Introduction to The Next Four Years, the Biotech Agenda and the Human Future, New York, NY
Text of opening comments given at the symposium, "The
Next Four Years, the Biotech Agenda and the Human Future"
Good evening. Thank you all so much for joining
us here on a busy weekday evening during this Holiday season.
I want to welcome you to our symposium, "The Next Four
Years, the Biotech Agenda, and the Human Future
I'll introduce our distinguished set of presenters in a moment,
but I've been asked to set the stage with some comments on the
work that led to this symposium and on some of the concerns
that have motivated the organizers.
Just a few years ago, leaders and activists within a number
of liberal and progressive organizations became concerned about
the social and political implications of the new human genetic
technologies. They included feminist and women's health leaders,
environmentalists, civil and human rights activists, socially
concerned scientists and health professionals, disability rights
leaders and others.
We knew that many applications of the new human
genetic technologies had great potential for the prevention
and cure of disease, and that such applications deserved not
only acceptance but affirmative support. But we believed as
well that other applications held out the prospect of great
harm, both to individuals and to society as a whole. We were
aware of how rapidly these technologies were being developed,
how little either the general public or policy makers understood
about them, and how thin - almost non-existent - were the structures
of public oversight and control.
We began efforts to help build awareness of these
concerns among other liberal and progressive constituencies,
and to encourage social and political engagement. This evening's
symposium grew out of, and continues, those efforts.
What sorts of concerns, specifically, are we talking
about? Consider just this partial list: Sex selection is dramatically
reducing the ratio of female to male infants born in some countries,
and could change birth order patterns in others. Patenting of
human gene sequences could enclose a long-established biological
and bioresearch commons. The promotion of gene technologies
as the solution to developing country health needs could reduce
support for basic health care and for measures addressing the
social determinants of health. Patenting of human embryos and
the intentional conception and birth of children for the primary
purpose of supplying medically useful tissues, could set us
on a course towards the commodification of human beings. The
creation of clonal embryos for research, in the absence of tight
regulation and control, makes the eventual birth of clonal children
far more likely. Techniques allowing the creation of genetically
modified children could spark a techno-eugenic rat race in which
all would feel compelled to compete lest they leave their children
at a disadvantage.
Our concerns were reinforced when we began hearing
people like Nobel laureate James Watson call for the elimination
of "stupid people" and "ugly girls" through
genetic modification and selection. Or Princeton University
bioethicist Peter Singer arguing without apology in favor of
infanticide. Or University of Alabama bioethicist Gregory Pence
asking, "Would it be so terrible to allow parents to at
least aim for a certain type, in the same way that great breeders…
try to match a breed of dog to the needs of a family?"
The new human genetic technologies raise questions
that humanity has never before had to grapple with, and it would
be presumptuous to believe that all the answers are immediately
obvious. Where should we draw the lines on human genetic modification,
and who should draw them? How can we ensure that genetic technologies
are developed in a manner consistent with core values of democracy,
equality, human rights, and the common good? How do we distinguish
between valid medical uses of genetic technologies, and socially
problematic or pernicious uses, such as athletic "gene-doping"
or the creation of human-animal chimeras? How can public accountability
over the burgeoning biotechnology industry be ensured, when
competition among states, regions and countries allows biotech
firms to seek jurisdictions with the least regulatory oversight?
How can we build the international consensus needed if we are
to avoid a future of eugenic tourism?
And finally - and of special interest for the
discussion this evening - how can we create an independent progressive
analysis and politics addressing all these questions and concerns,
one that differs both from anti-choice theological absolutism
on the one hand, and corporate, techno-libertarian, free-market
absolutism on the other?
I could easily go on. These new technologies represent some
of the most profound challenges that humanity has ever had to
The good news, however, is that many committed, accomplished
people are beginning to address these concerns in earnest. Our
speakers tonight include some of the leading thinkers, writers
and activists working to move beyond the current polarized politics
on these issues and to develop new perspectives grounded in
progressive and inclusive values of social justice, racial justice
and feminism. I'll say a brief word about each of the speakers
now, and more before each of their presentations.
Our first speaker is Sheldon Krimsky of Tufts University,
who will address the transformation of university-based life
science research by corporate interests, and the damage this
has done to the integrity of the scientific enterprise.
He'll be followed by Dorothy Roberts of Northwestern University,
who will discuss both the implications of an emerging race-based
medicine, and the manner in which new reproductive technologies
exacerbate racial and class disparities.
Our third speaker is William Saletan, Chief Political Correspondent
for the on-line magazine Slate, who will argue that many liberals
and progressives have adopted utilitarian, individualist, and
economistic values to frame their understanding of human genetic
technologies, without realizing how at odds these values are
with the historical core of liberal and progressive values.
Next will be Stuart Newman of New York Medical College, whose
presentation will address the evolution of the discipline of
embryology from - and this is Stuart's language - an obscure
scientific backwater to the salvation of humanity and agent
of immortality, within the brief span of thirty years.
And finally, we'll hear from my colleague at the Center for
Genetics and Society, Marcy Darnovsky, who will describe the
recent experience in California with Proposition 71, the $3
billion stem cell initiative, the growing post-election controversy
surrounding it, and what these portend for future struggles
over new human genetic technologies.
Each speaker has 15 minutes, which should bring us to about
8:40. That'll give us about 45 minutes for discussion. We'll
adjourn at 9:30 sharp.
Before I call Shelly to the podium I want to call your attention
to the CD and the green evaluation sheet that you all should
have. The CD is the equivalent of a 150-page anthology. It includes
selected overview materials, articles by tonight's speakers,
and additional key texts. It's really a remarkable document.
In addition, please be sure to fill out the green evaluation
form before you leave tonight, and hand it to one of the staff
at the exit doors. We want your feedback, and we especially
want to know of any of you interested in further involvement,
in whatever manner, with the concerns discussed.
[PART OF CLOSING COMMENTS]
Before we adjourn I want to acknowledge some of the people
and organizations who contributed to make this symposium happen.
The initial suggestion that we hold this event came from long-time
New York City activist J.P. Harpignies. David Levine, Pam Weppner
and David Manning, of the Graduate Center, CUNY deserve our
thanks for making this wonderful venue available. Our other
co-sponsors and their liasions deserve thanks as well: Deena
Kolbert at the New York Open Center, Janine Jaquette at the
Nation Institute, and David Callahan at Demos. Finally, we want
to thank Jasmine Gonzales, Sujatha Jesudason and Jesse Reynolds
of the Center for Genetics and Society for their commitment
and hard work.