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t o FactsbeU
Ethical issuesin A-Level Biology

This Factsheetwill refer to spiritual, morel, ethical,and socialissuesrelevantto the following topics:
.

the human genome project.


genetic engineering and its uses in agriculture.
genetic engineering and its uses in medicine.
reproductive control, population control, abortion.

disease control, antibiotics and vaccination.

o
.

The human genome project (HGP)


Knowledge originating from the HGP has huge sociological implications
for humans:
l

The HGP provides personalgeneticinformation about individuals. Who


shouldhaveaccessto suchinformationand how shouldit be used?It is
very important that the use of genetic information by, for example,
insurers, employers, courts, schools,adoption agenciesand the armed
forces should be fair to the individual and all involved parties.

2. Who owns the genesand the other piecesof DNA? Is it the scientist
or company that obtained the information, or the individual who has
that genome?This has implications for:
.

the commercialisation of products, including property rights,


patents,copyrights and trade secrets.
the accessibilityand disseminationof genetic data,materials and
methods.It is important that individual privacy and confidentiality
is maintained,and so an individual's genetic information should
not be distributed to other parties without permission. Personal
genetic information should not adverselyaffect an individual. It
is important that an individual who suffers from genetic
imperfectionsshould not be socially deprived,or psychologically
traumatised,or stigmatisedby society'sattitudestowards genetic
differences.For example, if a potential employer or insurer has
knowledgethat a particularpersonis carrying an allele that makes
developmentof diabeteshighly probable,then the employermay
not offer that person a job or insurance may be refused.

3. How reliable and useful is fetal genetic testing at present and will
healthcare personnel counsel parents correctly, and sympathetically,
about the risks and limitations arising from genetic technology? Before
individuals can give consentfor proceduresto be carried out they must
be adequatelyinformed about complex and conffoversial procedures,
about how to assessgenetic information for reproductive decisionsand
about the reproductive rights of parents and children. For example,
parents may be told that the baby they are expecting is carrying the
allele for cystic fibrosis. Should the pregnancybe terminated or should
they allow the baby to be born? The fact that gene therapy is being
developed as a ffeatment for cystic fibrosis may help the parents to
decide to let the pregnancycontinue,even though the baby will develop
cyctic fibrosis. So that correct decisionscan be made, it is important
that genetic testing is evaluatedand regulated for accuracy,reliability
and usefulness.Genetic tests must be reliable and interpretableby the
medical professions.At present there is little quality control of such
procedures.Doctors, other health service personnel and patients must
be educated about the new genetic capabilities, their scientific
limitations and social risks. Quality control measures and the
implementation of standardsmust be developedproperly.

drug and solvent abuse.

smoking and disease/cancer.


effects of pollution - eutrophication,

greenhouse effect,

global warming.

4. Should parentshave the right to let their children be testedfor adultonset diseases?Should testing be performed in cases where no
treatment is yet available? Uncertainties exist about gene tests for
susceptibilitiesto diseaseand for complex conditions such as 'heart
disease',especially when the conditions are linked to multiple gene
interactionsand to gene-environmentinteractions.
5. Do people'sgenesmake them behavein particularways or can people
genesconsidered
always control their behaviour?Are disease-causing
acceptable genetic diversity? Knowledge of the human genome
imposes conceptual and philosophical implications on humans,
including human responsibiliry free-will versus genetic determination,
it also may modiff conceptsof health and acceptabledisease.
Genetic engineering and its uses in agriculture.
Genetic engineeringin agricultureis used to produce geneticallymodified
crops (GM crops), geneticallymodified animalsand growth hormones.
.

A large proportion of the world population has insufiicient food. Thus


genetic modification of crops to increaseyields of food seemsuseful
providing it is not done only to increaseprofits for the producer or
does not produce environmental damage. Difficulties have arisen
because:
L Pollen from GM crops has hybridised with wild speciesof plants
altering the ecology of the flora, thus altering native populations
and communities.
2. Pollen from GM crops that have been given insecticide powers
against insect pests does land on the food plants of harmless
insects and does kill the harmless insects. The pollen from the
GM crops may also transfer the insecticide-conferringgenesinto
other speciesof plant, by hybridisation.
The main ethical problem that exists is, whether to produce GM crops
to feed the world population, or whether to refrain from producing
GM crops becauseof possible seriousenvironmentaldamage.

Techniques such as embryo transplantation and cloning are being


developed to produce animals that perpetuate good traits, such as
high milk yield, high quality meat yield, longevity and disease
resistance.If this producesmore food for the world population it is
ethically good, but if it causesanimal suffering it is ethically bad.
Many people think that animals should be given proper respectand
should not be exploited by genetic modifications.

