Volume 4, 1998
Bioethics and Medical Ethics
Matti Häyry, Tuija Lehto
Genetic Engineering and the Risk of Harm
There are many risks involved in genetic engineering. The release of genetically altered organisms in the environment can increase human suffering, decrease animal welfare, and lead to ecological disasters. The containment of biotechnological material in laboratories and industrial plants contributes to the risk of accidental release, especially if the handling and storage are inadequate. The purely political dangers include intensified economic inequality, the possibility of large-scale eugenic programs, and totalitarian control over human lives. How should the acceptability of these risks be determined? We argue that the assessment should be left to those who can be harmed by the decisions in question. Economic risks are acceptable, if they are condoned by the corporations and governments who take them. The risks imposed on laboratory personnel by the containment of dangerous materials ought to be evaluated by the laboratory personnel themselves. All other risks are more or less universal, and should therefore be assessed as democratically as possible. If risk-taking is based on the choices of those who can be harmed by the consequences, then, even if the undesired outcome is realized, the risk is acceptable, because it is embedded in their own system of ethical and epistemic values.