Human Biotechnology




A

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2003 began, the mainstream press was grappling with a cloning hoax.
This January, it launched extended coverage of the 50th anniversary
of the identification of DNA’s structure. Both events provided
golden opportunities to deepen public understanding of the social
and political implications of new human genetic and reproductive
technologies. 


Unfortunately,
the media have mostly flubbed these opportunities. The coverage
of the Raelians’ cloning claims obscured rather than illuminated
the critical issues. Early signs on the second media opportunity—a
series of carefully planned celebrations throughout the spring—are
none too promising. Fortunately, a civil society response to dangerous
new human genetic and reproductive technologies is emerging in a
number of countries, as witnessed at January’s World Social
Forum in Brazil. 


The
year’s first human biotechnology media frenzy actually began
at the end of December 2002, when a previously obscure alien-chasing
sect announced that its scientists had produced the world’s
first human clone. The initial news reaction appropriately focused
on whether the claim could be true. But by the time the Raelians’
excuses as to why they were unable to show the cloned baby became
obviously outlandish, the media had moved on to its next news cycle.
The result is that many readers falsely believe that a human clone
has been produced. Many more are left with the impression that dangerous
human genetic technologies are the province of bizarre cultists.


Numerous
media-oriented events are scheduled to laud the discovery of the
double-helical structure of DNA. To a certain extent, praise is
justified: the discovery was a milestone in biology, and has led
to advances in medical genetics in the form of techniques to treat
and even prevent diseases. Missing from the celebrations, however,
is a meaningful dialogue about the past relations of genetic science
(the study of the expression and mechanisms of genetic traits) to
the eugenics movement (20th century efforts to “improve the
human gene pool” through reproductive policies). Also absent
is critical reportage of current advocacy by a number of influential
figures of a new high-tech, market-driven eugenics. 


Many
Americans are unaware that a eugenics movement existed before and
outside Nazi Germany. In fact, eugenic beliefs once enjoyed wide
support among liberals and conservatives alike, underwriting a social
movement and government practices that encouraged the “fit”
to have more children and discouraged childbearing for the poor,
the criminal, and the “feeble-minded.” In the United States,
eugenics helped shape a racist immigration policy in the first decades
of the 1900s and justified forced sterilizations of tens of thousands
that lasted into the 1970s. 


Of
those who know about this history, most believe that advocacy of
eugenics died when the Nazis carried the ideas to an unimaginable
extreme. This is not the case. Support for eugenics persisted quietly
among some scientists and intellectuals in the United States, particularly
those associated with the development of modern human genetic science.
Historian of science Diane Paul states, “From the start, human
genetics was intertwined with—and sometimes indistinguishable
from—eugenics.” Paul notes that five of the first six
presidents of the American Society of Human Genetics, founded in
1948, served simultaneously on the board of the American Eugenics
Society. 


Post-World
War II eugenicists made efforts to remove overt racial and class
biases from their policies. As social standards evolved, they updated
their preferred terminology and techniques. In 1968, AES president
Frederick Osborn commented, “[e]ugenic goals are most likely
to be attained under a name other than eugenics.” 


The
historical connections between genetic researchers and eugenics
do not mean that human genetic science is automatically suspect.
But ignorance about this history is surely worrisome. The paucity
of critical reporting about advocacy of a new eugenics is very disturbing.
When reporters broach the topic of eugenics at all, they are likely
to contrast the misguided scientists of the past, who supported
state interventions in reproduction, with the enlightened scientists
of today—including those who support a high-tech, market-driven
eugenics. 


Lost
among relegation of abuses to the past, dismissal of religious misfits
posing as scientists, and blind praise of scientific pioneers, is
serious analysis of dangers that are looming close. Today, a number
of respected writers, academics, and researchers are either explicitly
advocating or refusing to challenge the development of technologies
that would set us on our way towards a new eugenics. The road to
human clones and designer babies is being built not by easily dismissed
sects, but by some leading bioethicists and biotechnologists. Although
nearly all scientists oppose reproductive human cloning, many do
so on narrowly defined grounds of safety. Some go out of their way
to say that if the creation of cloned or genetically redesigned
children is shown to be safe, it should be supported. Others assert
that the development of these technologies is inevitable. 