Genetically engineered growth hormones, for example, bovine


somatotropin (bovine-STH), are injected into cattle in order to
improve milk or beef yield. This is done without respectto the wishes
of a large proportion of the population who have to drink milk

Ethical issuesin A-level Biology

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u, rt)tu.c urr / c u lu m Dre ss. c o. u k


containing bovine-STH. However, since this hormone is a protein it
is probably harmlessto humans,becauseit will be digestedquickly in
the stomach.The hormone is primarily usedto increasethe producer's
profits but becausethe EuropeanEconomic community always has a
surplus of dairy products, the extra milk yield is not really required.
Bovine-STH treated cows generally have a shorterworking life than
untreatedcows, becausethey cannot survive the stressof extra milk
production for long. using bovine-STH in this way thus seems
unethical.

Reproductive control, population control, abortion


Birth and population control
' Becausehuman population growth continuing at its present
rate is
going to outsffip world resourcesit is essentialto be able to control
birth rates, before nature does it for us, by mass starvation, or by
global epidemics. Some believe that unplanned population growth
can impede economicdevelopment,reducestandardsof living, keep
infant mortality high and perpetuatepoverty.The human specieshas
a moral obligation to reduce suffering and deprivation of all people
and to ensure its continual survival on earth. (Every species of
organism on earth is trying to perpetuateits survival). It would be
unethical not to try to control unwantedpopulation growth because
the result would be world wide human suffering.

A balancemust be struck betweenthe demandsof agriculture and the need


for conservation.It is unethical if agricultural exploitation proceedswithout
due regard to habitatsand to the rights of other speciesto exist on the planet.
Agricultural activities, for example, hedgerow removal, drainage
programmes, monoculture, planting of GM crops, use of pesticides and
fertilisers, should be carried out with due regard to the needs of the natural
environment. wherever possible, wild life should be protected, conserved
and developed, not only for its aesthetic and amenity value, but also to
maintainessentialfood webs,many ofwhich areessentialfor human survival.
Genetic engineering and its uses in medicine.
The medical professionhas the paramountobjectives- to treat diseasein
individuals and to raise the health status of the population. This
sometimesposes an ethical question: it is obviously morally correct to
treat diseasesbut should the treatment extend to using techniquesthat
may be ethically dubious?For example:
'

'

The use of animal insulin, and in recent years genetically engineered


insulin, to treat diabeteshas been of great benefit to diabetics (and
their families), enablingthem to live a normal life and to have a useful
role in society.However, the likelihood of developing diabetesdoes
have a genetic basis and the diseasedoes tend to occur in particular
families. whereas 'pre-insulin'diabetics tendedto die young, before
having children, diabetics now regularly have children. This means
that the incidence of diabetes in the population is rising from
generation to generation thus reducing the overall health of the
population.In spite of this, it would be ethically abhorrentnot to treat
diabeticswith the availableinsulins.The sameproblem existswith the
treatmentof dwarfism using genetically engineeredgrowth hormone
(human-STH),and with genetherapytreatmentsof cystic fibrosis and
alpha-l antitrypsindeficiency (which causesemphysemain children).
The development of in-vitro fertilisation' (IVF) has resulted in the
availability of large numbers of live human embryos which can be
frozen and stored for future use. They could be used for stem cell
research (stem cells are the undifferentiated cells of a very young
embryo) or for human cloning (the production of genetically identical
humans).Human cloning is consideredunethicaland is legally banned
in Britain, the USA and most other countriesof the world. However,
Britain has recently made it legal, under licence, to clone cells from
human embryos in order to form replacement tissues, evenfually
enabling repair of, for example, damaged heart muscle or damaged
spinal cord. A cure for Parkinson's diseasemay also arise from this
stem cell research.The ethical problem arisesfrom considerationsof
the 'sanctity of human life'. At what stagein deveropmentdoes the
embryo become human - from conception, or from the time of
establishmentof body form, or some other time? If the 'bail of cells'
embryo is alreadya human individual then its destructionfor stem cell
research is murder. There is no apparent answer to the dilemma, but
stem cell researchcould bring great benefitsto the human population.
IVF has brought the possibility to infertile couplesof having children.
However, the procedure does introduce some ethical difficulties, the
main one being, 'what is going to happen to all the surplus embryos
that are, at present, stored in a frozen condition'? Should they be
destroyed,or used for stem cell research,or used for human cloning?
Many people, who consider that these very young embryos already
have human status,considerthat IVF programmesshould be stopped.

'

In the Book of Genesisin the Bible, God gave man the instruction
'go forth
and multiply'. Similar statementsoccur in the Koran and
other religious books. The United Nations'Declaration of Human
Rights, article 16 states'men and women have the right to man-y
and found a family'. Many considerthat it would be immoral and
unethical to prevent any family to have a child.

'

The human specieshas severalbirth control methods available to it.


