Theory Design Lab/Gym class bioethics

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  Assuming that it is possible, should we allow parents to have their children genetically modified for intelligence and health?

We are more than happy for parents to try to enhance intelligence and health through education. If a school were to develop a programme that resulted in pupils gaining dramatically in both, it would no doubt be applauded. Parents would rightly seek to get their children admitted. They would demand to know why similar techniques weren't used at other schools. 

—The Philosophy Gym[1], Stephen Law


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In a society with ever-increasing biomedical expertise, the school gym teacher and sports coach can be expected to run into a seemingly endless series of bioethical questions which should puzzle us all. Placed in his situation, what choices would you make?


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Johnny Newman doesn't look much like his father, an avid but infertile Chicago Bulls fan who had Michael Jordan cloned from a memorabilia hairbrush for his wife to bear. Now, with his father beaming with great expectations, Johnny wants to try out for the team. Fooling around with his friends, skills seem to be impressive. As coach for the basketball team, should you:

  • Snap up this gift from God and never think twice. This boy doesn't even need to try out - with his genetics he deserves every possible chance even if he skips most of the practices. Once he applies himself you know he's going to win, and what team doesn't like to win?
  • Give the boy a fair shot, no special treatment. Pretend you don't even recognize him.
  • Declare he can't play, because cloning is a kind of performance enhancement and all the other kids naturally born deserve a fair shot at getting on the team and having their chance to win.

Complication: it turns out that Johnny's father wasn't the only one - since the DNA wasn't his and wasn't covered by privacy guidelines, they implanted more than a hundred women in the area with the same winning genome. In the next few years your class is going to be full of Michael Jordans.

  • If you've let the first one play, now do you select all Michael Jordans for your team? Do you tell all the other kids that they just can't expect to play - after all, kids who are weak and out of shape could never expect to make the team?
  • Should you start a separate team for the Michael Jordans to play, matched against other teams of their kind from around the country in a separate but equal set of championships? (technically, though I imagine it would bring in more money...)

Complication: it turns out Michael Jordan isn't the only one either. Nowadays, what with all the genetic mutations from that rogue gene therapy virus that was going around, lots of women are preferring to choose cloned offspring. There are several professional athletes from various sports who have become rather popular.

  • If you've chosen to ban the first clone, now, do you extend that to clones of every famous professional athlete, even the ones who didn't play basketball? All clones? Aren't you discriminating against a group of people there, creating a social underclass?
  • If you've chosen a system of separate leagues, then does every model of athlete get his own league? Do you lump them together in some kind of bracket system, knowing that the top model of athlete in each bracket will always outshine the others, and who that is is your arbitrary choice? Or set up some kind of handicap scale?


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The girls' lacrosse team has long been drug-free, but they aren't above modern fashion. As traditional sex roles dwindle away into history, boys prefer strong, active girls with features closer to the overall human average, and for girls nowadays, producing just 10% of the normal human testosterone level just isn't enough. Fortunately for them, nutritionists have learned more about how nutrients interact affect sex determination, and recently some girls have been following a special diet that more than doubles their natural testosterone level. As a result the league has become concerned about the effects of endogenous steroid exposure, and you've been pressed to come up with a policy.

  • Random testosterone testing, administered with the other steroid tests, can certainly find the girls who are doing this. But a few girls have higher levels naturally, or by "random" environmental factors. How strict a limit do you define?
  • Another girl in the class was starting a female-to-male transsexual regimen last year, but ultimately gave it up. The girls using the mild nutritional approach say that she just did it to get a minor effect from the steroids like they're trying to do now. Which raises the point: do you intend to ban everyone who has ever done this for life? How can you tell, if you haven't been there to test all the while?
  • Hearing about the policy discussion, the girls are threatening to file suit claiming discrimination against them as a sexual minority, demanding fair access. What's your response?

Genetic testing and modification

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  • Boys with a certain common variety of apolipoprotein E are more likely to suffer permanent cognitive damage from head trauma on the football team, in boxing and other rough sports. Should they be allowed to play? Is it your responsibility to respect their privacy or to demand that they be tested so that you can protect them by counseling them to take it easy, impose more restrictions on how they play, or exclude them altogether?
  • Fortunately, the damage might be preventable by suppressing a protein, cluaudin-5.[2] Supposing a moderate-term genetic therapy becomes available (such as an antisense RNA/RNAi/siRNA/shRNA or the like chemically modified to improve stability), should the teacher encourage the school to encourage, subsidize, or mandate this brain-altering treatment of children to improve their safety? If not, should children who do not obtain the treatment be treated like those with more vulnerable alleles of apolipoprotein E?


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  1. Law, Stephen (December 2003). The Philosophy Gym: 25 Short Adventures in Thinking (1 ed.). Thomas Dunne Books. ISBN 0312314523. 
  2. "Targeted suppression of claudin-5 decreases cerebral oedema and improves cognitive outcome following traumatic brain injury". Nature Communications. 2012-05-22.