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Questions on the ethics of genetics

Nearly three-quarters of the group of European teenagers who took part in a special Science Museum forum last month agreed that genetic modification of animals was acceptable if it saved human lives.

The 15 to 18-year-olds from six countries including Finland, France, Italy and Britain, were more cautious on gene therapy - nearly a fifth, 18 per cent, of the 38 students who won places on the international debate on the New Genetics felt current ignorance of its risks made it "entirely unacceptable". But a quarter were prepared to accept that gene therapy should be developed for non-life-threatening diseases such as baldness or colour blindness.

The ethics of gene mapping or screening - keeping information on the genetic predisposition of a person to a particular disease or physical trait - was given a high priority. Most - between 80 and 90 per cent - thought genetic screening should be completely confidential and that insurance companies or employers should have no access to the information. People should also be under no obligation to inform their families of results of such tests, 79 per cent of the teenagers felt.

These and a number of other critical questions in the debate on the ethics, use and abuse of one of the science world's fastest growing areas, were among the issues discussed by the teenagers and leading scientists and ethics experts during the weekend event held to celebrate European Week for Scientific Culture.

The participants, chosen from national forums held in six European cities, looked at four key ethical issues - gene mapping, gene therapy, and the genetic modification of plants and animals.

Dr Jenny Lewis from Leeds University's education department, who is researching the attitudes and understanding 14 to 16-year-olds have about new genetics, said the forum demonstrated young people's ability to take a mature and responsible approach to the debate: "They recognised that there are both opportunities and risks involved in new genetics - that if you use new genetics there could be major problems, and if you don't there still may be difficulties."

The international group set the agenda during the weekend, by asking the experts present to provide more information to inform their debate.

Dr Lewis's two-year project, part of the university's Children's Learning and Science Research Group, will study a sample of 800 teenagers and 200 younger pupils in 15 schools in and around the city of Leeds.

The study of new genetics was included at key stage 4 in the national curriculum and little was known about the level of pupils' understanding or attitudes, she says.

o Dr Jenny Lewis and Colin Wood-Robinson are giving a talk on "Young people's understanding of, and attitudes to, genetic engineering" on January 7 at the Association for Science Education's Annual Meeting in Lancaster.

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