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Genetic engineering (GE; often also called biotechnology) is the technique and science of intervention into the genetic mechanisms of a biological organism. For sociologists of risk (e.g. Ulrich Beck) GE it is a paradigmatic case for risk society. There are two main applications: agriculture and food production, and medical genetics; furthermore, GE is used in different fields of industrial production. GE is one of the most contested technologies, especially in the medical field. Critics claim that there is a general trend towards “geneticization,” i.e. explaining social behavior with genetics (e.g. homosexuality, criminality, alcoholism). Since people cannot change their genetic outfit” and genetics has prognostic power also for families and future generations, the status of and access to genetic information are important issues in legal regulation. Genetic privacy” refers to third party access to genetic information. Further topics are: the combination of genetics and reproductive technologies (pre-implantation and prenatal diagnosis), research on human embryos and stem cells, human cloning, gene therapy and human enhancement.
The sociological and philosophical debates focus on questions of genetic discrimination and the rise of a new eugenics, on changing concepts of health, sickness, and disability and their social implications, on the meaning of human identity, and biopolitics” as an instrument for social (self-) control. Regarding the agricultural sector, major contested issues are the right to interfere into nature, environmental protection and animal health, food safety issues, trade issues and the relation between industrialized and developing countries. While there is currently an international regulatory regime in place concerning agricultural GE (e.g. Biosafety Protocol, European legislation), there is less binding international regulation regarding the medical field (e.g. UN Declaration on Human Genome and on Human Cloning).
- Bernard, G. (2001) Genetic engineering. In: Becker, L. & Becker, C. (eds.), Encyclopedia of Ethics, 2nd edn., vol. 1. Routledge, London, pp. 602-6.
- Fukuyama, F. (2002) Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. Picador, New York.