Presentation at The Within and Beyond Human Nature conference, Berlin, Germany
Unlike selective abortion and PGD, the reproductive genetic
procedures on which I'm going to focus today are not being used
in doctors' offices and fertility clinics. No human child has
been produced by means of germline engineering or reproductive
cloning. But the discussion of these possibilities is well underway
in the United States, and that discussion is itself already
shaping our political values and social futures.
I'm going to try in the next few minutes to give you a quick
overview of how germline engineering (or inheritable genetic
modification) and reproductive cloning are being discussed in
First a very brief description of the mainstream advocacy
in the U.S. of these techniques of inheritable genetic modification-that
is, for the production of "enhanced children," or
what the U.S. media often call "designer babies."
Second, some comments on the challenges of convincing U.S.
progressives and feminists that the adoption of these practices
would pose grave threats to their own commitments to social
justice and equality-and that opposing these procedures need
not encroach on abortion rights or medical progress.
Third, a tentative suggestion of an approach that might serve
to link the technologies of inheritable genetic modification
to global equity and social justice, and to concerns about biomedicine
and health care that are based on those values.
U.S. advocacy of genetic "enhancement"
Many of you know that about five or six years ago - less than
a decade after the introduction of PGD - a disturbing number
of influential U.S. scientists, bioethicists, biotech entrepreneurs,
and others began an active campaign to promote germline engineering
and other forms of inheritable genetic modification, for the
explicit purpose of 'enhancing' or 'improving' future children.
These advocates are not marginal figures or fringe characters
like the ones who maneuvered so much media attention with claims
of having produced - or being about to produce - a cloned child.
Rather, these are respected people working at prestigious universities
and research centers in the U.S., writing in professional journals
and regularly quoted in the largest-circulation newspapers and
weekly news magazines.
Some of them at times speak in grandiose terms of `seizing
control of human evolution´ or of the need to engineer
super-intelligent people because - in the words of the former
editor of Science magazine, Daniel Koshland - "we
have created a society that is so technologically complex that
we must now create people who are smart enough to manage it.´´
But for the most part, these advocates focus on more personal
and intimate spheres, describing a future in which parents will
be able to pre-select the characteristics of their children-their
sex, their sexual orientation, their susceptibility to chronic
illness, their muscle mass. Often they openly acknowledge that
such genetic enhancement services would be available only to
the wealthy, and that they are sure to exacerbate inequality
and perhaps to create unprecedented forms of inequality.
The most infamous of these is the Princeton biologist Lee
Silver, who predicts the emergence of genetic castes, and eventually
of new human species that he calls the ``GenRich´´
and the ``Naturals.´´ He writes not to register
alarm or concern, but in a tone of barely restrained delight.
And he says, over and over, that the marketing and widespread
adoption of these genetic enhancement practices is ``inevitable.´´
In other words, resistance is futile.
If Silver were a lone researcher indulging himself in ``mad
scientist´´ mode, we would have little to worry
about. But the number of respected scientists and scholars in
the U.S. who share the vision of what's been called ``consumer
eugenics´´ or ``free-market eugenics´´
is very disturbing. And perhaps even more disturbing is the
scarcity of scientists who have spoken out to challenge these
Some good news: It is true that nearly all scientists and
scientific bodies in the U.S. now oppose reproductive cloning.
This may turn out to be very important as a precedent, as a
demonstration that lines can and should be drawn. But unfortunately,
this mainstream consensus against reproductive cloning is based
firmly on narrowly drawn safety concerns, and was arrived at
in the service of an aggressive push for embryo or research
There are many researchers and health professionals, including
some who work in the assisted reproduction industry, who are
themselves very uneasy about the potential for the development
of free-market eugenics. But I don't think they will be willing
to speak out without being pushed by civil society constituencies
like the ones represented in this room.
Progressives and feminists in the U.S.
That brings me to my next point about the situation among
progressives and feminists in the U.S. When we began the work
that led to the Center for Genetics and Society, we thought
that feminists and progressives would easily share our sense
of dismay and urgency about advocacy of genetic "enhancement"
and consumer eugenics. That has not been the case. To give just
one example - an all-too-representative example - Planned Parenthood
Federation of America, an important national feminist organization,
came very close to adopting an official organizational position
endorsing reproductive cloning as an extension of women's choice.
We believe that turning this situation around is one of the
very important tasks of those of us living and working in the
U.S. But we've come to see that it won't be an easy task, for
at least three reasons
- the very real and imminent threat to abortion rights in
the U.S., and the extreme polarization that characterizes
abortion politics, so that if anti-abortion forces oppose
cloning, feminists almost automatically support it
- the strength of the libertarian hyper-individualistic impulse
that pervades the U.S., and that extends to progressive circles,
and the accompanying suspicion of any sort of government regulation
- A sentiment that can be termed ``biomedical exceptionalism.´´
By that I mean a blind spot in the application of critical
political analysis to anything that can be construed as a
medical technology. When the discussion is about technologies
in the realms of energy, pesticides, large dams, the precautionary
principle is at least mentioned, social consequences are at
least considered. But call it medical, and it gets a free
As we work to demonstrate that societal control of genetic,
reproductive, and biomedical technologies is necessary for social
justice and global inclusion, it's important to keep in mind
that the biotechnology and biomedical industries are doing their
well-funded best to paint a very different picture.
Anuradha Mittal of the Institute for Food and Development
Policy in the U.S. talks about the myths propagated by the biotechnology
industry about the benefits of genetically modified crops. She
has developed terms to describe three central myths promoted
by the agricultural biotech industry: "Green washing suggests
that biotech will create a world free of pesticides; poor washing
would have us believe that we must accept genetically engineered
crops if we are to feed the poor in the Third World; and hope
dashing claims there are no alternatives."
Advocates of unaccountable and minimally restricted development
and use of human genetic technologies play similarly on hopes
for better lives and a better world.
washing suggests that biotechnology is the primary solution
to global health inequities. (We're now hearing that explicitly
from a group of Canadian bioethicists who have received multi-million
dollar grants from a quasi-governmental agency that is close
to the biotech industry.)
hyping promises that biotechnologies to conquer cancer, heart
disease, Alzheimer's, and other illnesses are imminent, and
that raising concerns or questions about these technologies
condemns millions to suffering and death.
skewing channels our desires for a more equitable and sustainable
world into preoccupations with genetic fixes, and undermines
our willingness to work for changes in social and political
dashing would have us believe that setting limits or conditions
on the development of human biotechnologies is impossible, that
the technique or application under discussion-whichever it may
be-is inevitable, and that there are no alternatives.
To counter these myths, we need both to challenge them and
to construct a positive approach, one that perhaps might be
termed ``genetic justice.´´
At a minimum, a call for genetic justice would include
both to ``designer babies´´ and to ``designer health
care´´ that would be available only to the elite
clear critique of substituting ``genetic fixes´´
for social problems
access to those medical technologies and procedures that are
deemed, through a democratic process, to be ``appropriate technologies´´
on the reallocation of resources towards global health equity
control and precaution in the face of powerful new biotechnologies