This week we look at the use of DNA technologies in an enthralling article by Maxwell J. Mehmann and Tracy Yeheng Li, ‘Ethical, Legal, Social, and Policy Issues in the Use of Genomic Technology by the U.S. Military’ (Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law 47, no. 1 (2015): 115–65.), available here.
Here’s what we thought. Let you know what you think in the comments below, or send us a message to join to network.
This long but incredibly interesting paper explores many of the bioethical issues associated with the use of genetic and genomic science by the US military. Such is the scope of the paper that there are almost too many points to discuss in a short blog, so for this reason I’d therefore like to focus on the question of genomic enhancement (pp. 161–164). While I am sure many people can agree that genomic enhancement has great potential to improve the effectiveness of warfighters, I wonder what the implications will be for soldiers once their term of service comes to an end? The author doesn’t address this question, and it remains for me perhaps the biggest ‘elephant in the room’ when we come to consider bio-technology and the military. While I agree there are certainly distinctions to be made between the civilian and military paradigms when it comes to ethics and responsibility, we should not forget that the two worlds are of course interlinked. What this means on a practical level is that any civilian can potentially become an enlisted member of the military, and of course any member of the military is always already a member of the civilian world as well.
My concern here is that by introducing bio-enhancements to the military (which we must assume will slowly filter through to the civilian world) we will in effect be creating a new category of the human, entrenching difference within human society. Indeed, we should ask, are these ‘enhanced’ soldiers even human at all? This question becomes even more significant when we consider the author’s claim that the most powerful enhancements may well need to be engineered at the embryonic stage, thus leading to the possibility that we will ‘lab grow’ our future soldiers. If they are lab grown and effectively enlisted from birth, what happens when their term of service ends? Does it ever end? Or will they rather be put down, like a dangerous dog, when they no longer demonstrate value for the military machine?
Mike Ryder, Lancaster University
This article was absolutely fascinating. However, it made me think of things far closer to home than the US military. For a while, I have been considering having my DNA sequenced as a shortcut to find out how I will react to different physical fitness training programmes (and in the vain hope that it will reveal I’ve got the genetic talent to be a world-beating talent at an obscure sport that I’ve never tried!). At least one of the companies offering this also look at corporate wellbeing, allowing employees to volunteer to have their DNA sequenced in order for their employer to be able to optimise their staff’s efficacy and work plans. What this article made me think of is why not use DNA sequencing to optimise military personnel? We know that all people have different skills and aptitudes, so why not inform commanders through genetics about which of their subordinates will be best for different tasks? Of course, this does not incorporate the impact that the environment has upon the individuals, so it is not foolproof. But, if DNA sequencing can help troops train and perform better, then it is surely beneficial to military effectiveness. However, it is currently expensive. Perhaps when prices drop it will be worth it for militaries to test all their personnel. At the very least it will be less problematic than enabling troops to use performance-enhancing drugs.
Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University