This week, an announcement that a new kind of DNA could be made in the lab was greeted as a marvel of technology. The discovery was hailed, but the implications of it are complicated ethically.

Basically, DNA, as we know it, has four letters that form base pairs and code all of life. What makes it life is that it can self-replicate. The announcement came saying that we can now make DNA with new “letters” and that this form of DNA can self-replicate. As CNN reports:

“This is the first experimental demonstration that life can exist with information that’s not coded the way nature does (it),” said Floyd Romesberg, associate professor of chemistry at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California.

Medicine can greatly benefit from this discovery, Romesberg said. There’s potential for better antibiotics and treatments for a slew of diseases for which drug development has been challenging, including cancers.”

Potentially this is great, but what does this potentially mean, and will it mean that we can create human beings that are not “God created”? Will it be ethical to do so? Is it ethical to create lesser life forms that are not human beings but may be cells or even parts of cells?

Two weeks ago. There was another scientific announcement, that a goat may actually feel love for a dog. This was announced from the research of Paul Zak.

Writing in “The Atlantic,” Paul Zak discussed his animal research.

“I obtained blood samples from a domestic mixed-breed terrier and a goat that regularly played with each other. … We then placed the dog and goat into an enclosure together and let them play. A second blood sample was done after 15 minutes.

“We found that the dog had a 48 percent increase in oxytocin. This shows that the dog was quite attached to the goat. The moderate change in oxytocin suggests the dog viewed the goat as a ‘friend.’

“More striking was the goat’s reaction to the dog: It had a 210 percent increase in oxytocin. At that level of increase, within the framework of oxytocin as the ‘love hormone,’ we essentially found that the goat might have been in love with the dog,” said Paul Zak.

This research might explain why a person gets bonded with their pets and both may release the love/bonding hormone oxytocin. We don’t eat dogs, but we do eat goats. Is it ethical then to eat an animal with the same emotions and ability to love and bond with others both human and non-human?

There are new ethical dilemmas because our ability to extend life has increased. The John J. Reilly Center at the University of Notre Dame follows and explores recent scientific advances and the ethical dilemmas associated with them.

Three issues that have come up in recent years include the ethics of genetic testing, access to drugs for the poor and our ability to extend life.

Genetic testing, especially as it gets more advanced, brings up an array of issues. Do you tell someone they have a gene for a specific disease? What can insurance companies or employers know about the results of testing? Should you ask for a test for a disease that has no known cure? Should a couple have children knowing that the child may be at increased risk of a specific disease?

Access to drugs is just one more issue. Is it fair to know that there is a treatment for a disease but, because of the patent, it is too costly for those in the developing world? Is it fair that “the least of these” do not get access to a life-saving drug because a company can legally make money for up to 20 years from the date of application?

Another ethical issue is how long is it acceptable to keep someone on life support when they have a fatal disease such as cancer. Now, we have the technology to have someone “reside” in critical care and extend life? How do we allocate those resources?

All of these ethical questions are difficult to answer. As we develop new technology at warp speed, such as making DNA that can replicate itself, we can play God. Is that ethical? Is it the right thing to do? Those are hard questions, and dilemmas of the 21st century make it even more difficult to answer them. These answers will decide what makes us human and where we put our resources and who we help.

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