Bioethics in Science-Fiction


In an era where the rate of technological advancement is increasing more dramatically than ever, the introduction and application of new technologies – more often than not – comes hand in hand with the question just because we can do something, does it mean that we should? Through my digital artefact I would like to explore the conversations that this question generates, investigating the ethical concerns surrounding emerging biotechnologies, and how these concerns are manifesting in science fiction. Biotechnology can be defined as ‘the manipulation of living organisms or their components’ (Merriam-Webster Dictionary), examples including stem cell research and agricultural genetic modification. Biotechnologies such as these have been met with resistance on various fronts, primarily due to their moral ambiguity and uncertainty regarding the potential wide-spread and long-term ramifications. Informed by the reality of progressive biotechnologies and bioethical debate, science-fiction reflects existing perspectives and possibilities, and acts as a vehicle for the exploration of the potential for biotechnology, encompassing within it both the hopes and fears of society.

Stem cell research and agricultural genetic modification are two biotechnologies which are already prevalent in society. Stem Cell Research is conducted by biologists on stem cells obtained from two main sources, Pluripotent cells and Totipotent cells. Pluripotent cells can be found in various places, such as bone marrow, the liver and the brain, while Totipotent cells are extracted from human embryos. This is where the controversy begins, as the extraction of Totipotent cells for research purposes results in the destruction of the embryo. Discernibly the most imperative question in the debate surrounding stem cell research, is when does life begin? The Catholic church has voiced strong opinions in opposition of Totipotent stem cell research, in ‘Donum Vitae’ Pope John Paul II establishes the Catholic understanding that human life begins at the moment of conception, so each embryo is entitled to the same protection as any other human being. The Catholic Church is openly supportive of SCR involving Pluripotent cells, but is strictly against any form of research involving the destruction of human embryos, as the destruction of human life is considered by the church to be gravely immoral. However, there is division in the Anglican Church, as Anglican authorities debate the status of the embryo. Some archbishops propose life begins 14 days after fertilisation, based on the premise that conception and fertilisation do not occur concurrently. Others maintain that an embryo at any stage of development is classified as a human being and is entitled to the same rights.

The Eastern Orthodox Church present as a united front that stem cell research involving totipotent cells is morally and ethically wrong in every instance, asserting there is no difference between an embryo inside or outside the womb, effectively equating the issue to abortion. They maintain that life begins at conception, and the willful taking of a human life in order to obtain the cells required for research is murder, ‘Under the microscope, the embryo is a clump of cells. Under the larger lens of moral clarity, the death of the embryo is the death of a human being’ (Rev. Johannes Jacobse).

While Religious institutions have been a significant opposition to controversial biotechnologies, there are also many objections on scientific grounds. Agricultural genetic modification is widespread in the global food industry, with crops being altered at a cellular level in order to produce more favourable characteristics. With modern science, crops can now be engineered to become resistant to droughts, floods and insects, grow larger and more consistent in size, and contain vitamins which are not naturally present, such as the addition of Beta Carotene in rice – which is known as Golden Rice – to ensure people without access to adequate nutrition consume a healthy dose of Vitamin A. The long term effects of the creation and consumption of genetically modified foods is relatively unknown, while there are undoubtably significant benefits, some studies have shown less favourable results, such as the development of lung disease in mice which have consumed genetically modified peas. Many scientists also see genetically modified foods as a threat to biodiversity.

These fears surrounding controversial biotechnologies and their potential for further development can be seen manifesting in science-fiction. While the technologies themselves may lean more towards fiction than science, the ethical concerns accurately reflect those present in society. A recent science-fiction television series which deals with these concerns is Orphan Black, a Canadian sci-fi thriller which raises issues about the ethical implications of human cloning and it’s effect on personal identity. While the full potential of human cloning is at this point more fiction than science, the possibilities are enough to generate viable concerns. In Orphan Black the clones are treated as objects, “this organism and the derivative genetic material is restricted intellectual property”, they don’t have ownership over their own bodies, which illustrates the concern regarding consent and human rights.

For my digital artefact, I’m leaning towards a blog, so I’m able to use various media while also including text. I intend to focus more on how the concerns surrounding the realities of biotechnology are manifesting in science-fiction rather than current opposition to established biotechnologies. I would like to interrogate how the ramifications of biotechnology are portrayed in multiple works of science fiction, and the ethics behind a science which essentially violates nature.


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