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Discussing the ethics of altering human genes

by Charles BurressSan Francisco Chronicle
September 30th, 2004

Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben

The brash young science of genetic engineering, like a newly licensed teenager behind the wheel, is driving civilization toward "the biggest break with human history that we can imagine," journalist Bill McKibben warned a rapt audience at UC Berkeley on Tuesday night.

American society seems to be asleep in the back seat as it careers into a world where our grandchildren could become the first genetically modified generation, said McKibben, author of the sobering book "Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age."

The power to create "designer children," in McKibben's view, is one genie that humanity should leave in the bottle.

Yet the advent of applied human gene manipulation is rapidly drawing closer, as researchers gain greater mastery over the human genome without a corresponding mastery over where, if anywhere, to draw the line.

Would many parents hesitate to adjust an unborn child's genes to prevent a genetic disability? Or prevent dwarfism? Improve resistance to cancer? How about enhancing IQ or musical ability, or the eternal human dream -- prolonging life?

Given the great disparities in wealth and access to medical technology, McKibben said, both sides on the human gene-altering debate acknowledge that the species could bifurcate between what Princeton geneticist Lee Silver called the "GenRich" aristocracy and a great mass of the "Naturals."

Imagine, McKibben said, that "you go to the clinic and pull out your Visa card and pick the best child that you could afford, the most interventions along the genome." And what if, three years later when the second child arrives, you go back and find that your upgraded first child "has become sort of Windows 95," he asked.

Experts disagree over how soon such possibilities will arrive, but many agree that humans will possess them before long.

"Just how fast this power is coming is really hard to believe," said Professor Michael Pollen, director of the Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism in the Graduate School of Journalism.

When Dolly, the world's first cloned mammal, was created in 1996, Pollen said, people believed that "human cloning was generations away. Well, it's happened now."

Tuesday night's program, where the audience overflowed the journalism school library, was an attempt to generate public awareness and debate about "nothing less than how we are to think about the future evolution of our species," Pollen said.

"This issue, as important as it is, is simply not a big part of the national conversation right now," he said.

Scientists and ethicists do engage in often heated exchanges over the issue. Nobel Prize-winner James Watson, who discovered DNA with the late Francis Crick, has famously asked, "Who wants an ugly baby?"

Gregory Stock, director of the program on Medicine, Technology, and Society at UCLA's School of Public Health, has argued that human clones "are merely delayed identical twins."

Stock says advances in gene therapy are inevitable and notes that innovations such as vaccines, antibiotics, test-tube babies and organ transplants also were seen as unnatural at first.

Gene therapy shouldn't be rejected, but a stop sign should be placed at the point where an alteration would be passed to future generations, said Marcy Darnovsky, associate director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Oakland.

A "bright line" can be drawn "between those technologies that you apply to yourself -- you understand what you are doing to yourself -- and alterations to your future children," Darnovsky told the Berkeley audience.

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