Human gene therapy and the slippery slope argument

Research paper by Veikko Launis

Indexed on: 01 May '02Published on: 01 May '02Published in: Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy


The article investigates the validity of two different versions of the slippery slope argument construed in relation to human gene therapy: the empirical and the conceptual argument. The empirical version holds that our accepting somatic cell therapy will eventually cause our accepting eugenic medical goals. The conceptual version holds that we are logically committed to accepting such goals once we have accepted somatic cell therapy. It is argued that neither the empirical nor the conceptual version of the argument can provide a conclusive moral reason for banning somatic cell therapy. According to a third interpretation, referred to as the arbitrary result argument, the many apparent similarities between somatic cell therapy and eugenic-based human genetic engineering drive us to make principled choices concerning what differences and similarities between the two practices should be regarded as morally (ir)relevant. Decisions of this kind are likely to have unpredictable moral consequences. Thus formulated, the slippery slope argument has much plausibility. One objects to somatic cell therapy not so much because of what is at the bottom of the slope on which it lies, but because it is on a slope of which one does not know what is at the bottom. While the arbitrary result argument does not provide a conclusive reason for prohibiting human gene therapy, it reminds of a very important thing: when making bioethical decisions, we should be as specific and as consistent as possible about our basic moral and medical concepts.