Somebelieve that birth control with thesemethods,used to regulate
family size to a supportablelevel, should be practisedas a result of
people wanting to, becauseof persuasionand education.

Birth control imposed by legislation, such as the .One Child


Policy' introduced into china in the 1970s, aimed to reduce
population, raise the average standardof living and to achieve
political stability. Unfortunately the control, in many cases,was
imposedtoo harshly,involving forced abortions,sterilisationsand
even infanticide. There were severepenaltiesimposed on families
who had more than their 'quota' of children. Subjecting the
human population to this was unethical.

Abortion
' Some people think that abortion is wrong in all circumstances
becauseit doesnot recognisethe rights of the fetusand it challenges
the idea of the sanctityof all human life. Those who considerthat
an embryo, from the moment of conception,is a human being with
full moral status,think that abortion is the same as murder. people
with this view will not acceptthat it shouldbe possiblefor women
to legally obtain abortion, no matter how difficult the rives of those
women and families are made as a result.
'

Anti-abortion views are based on religious or moral convictions


that every human life has an essentialvalue, which is not reduced
by any disability or suffering that may be involved for the person
living that life. Abortion is seen,by many anti-abortionists,as the
destruction of a fetus in which the pregnant woman is no longer
interested.They worry that the availability of abortion on grounds
of fetal abnormality will encourage prejudice towards any
individual with a handicap.

Somepeople who opposeabortion in general,concedethat it may


be justifiable in exceptionalcases,for example,when there is risk
to the mother's life - but only if abortion is the only option. It
would not be justifiable to abort a fetus if the life of both fetus and
mother could be savedin anotherway.

'

Pro-abortionistsconsiderthat abortion is not wrong in itself and


need not have undesirable consequences.They tend not to
recognisefetal rights or to acknowledgethe fetus to be a person.
Abortion is consideredto be a woman's right to exercise control
over her own body. Abortion is considered as equivalent to a
deliberatefailure to conceive a child and becausecontraceptionis
widely available,abortion should be too.

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Ethical issuesin A-level BiologY


Disease control, antibiotics and vaccination'
in vaccination
There are several ethical or moral issues involved
proglammes:
. It seemsunethical that millions of people worldwide die each year

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'

centres
There is great cost incurred by health servicesand rehabilitation
habit'
the
of
users
to treat drugisolvent related diseasesand to cure

services
There is considerablecost incurred by the police and prison
in dealing with drug usersand suppliers'

fromdiseaseswhichcouldbepreventedbymassvaccination
upsets,
in many '
There are personalcostsinvolved due to loss of work, family
programmes.Mass vaccinationprogrammesare not in place
abuse
drug/solvent
to
due
bereavements
and quite frequently,
countriesbecauseof:
economicPoverty.
l.
Smoking and disease/cancer.
the failure of more affluent countries to fund programmes.
2.
is now inefutable evidencethat smoking, including passivesmoking'
There
wars.
3.
and to
is linked to the development of cancers (particularly lung cancer)
should
heart
disease.
and
emphysema
adult
There is a moral dilemma with somevaccinations.Individuals
bronchitis,
example,
for
'herd effect' which protects the other illnesses,
'smoke or not to smoke' is a matter of choice for the individual and any
be vaccinated to build up the
To
For
to
individuals.
threat
pose
a
vaccines
to be selfsome
However,
population.
personal damage it may causeto the smoker can be considered
in a
smoker.
passive
a
be
to
but
.*u-pl., the MMR triple vaccine (measles'mumps' rubella)'
choice
no
has
person
inflicted, unlessthe
effects
small number of casesis thought to have causedcatastrophic
becomes Smoking-relateddiseasestake approximately one third of the National
in the recipient, such as severe autism (when the child
'tie up' innumerable
severely withdrawn, divorced from realiry unable to communicate Health Service budget per year, and continually
of the staff, beds,and operatingtheaffes.Becausemost smoking-relateddisease
and subjectto severerages)and Crohn's disease(inflammation
triple
the
that
fact
the
totally unethical, because it reduces the
with
lie
to
is self-inflicted this ,..-,
ileum). Part of the problem seems
three capability of the NHS to ffeat non-smoking patients'
with
system
immune
developing
buby't
ih.
vaccine challenges
the possible
different viral pathogens at the same time. Becauseof
- eutrophication, greenhouse effect, global
r i s k s o m e p a r e n t s a n d d o c t o r s p r e f e r t o g i v e t h e t h r e e p a t h o g e n s a sEffects of pollution
This
injections)'
nine
(a
of
total
time
over
single vaccinations spread
warming.
proteins nine
becauseof the
means however, thai the baby is exposed to foreign
Somep.opt. would arguethat pollution is a necessaryevil
reactionsto
However'
output'
industrial
and
production
food
world
times as frequently and thus has a gteaterrisk of adverse
need to increase
all nine
it or to reduce
the proteinr. AtrL the baby is not fully protected until
wherever pollution occurs, efforts should be made to stop
a year.
injections have been given, a programmewhich takes about
it as far as possible.
causes
Measles in a non-immunised individual is a killer disease,
infectious.
extremely
is
and
serious long-term effects in survivors
suffering
Thus measlesepidemics should be avoided the risks of

