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Genetic Ethics Debate

By Joan K. Carlson

Type of Activity:

  • Research
  • Cooperative Learning
  • Debate

Target Audience:

  • Life Science
  • Biology
  • A.P. Biology
  • Genetics
  • Biotechnology
  • Ethics
  • Interdisciplinary studies


Students select topics relating to bioethical questions which they research and debate.

Goal of this activity:

To provide an opportunity for students to investigate bioethics questions, to research background information, and to present their topic to classmates in a debate format. Classmates, representing present day society, will have an opportunity to question debate presenters and vote on each debate issue.

Background Information:

With the revolution in the areas of molecular biology, including gene therapy and the work of The Human Genome Project, there arise many questions of interest and concern to society. Research in the areas of gene manipulation and the ethical, legal, and social implications, that this research will have on society are being presented in the media and literature. To best address these issues, this activity uses the format of group research on the following selected list of topics. This activity provides students with a chance to investigate topics of interest and to provide a comprehensive overview of the topics, in a debate format for their peers.

Student groups select topics and are given two to three weeks to research their topics, taking advantage of their school libraries, local public libraries, including universities and research institutions, and hospitals with genetic counseling services, if available. In addition, Access Excellence provides access to a number of pertinent articles to aid in this research. Two days of library research time were provided in my "DNA and Ethics" class during our regular class time. Other research was done on students' own time, and served as homework for some evening assignments. Debate format allows each group forty-five minutes to present their debates and rebuttals, as well as the chance for questions and voting by their peers. Other classmates and teachers, who were not members of our DNA and Ethics course, were invited to hear the debates and to vote on the issues. The debates were advertised within our school.

Debate Topics:


You will divide into groups of two. Each group will chose one of the topics listed below. As a group you must find some background information. You can begin with your textbook, but must include other library sources. As a group you should discuss the issue and decide who will present arguments for and who will present arguments against to the rest of your class. Each group will have a period to present their case to the whole class. The class will be the representative jury for our society and we will vote on how we think the issue may be best resolved. The more careful and well thought out positions, will probable sway the jury the most. Many of these questions have been taken from the textbook: Human Genetics by R. Lewis.

Remember that this is an exercise in which there are no right or wrong answers. The issues need to be discussed rationally by all members of the class. At the conclusion of the debate, your audience will vote and express society's current view on your topic, based on the arguments that you present. Be ready to back up your statements with specific sources if you are challenged.

The Debate forum:

  • 10 minutes of pro presentation
  • 10 minutes for con presentation
  • 5 minutes pro rebuttal
  • 5 minutes con rebuttal
  • Audience questions
  • Vote of the audience

Debate Issues: (source of many topics is Human Genetics by R. Lewis)

  1. Do you think that research on human pre- embryos should be allowed? Should fetal tissue be used to treat disease? Make sure to explain to the class what is considered a pre- embryo and when an embryo is considered a fetus.

  2. Rats have been used by scientist to develop a nasal spray gene therapy for cystic fibrosis. Mice can manufacture some human proteins in their blood. Dogs were important in developing treatments for hemophilia and bone marrow transplants would not be possible without earlier work done with dogs. Many people object to the use of mammals in experiments. Do you feel that animal models of human genetic disease are necessary. Should treatments be allowed on laboratory mammals before attempting the treatment on humans?

  3. Government is currently involved in health care reform. Debate the following: With limited numbers of transplants available rationing systems must be established for determining who will receive transplants: On what factors should rationing systems be based?
    A. first come, first serve
    B. the wealthiest
    C. the youngest
    D. the individuals with the highest I.Q.
    E. those with genetic defects favored over those whose unhealthy lifestyle has produced organ failure

  4. Take the pro and con sides for the following: Parents should be held accountable by law for their care of children with known genetic defects. Example: An infant who is tested for P.K.U. at birth and found to be positive must be provided with a phenylalanine free diet by their parent. A child of parents in a high risk group for a known genetic defect (such as sickle cell anemia) must be tested at birth and take antibiotic drugs throughout childhood to prevent infections which can be deadly to children with sickle cell anemia. Parents who do not provide for testing and treatment of their children are punishable by law.

  5. The media often mis-reports on science, especially new treatments for disease. Example: In 1965, in the prestigious science journal Nature, it was reported that "It is not yet clear whether the increased frequency of XYY males found in this institution (prison) is related to aggressive behavior or to their mental deficiency or to a combination of both." Example: The findings of Yankner and Kowall implicated beta-amyloid in causing Alzheimer's-like damage in rats and a substance P in preventing the damage. As a result many families of Alzheimer's victims had their hopes raised. The press has given poor coverage to the many challenges of these findings by other known scientists. Debate the obligation of the press to report controversies or setbacks in medical research.

  6. A woman should be held legally responsible if her drinking alcohol, smoking or abusing drugs during pregnancy harms her child/ should she be liable for harm coming to her fetus from any of these substances or only the substances that are illegal?

  7. Familial hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is an autosomal dominant disorder which appears when the heart muscle overgrows in adulthood. Often the first sign is sudden death, otherwise the only symptoms are an enlarged heart with altered electrical activity. A family has fifteen adult members. A missense mutation in the gene for an important heart muscle protein is found in all 8 of the members with cardiomyopathy but this mutation is found in none of the healthy adults. This mutation can be detected at any age, even before birth. There are fifteen children in this family. Debate the topic: These children should be tested for this missense mutation t provide for appropriate medical surveillance. In addition: If tested, who should get the results of the test?

  8. Experimental gene therapies exist to treat glioma and melanoma and are being tested on people who have tried and been unsuccessful with traditional therapies, but are now close to losing their battle. Do you believe that this is the best sort of patient, or should we adequately test genetic therapy by starting with healthier patients? Example: In June 1992, 25 leading cell transplant researchers called for a halt to myoblast transfer therapy being conducted on children with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy until further animal studies confirm that the procedure does more good than harm. The children treated thus far show minor improvement but it isn't clear whether these improvements are real or a response to an immunosuppressant drug given to prevent rejection of the healthy myoblasts that are transferred. Should the experiments on children proceed or be halted? Make sure to include in your debate the perspective of the mice animal researcher, the researcher conducting myoblast transfers on children and the parents of a child with muscular dystrophy.

  9. The Human Genome Project is attempting to unravel the mysteries of the function and location of all human genes. Conducting genetic profiles on individuals will be an expensive procedure once the Genome Project is completed. Debate the following: Medical insurance companies have the right to learn the genetic profiles of individuals that they insure. Also include a discussion of: Employers have a right to know the genetic profiles of disorders of their employees who are in jobs in which there is a high risk to others - such as airline pilots, bus driver etc.

  10. In a recent book Bell Curve two prominent social scientists discuss the genetic differences in intelligence they assume exists between races and the potential of a tiered society with the most intelligent at the top. There has been a response to their theory in a book Refuting the Bell Curve. If you choose this debate topic you will need to analyze the evidence of both sides of the question of the genetic basis intelligence.

  11. Should researcher organizations which are identifying sequences for specific proteins involved in genetic diseases and the establishment of test kits for these diseases have the right to patent these sequences as their own for the purpose of profit?

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