Human genetics describes the study of inheritance as it occurs in human beings. It includes such areas as stem cell research, clinical genetics (e.g., genetic disease markers), and molecular genetics. In 1975, scientists conducted the first successful cloning of a frog; in 1996, cloning was revolutionized when Ian Wilmut and his colleagues at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland, successfully cloned a sheep named Dolly, the first cloned mammal. By 2003, the human genome system became fully sequenced, allowing molecular genetics and medical research to accelerate at an unprecedented rate. The ethical implications of human genome research are as immense as the undertaking of the totality of the research that was conducted to map the human genome system.
The previous article that appeared in The New York Times sounds discouraging, but human genetics is still a promising area of medical research. Inevitably, there will be ethical issues that will become manifest in these new areas. We have already had a preview of this in the controversy regarding the use of fetal stem cells versus adult stem cells for research and therapy. The ethics of modern science is a challenging and evolving area, but it is nothing new. In ancient China, for instance, physician Sun Simiao (580–682 AD) had a difficult medical ethical dilemma. In his book Qianjinfang (Prescriptions Worth a Thousand Pieces of Gold), he is credited with formulating the first ethical basis for the practice of medicine in China. The ethical conundrum he faced was the clash between Confucian and Buddhist ethics. The relatively new religion of Buddhism had taboos against using any animal-derived product for the treatment of disease, as this violated the principle of respect for all life. The more ancient Confucian idea of compassion and kindness could be interpreted to overrule this, however. Sun Simiao dealt with this conflict by prohibiting a “standard physician” from using any medication derived from an animal source. He then included many prescriptions in his book that did have animal-sourced remedies. In other words, he seems to have artfully navigated an ethical grey zone between the two philosophies but with less than a clear distinction between right and wrong. In modern times, we are still faced with continuing and evolving issues of ethics in the practice of medicine.