructed 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic Virus’, Science 310 77-80 (also: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/29/magazine/29flu.html)