Mehmann  and Li – Ethical, Legal, Social, and Policy Issues in the Use of Genomic Technology by the U.S. Military

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


UPDATE: added 27/5/19

This article may be one of the most disarmingly dystopian that we have looked at yet. Examining the issues surrounding genomic tech. within the US military, the authors outline the present state of affairs, distinguish between the different bioethical approaches required by both military and civilian research, the deployment of derived technologies and the potential difference between genomic medicine and genomic enhancement.

On the topic of bioethics, they write that ‘civilian norms and values are a poor fit with the military’. Concern for patient welfare should be replaced with a test of ‘proportionality’, the focus on voluntary choice should be replaced with ‘the principle of paternalism’ and the ‘civilian principle of justice’ should be replaced by the ‘principle of fairness’, requiring consent when ‘commanders impose a biomedical risk only on a subgroup of subordinates or when the risk is especially great’. As Mike has said, a member of the military is not distinct from the civilian populace, nor are they so in perpetuity.

The part that most got under my skin, however, was when the authors suggest that ‘the military may be interested in germ line therapy, for example, in order to reduce the frequency and costs of care for heritable genomic disorders in military families.’ The long-term evolution of some sort of distinct warrior caste within (and, eventually, distinct from) the general population is bad enough, particularly paired with the fact that ‘both DoD and HHS regulations forbid IRBs from considering “possible long-range effects of applying knowledge gained in the research (for example, the possible effects of the research on public policy) as among those research risks that fall within the purview of its responsibility’, but consider the issue,particularly acute in the US, of military tech. filtering down into the hands of domestic police forces.


What do you think?

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