Bioethical decision making requires an understanding of science and technology.

Introduction

Genetics is a fast-paced branch of science that is changing the way people think and live. Advances in the field of genetics, the branch of biology that deals with heredity, have opened new doors for experimentation and medical treatments that were unheard of in the not-so-distant past. Within the last 40 years, some of the milestone discoveries in genetics include locating segments of DNA that cause diseases, manipulating embryos, like the one shown in Figure 1, and growing stem cells.

Figure 1

bio1

Embryo

With these medical advances, individuals are facing new and difficult questions. Many involve not only the new scientific knowledge but also the personal belief systems of individuals. For example, one tough topic that is still under debate is “Should parents be allowed to plan the genetic traits of their offspring?” Another complex issue is “Should stem cells be used to treat diseases?” If the answer to that question is “yes,” then

we must decide where to get those stem cells. Scientists are also still debating the matter of whether or not humans should be cloned. None of

these questions are straightforward, and they may be debated for decades. To address these matters, people need information on the science and technology involved. Knowledge of science gives individuals the tools required to analyze bioethical dilemmas. By understanding the science, one can weigh the consequences of their decisions against their moral beliefs. In this way, individuals can develop a course of action for themselves and their loved ones.

In this activity, you and your lab partners will conduct research on a controversial topic related to bioethics. You will present a short news broadcast on the science of the topic and explain the pros and cons of the issues involved.

Time Required

  • three or four 55-minute class periods

Materials

  • access to a video camera
  • access to a computer with word processor
  • access to the Internet
  • materials for visual aids such as posters, models, graphs, or charts
  • science notebook

Procedure

1. Work with your lab partners to research the topic assigned by your teacher. Conduct your research on the Internet. You may use any teacher-approved Web sites.

2. Once your group has completed its research, prepare and present a “news broadcast” on your assigned topic. To do so:

Safety Note

a. Assign these roles in members of your group:

✔✔ host or interviewer

✔✔ guest who supports the pro side of a topic presented in your research

✔✔ guest who supports the con side of a topic presented in your research

If the group is large enough, create other roles such as concerned citizens, parents of sick children, patients suffering from diseases, or legislators who are interested in the ethics of science.

b. The host or interviewer should prepare four questions to ask each guest. Each guest will then answer the questions in a way that is scientifically correct and that completely explains his/her position on questions related to the topic.

c. The host and guests may play the roles of real television hosts, science experts, or individuals who have opinions on the topic, or they may create fictitious roles. All members of the group should be prepared and know his/her material. During the presentation, notes can be used for reference, but they should not be read.

d. Each member of the group should dress for his/her part.

e. The interview questions and answers should be typed and turned in to the teacher on the day of the presentation.

f. The group should film the news program with the video camera and turn in the video to the teacher on the due date. Alternatively, if no video camera is available, the program can be performed live.

g. A visual aid should be included in the news broadcast. Appropriate visual aids include relevant posters, charts, graphs, tables, and models.

h. The news broadcast should be creative and interesting.

i. The news broadcast should last 5 to 10 minutes.

3. After you have researched the topic assigned to you and helped your group prepare the news broadcast, write a personal, one-page position paper on the topic. The paper should:

a. Describe your personal views on the topic and explain how and why you arrived at those views.

b. Include a bibliography that has three or more references.

4. On the day broadcasts are “aired” in class, listen to other groups’ performances and take notes in your science notebook.

5. After the broadcasts, ask questions of the groups that produced them to help clarify you own understanding of these issues. Add the answers to the notes in your science notebook.

Analysis

  1. Why are there more bioethical questions to be answered now than in the past?
  2. What types of bioethical questions or topics concern you the most?
  3. Why do you think that bioethical questions are complex and difficult to answer?
  4. Scientists are able to treat some patients through gene therapy. In this technique, viruses are used to insert corrective genes into the DNA of patients. Some people believe that the manipulation of genes is contrary to the laws of nature. How do you feel about this topic?
  5. A friend tells you that he has a serious genetic disease, but wants to keep it a secret so that he will not have trouble getting health insurance. What kind of advise would you give your friend?

What’s Going On?

As science advances, bioethical questions will arise more frequently. The pace of technological discovery is picking up speed, creating an avalanche of new information, procedures, and possibilities. As a result, individuals and families will be forced to decide what is right and wrong for them personally. Unfortunately, the answers to many of these new dilemmas are difficult. Even well-informed people who are trying to do the right thing may disagree on what is right.

The number of bioethical issues will continue to grow. In the future, you may have to make both serious and mundane decisions. Are you in favor of undoing the effects of aging? What are your opinions on using embryos as sources of stem cells? Might you be willing to put up for adoption the frozen embryos that you and your spouse do not plan to use?

In a restaurant, will you order salmon that have been genetically changed to grow extremely large (like the one in the top of Figure 2) or will you prefer the smaller, wild-type salmon? The more you know about the science behind these procedures, the better prepared you will be recognizing ethical dilemmas and for making the best decisions.

bio2

Figure 2

Connections

Medical science is devoted to preventing pain and disease. But is it ethical to prevent disease by permitting only healthy embryos to develop and survive? Doctors using a new technique, preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), believe that it is. PGD is an offshoot of in vitro fertilization, a technique in which several eggs are removed from a woman’s ovary and placed in petri dishes.

The woman’s partner donates sperm, which are mixed with the eggs. After several eggs are fertilized, a few are placed inside the woman’s uterus, hoping that at least one will implant and develop into a healthy baby. In PGD, researchers examine the genetic material of the embryos before implantation. Fertilized eggs that carry genetic disorders are eliminated. Advocates point out that much suffering is avoided by implanting only the healthy eggs. Those who disagree say that this procedure is similar to breeding livestock and is unethical.

 


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