Worse
yet is the loose network of futurists and scientists who advocate
a “post-human” future in which cloning and inheritable
genetic engineering “enhance” the privileged, leaving
most people behind as a genetic pariah caste. None other than the
mega-hero of DNA’s anniversary, James Watson, said a few years
ago that “[i]f we could make better human beings by knowing
how to add genes, why shouldn’t we? What’s wrong with
it?… Evolution can be just damn cruel, and to say that we’ve
got a perfect genome and there’s some sanctity? I’d like
to know where that idea comes from, because it’s utter silliness.”
John Robertson, an influential legal scholar and bioethicist, has
commented that genetic enhancements are “simply another instance
in which wealth gives advantages.” 


Fortunately,
civil society voices are beginning to speak out, as witnessed by
January’s World Social Forum. A workshop titled “Genetics
and Social Justice: The Global Politics of the New Human Genetic
and Reproductive Technologies” was organized by the Center
for Genetics and Society (www.genetics-and-society.org) and Ser
Mulher, a Brazilian feminist organization (www.sermulher. org.br).
Speakers from Brazil, Peru, and the United States called for public
debate and political action on decisions about and regulation of
human biotechnologies.  


Ser
Mulher executive coordinator Alejandra Rotania spoke of the particular
dangers that the new technologies pose for “women in general
and especially for women of the Third World in the context of global
hegemonic politics.” “[C]urrent global scientific and
technological developments transform life, nature, beings, and bodies—their
functions and components, their most intimate nature—into objects
of engineering and products for the market,” Rotania said. 


In a presentation
titled, “What’s Mine is Mine and What’s Yours is
Mine,” Marsha Darling, director of the Center for African-American
and Ethnic Studies Programs at Adelphi University, explored the
ways that patent laws and other claims to “intellectual property
rights” are fostering biopiracy in the “genetics age.”
 “[G]enes already belong to living organisms and cannot
be claimed as the property of someone else,” Darling argued.
“We have been there before, with the ownership of people’s
bodies.” 


Jurema
Werneck, director of the Brazilian women’s group CRIOLA (www.
criola.ong. org), put the prospect of cloned and genetically redesigned
human beings into the context of the ongoing rampant racial discrimination
against Brazilians of African descent. She warned of the prospect
of new forms of discrimination and eugenics based on characteristics
measured by modern biotechnologies. We are confronting the new technologies,
Werneck concluded, “so that other human beings will not be
treated as we Blacks have been treated for the past 500 years.” 


Rosario
Isasi, a Peruvian human rights lawyer and bioethicist working at
the University of Toronto’s Joint Center for Bioethics, described
and analyzed the current policy situation regarding human cloning
and inheritable genetic modification, both nationally and in international
bodies. Isasi focused especially on the French-German proposal for
a United Nations treaty to ban reproductive human cloning. “This
ban would not only be important in itself, but it would also mark
the first time the world worked together to control a biotechnology,”
Isasi said. 


In
a separate panel, organized by medical geneticists from the Hospital
de Clinicas in Porto Alegre, Alda Sousa, a geneticist at the University
of Porto in Portugal, asserted that patents on genes and gene fragments
are actually slowing down medical research, and making new medicines
too expensive for the world’s poor. Sousa concluded her presentation
with a paraphrase of the World Social Forum’s well-known refrain:
“A world without patents on life is not just necessary,”
she said, “but also possible.”  


A
third WSF panel addressed the new human genetic and reproductive
technologies within a broader focus on “Ecology and Sustainability”
as part of

Z Magazine’s

Life After Capitalism “conference
within a conference” (www.zmag.org/lacsite). Marcy Darn- ovsky,
of the Center for Genetics and Society, described proposals by distinguished
U.S. scientists for a “post-human” future to an audience
that included many grassroots activists from rural Latin American
communities. Emphasizing that the prospect of human clones and designer
babies can no longer be considered science fiction, she urged that
it be evaluated using the same tools of critical political analysis
that we apply to governmental and corporate policies. “The
emerging human genetic technologies are a turning point,” Darnovsky
warned. “Unless we harness our moral intelligence and political
will to shape them, they will conform to existing social divides
and to the inadequacies of our democracy, and they will exacerbate
both.” 


Progressives
of many stripes—environmentalists, women’s advocates,
human rights campaigners, disability rights activists, and others—are
increasingly realizing that technologies such as human cloning and
genetic redesign influence social relationships and power arrangements
at least as much as do laws or elected officials, and like them
should be subject to meaningful democratic control.







Jesse
Reynolds is on the staff of the Center for Genetics and Society. See
www.genetics-and-society.org.