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Introduction to "The Next Four Years, the Biotech Agenda and the Human Future"

by Richard Hayes
December 9th, 2004

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 face.

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.


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