Pollution has the following social importances:


. It can causeillness in the human population. For example, increased
asthma and
sulphur and nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere aggravate 'blue-baby
cause
can
water
in
levels
nitrate
andpossiblydyingfrommeaslesinanepidemicismuchgreaterthan
bronchitis, increased
aluminium in
the risk of suffering vaccine damage'
syndrome'and an increasedoccurTenceof heart attacks,
'pertussis' (whooping
drinkingwater,leachedoutofthesoilbyacidrain,cancause
A similar worry for parentsoccurred with the
increasethe
Alzheimer's disease.Exposure to radioactive fallout can
cough)vaccineinthelgT0s.Becauseofaslightchance(lchildin
ozone layer
protective
the
of
Destruction
developing.
risk of cancer
feverish
to,ooo) that the vaccinated child might suffer short-term
(
b
y
C
F
C
'
s
f
r
o
m
r
e
f
r
i
g
e
r
a
t
o
r
s
)
c
a
n
l
e
a
d
t
o
m
o
r
e
c
a
s
e
s
ofskincancer
to have their
convulsions after vaccination, many parents failed
to ground level'
penetrating
light
UV
more
to
due
whooping
children vaccinated - this led to several epidemics of
c o u g h - m a n y c h i l d r e n e n d e d u p w i t h p e r m a n e n t l u n g a n d h e a r t . It can result in financial loss and expense.For example, acid rain erodes
and after
These have
damageand many babies died. Following theseepidemics,
away buildings, particularly if they are built of limestone'
in
lakes' The
stocks
fish
kill
u.u1ol.studyinBritainandtheUSAfoundnolinkbetweenthe
to be repaired. Acid rain may also
that
decision
the
protected
took
be
parents
to
has
most
which
damage,
flooding
in
brain
result
and
may
vaccination
greenhouseeffect
correct
in London'
flooding
prevent
to
built
were
barriers
vaccination was the safest option and this was ethically
Thames
the
Igainrt
becauseit also protectedthe population'
. It can result in environmentaldamage.For example' eutrophicationcan
probably
are
of life'
occurring
damage
vaccine
of
chances
the
Because
make many ponds, streams and even rivers become denuded
from
they kill so
what
in
indiscriminate
be
may
herbicides
greater in some children, for example, children who suffer
and
Insecticides
killed also'
asthma,orwhobelongtoafamilywithahistoryofepilepsy'itis
that many useful insects (such as bees) and plants are
accumulate
and
persist
also
may
metals
e t h i c a l l y i m p o r t a n t t o i d e n t i f u t h e s e c h i l d r e n 'herd
andtorefrainfrom
Substancessuch as heavy
in the
effect'
levels'
the
trophic
providing
higher
at
organisms
vaccinations,
risky
damage
so
if,.rnand
giving
through food chains
population is high.

Drug and solvent abuse.


. There are great risks to the drug user. Most drugs have side-effects that
with small
users often ignore or don't know about. Mixing drugs, even
in death.
result
may
and
amounts of alcohol, is particularly dangerous
has very
user
the
when
dependency
to
lead
can
continual drug taking
take the drug'
regularly
they
unless
symptoms
wiihdrawal
unpleasant
infection,
Dangers occur when injecting drugs there are risks of
into the
directly
drug
the
overdosing (by accidentally delivering
at the
developing
abscesses
tissues),
the
into
than
bloodstream rather
sitesofinjectionandgangrenedevelopingifanarteryispierced.
vandalism
Many drug/solventusersexhibit antisocialbehaviour such as
(stealing
to
crime
resort
often
They
drugs.
of
influence
when under the
to buy.
money) to fund their drug habit, becausedrugs are expensive

In conclusion
of the spiritual,
This factsheet has tried to give a balanced view of some
It should be
biology.
modern
in
involved
isiues
social, ethical and moral
discussion'
stimulate
to
basis
used as a
restrictedto asking
Exam questionson thesetopics,to date,have always been
to what has
relating
issues
ethicaVmoral
two
the candidateto state one or
recentyears
in
example.
For
question.
the
part
of
previous
the
been askedin
cloning'
animal
questionshave been frequently asked aboutthe techniqueof
Acknowledgements
This Factsheet was written bv Martin Grffin'
Steet' Birmingham Bl8 6NF
Curriculum Press.Unit 3058, The Big Peg, 120 Vyse
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