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Bright Future, Lingering Controversies

Controversies In Health-care Biotechnology

Biotechnology is a source of controversy in the health-care industry as well. The most intense debates surround cloning. Reproductive cloning is a difficult process. The nucleus of an egg cell is replaced with that from another cell of the body. This will create an exact genetic copy of that cell donor. The egg is coaxed to divide. The resulting embryo is then implanted in the womb, the embryo develops into a fetus, and the fetus is brought to term and delivered.

The success rate of reproductive cloning is less than 3 percent. Attempts to clone many animals have failed. Cloning a human being is likely to be even more difficult. In 2004, South Korean researchers claimed that they had cloned human embryos. A year later, the researchers were found to have faked their experiments. Research and experimentation related to human cloning is legal in many countries. Only time will tell whether it is possible.

Some governments have banned attempts to clone humans. Many people see cloning as unethical or worry that clones—who would be fully human, with an individual consciousness and personality—could be used for the “harvesting” of spare body parts.

Therapeutic cloning is also a controversial topic. It starts out the same way as reproductive cloning, by putting new DNA in an egg cell and causing it to develop into an embryo. But the embryo is not implanted into a womb. Instead, the embryo's stem cells are harvested to be implanted back into the original cell donor to cure a variety of diseases. Stem cells can be transformed into the cells of other organs, like the lung, liver, and kidney. So, they can be inserted into these organs to replace diseased cells. Stem cells that can change into other kinds of cells are rare in adult humans, however. Obtaining stem cells from cloned embryos or unused embryos in fertility clinics is far easier than obtaining them from adult bone marrow or fetal tissue.

Yet the process of extracting embryonic stem cells destroys the embryo. People who think that life begins at conception—when a sperm and egg join—consider harvesting stem cells from embryos to be murder. In August 2004, President George W. Bush decided that federal funds would be made available only for research on stem cell lines that were currently in existence. He would not support the destruction of any additional embryos to harvest stem cells. Companies, states, and nonprofit organizations still fund experiments on stem cells harvested from embryos after August 2004. All human embryonic stem cells have thus come from embryos provided by fertility clinics. Researchers have cloned embryonic stem cells in animals, but not yet in humans.

In addition, some people are concerned that biotechnology will someday allow parents to pick and choose their children's genes. Currently, doctors can test whether an unborn child will have certain genetic diseases. Many people choose to abort children found to have genetic abnormalities. In the future, many people believe that researchers could create a child with a selected set of genes: high intelligence, athletic ability, beauty, or other traits thought to be positive and desirable. But creating a child “to order” would be expensive. This could lead to a divided society in which only wealthy people have genetically modified children. These children might be able to out-compete children born to less wealthy parents, further widening the gap between the “have's” and “have-not's.”

Although various areas of biotechnology are controversial, the industry is still growing. Governments are likely to continue to pass laws regulating biotechnology. Some people will continue to refuse to eat genetically engineered food. But overall, applications of biotechnology will continue to expand. The genie cannot be put back into the bottle, and governments and society will have to find ways to harness biotechnology for the overall good of humanity.

As ethical and legal issues are debated and eventually resolved, and long-term health issues are studied and addressed, the often life-saving or life-extending processes and techniques that biotechnology can offer will come to the fore. The important, helpful, and amazing things biotechnology makes possible will become clearer, and its potential dangers or abuses will hopefully be curbed. Biotechnology is an exciting, hopeful, and dynamic field to enter—one in which you can have a long and stimulating career that has the potential to improve the quality of life on this planet for all living things.

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