6. Pigs, Gene-Splicing and Moral Relativism

In a show featuring murder and mutilation, the most shocking moment of the new Sky Atlantic drama Fortitude (first episode: 29/01/2015) was the lead character discovering a pig being experimented on in an isolation chamber. With Fortitude set in the Arctic, the viewer is led to believe the intention is to test new treatments for frostbite on pigs before humans.

Britain’s leading fertility doctor, Robert Winston, revealed that technology he helped develop could “splice new genes into sperm”. Moreover, with the use of this technique, pigs – being a relatively close genetic match to humans – could soon be created with enough human DNA that their organs can be used for transplant operations without fear of rejection. While the use of animal experimentation to improve human health is nothing new, it remains controversial. Or does it? Most comments and articles on the subject focussed more on the moral implications for humans rather than the treatment of animals. It seems that in mankind’s ongoing quest to live as long as possible, the treatment of animals can be somewhat overlooked. However, one may ask, is there much difference between breeding animals for meat and breeding them for organs to save human lives?

“Meddling with nature is in this context risky.” Winton, quoted in 'The Guardian' in June 2014

“Meddling with nature is in this context risky.” Winton, quoted in ‘The Guardian’ in June 2014

The so-called ‘gene-splicing’ technology could also – eventually – be implemented into current IVF and PGD techniques (see also: 2. “Designer Babies” and the Culture of “Perfection”: Eugenics Reborn?) to create faster, more intelligent and more ‘attractive’ designer babies. However, Winston has argued that: “I don’t think it’s very likely it will be used in the UK in a mischievous way but I’ve no doubt that given the burgeoning market, given the desperation of people who want to enhance their children in all sorts of ways, humans might be tempted to use this and that therefore it does become a form of eugenics.”

When does human enhancement become eugenics? Arguably eugenics considers the whole population – or even species – rather than isolated cases of enhancement. Eugenics was most successful – in establishing a national programme of human ‘improvement’ – in interwar dictatorships, above all, Fascist Italy (mostly pronatalism for population increase and increased post and pre-natal care for mother and child) and Nazi Germany (most famously in the form of widespread sterilizations and the Holocaust). In theory, eugenics  requires a certain amount of submission to the ‘greater good’ of the national collective (or to the human species), something that contrasts heavily with the democratic nature of modern society. Thus, Winston suggests while unlikely to be ‘abused’ on a large scale in the West, “You could easily see how this kind of thing could be used in North Korea.”

While some questioned whether eugenics was necessarily evil, this was a controversial stance: “[Q:] Why is eugenics always seen as something evil? [A:] Because the Nazis did it, and opposing anything the Nazis did or thought serves as a way of demonstrating one’s OWN moral superiority.” Others commenters disagreed with Winston, suggesting we may already live in a dystopian present: “Why would we fear North Korea & eugenics any more than we would our own scientist’s? Dr. Frankenstein hides in all nations and all races. England is no exception.” Interestingly, then, most comments did not focus on the morally ambiguous nature of animal testing but the implications of such developments on human society. With a wide range of moral viewpoints existing in modern society it seems common opinions on such subjects are far from uniform. The development of reproductive technology is startling, but if moral relativism were to become the norm, what role will (either) eugenics and/or human enhancement play in our future?

REFERENCES:

Sarah Knapton, ‘Robert Winston: my research could open door to “risky” eugenics,’ The Guardian (6 June 2014), [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/10882336/Robert-Winston-my-research-could-open-door-to-risky-eugenics.html]

Amanda Williams, ‘“Pay £200 to see the doctor so you value the NHS”: Labour peer Lord Winston claims patients should be charged for treatment to stop taking health service for granted’, The Daily Mail (5 August 2014), [http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2716381/Pay-200-doctor-value-NHS-Labour-peer-Lord-Robert-Winston-claims-patients-charged-treatment-stop-taking-health-service-granted.html].

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