Winter 1996/97 Poultry Press
The Ethics of Genetic Engineering and the Futuristic Fate of Domestic Fowl

By Karen Davis, PhD

Summary of a paper presented at
The Ethics of Genetic Engineering and Animal Patents
Conference, University of Wisconsin, Oct. 12, 1996,
Sponsored by The Alliance for Animals

Background. For thousands of years human beings have manipulated the bodies and family life of birds for their flesh, eggs, and other characteristics. The genetic engineering of birds to produce food and practice science is an extension of this tradition. In the past, humans manipulated birds and other animals using tools specifically designed and otherwise available for the purpose. Contrary to some assertions, historical evidence does not show that previous societies practiced ethical restraint in their treatment of nonhuman animals. An example of the past can be seen in the ritual sacrifice of chickens and other animals as an integral part of traditional religious and sporting ceremonies by many cultures throughout the world. Neither the past nor contemporary cultures can be taken as models for a just and compassionate future with other species.

The treatment of chickens, turkeys, and other domestic fowl in historical and modern society leads logically to genetic engineering. The treatment of poultry in the past was cruel, even excluding cockfighting, cock-throwing (burying chickens in the ground up to their necks and stoning them to death), and other sadistic sports against birds. In the European Age of Enlightenment, turkeys were slowly bled to death suspended head down from the ceiling, fowls--turkeys, ducks, chickens, and geese--were routinely force-fed in the procedure called "cramming," and thousands were crowded together for slaughter in London cellars and attics well into the 19th century. In the 20th century, the mechanized environment, mutilations, starvation procedures, artificial insemination, and methodology of mass- murdering billions of birds for food and science make a congenial environment for genetic engineering to flourish in.

Chickens and turkeys are foraging birds unsuited to the life we impose on them in order to satisfy human wants in the modern world. An example is the forced rapid growth of their bodies for meat production, causing them to incur severe skeletal and metabolic pathologies. Yet, a major thrust of genetic engineering is to increase their abnormal growth rate even more for the meat industry.

Aspects of Genetic Engineering of Avian Species. Three major aspects of genetic engineering are (1) the promises held out by proponents and practitioners, (2) the laboratory protocols that are designed to manipulate birds genetically and to test various hypotheses, and (3) the technical and practical problems that have been identified by genetic engineers of avian species.

Promises include the completion of a chicken genetic map for the food industry; manipulation of growth characteristics in poultry for meat production; conferring of resistance to certain economically important diseases such as avian leukosis and Marek's disease (a viral cancer of the chicken's nervous system resulting from the concentrated confinement of "too many feathers"); modification of hens' eggs for lower cholesterol and the inclusion of foreign proteins for the pharmaceutical industry; modification of broiler chickens for flavor; and tailoring of chickens' muscle tissue for microwave ovens.

Protocols include microinjecting foreign DNA into embryos to be cultured through hatching in vitro; using retroviral vectors to introduce recombinant genes into chick embryos before and during incubation; microinjecting DNA into the germinal disc of chick zygotes from artificially-inseminated hens; microinjecting the subgerminal cavity of unincubated chick embryos to produce transgenic chickens using vectors based on a system that infects avian cells but not mammal cells with chronic virus; and freezing and thawing of embryonic cells taken from one group of birds and inserted into another as part of a program to create a stock of genetic resources for future agricultural use.

Problems include the inaccessibility of the newly fertilized avian egg to direct injection of DNA into the embryo to produce germline transformations; inability to identify primordial germ cells until after the embryo has already begun to undergo cell division; poor understanding of the developmental capabilities and regulatory growth mechanisms in birds, preventing control over the relationship between somatic and germline chimeras; "side effects," including high death rate, short life span, biological weakness, and pathology syndromes such as lymphoid leukosis in transgenic birds; and debilitation of blastodermal cells as they are frozen and thawed (the process known as "cryopreservation"). Other problems cited by proponents include long, laborious breeding programs and uncertainty about regulatory agencies, animal advocates, and consumers.

Ethical Considerations and the Futuristic Fate of Domestic Fowl. Ethical protest against the genetic engineering of animals has focused mainly on the violation of species integrity. Some attention has also been given to the suffering of individual animals, and a moral repugnance has been shown against defining animals as patentable "manufactures and compositions of matter." Animals used in genetic engineering are degraded into body parts, pieces of information, and other kinds of fragments and are thus further degraded from the historical low status of nonhuman animals as human property without value and claims in their own right. Genetic engineering carries traditional human attitudes and practices technically further, but does not break moral continuity either with a past in which nonhuman animals have repeatedly been denied a soul or some other vaunted human quality, or a past in which they have had the misfortune to be regarded as "sacred" and accordingly sacrificed by and for humans in all kinds of horrible ways. Such division is a major flaw of the modern environmental movement, which has distinguished between "sacred" wild animals and "profane" domestic animals, particularly "farm animals," who have been scapegoated in place of humans for the crime of biological debilitation and environmental despoliation.

The 95 percent of animals abused in the United States and the world are farm animals. These animals have been morally abandoned by our culture and treated with greater contempt and neglect than all other classes of animals, despite the fact that, morally, we owe more, not less, to those beings whose birthrights and earthrights we have so thoroughly stripped away. Farm animals have now joined, and been joined by, the genetically-engineered animals.

A major ethical problem confronting genetically engineered animals is the view that, as such, they are inherently inferior to "natural" animals. In this view, the misery of a genetically- engineered hen is not as "real" as the misery we impose on a "normal" hen. Our tendency to blame our victims for the doom we bring to them invites us to glide evilly into the mentality of the genetic engineer who told a symposium regarding the birds who hatch in his laboratory with no sign of the desired change: "We simply throw them away."

A question is whether chickens and other domestic fowl have a future worth living in their encounter with the human species, and whether we can reverse our drive to eliminate not only diversity and autonomy, but joy and happiness in other creatures. Jack Rudloe, a marine biologist, writes, "If there's anything to reincarnation and a recycling of souls, with the decreasing biodiversity on this planet and daily loss of endangered species, the only place one will be able to go if they get recycled into another lifetime is into another human or a farm animal." This captures the futuristic fate of domestic fowl, a fate much worse than extinction.

  • Tell your two Senators and your House Representative that you oppose genetic engineering of animals and animal patenting and that you do not want your taxes used to fund genetic engineering experiments on animals. Contact The Honorable _________, United States Senate, Washington, DC 20510; The Honorable _________, United States House of Representatives, Washington, DC 20515.
  • For a copy of this 23-page paper including notes & references, send $5.00 to United Poultry Concerns, PO Box 59367, Potomac, MD 20859, or Visit the online version
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