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Cloning and Germline Intervention: U.S. Perspectives

Perspectives on Reproductive Technologies and Biomedicine
by Marcy Darnovsky
October 13th, 2003

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 the U.S.

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 advocates.

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 cloning.

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

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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 ride.

Genetic justice

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.

Poor 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.)

Cure 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.

Ideal 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 arrangements.

Hope 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

opposition both to ``designer babies´´ and to ``designer health care´´ that would be available only to the elite

a clear critique of substituting ``genetic fixes´´ for social problems

universal access to those medical technologies and procedures that are deemed, through a democratic process, to be ``appropriate technologies´´

insistence on the reallocation of resources towards global health equity

democratic control and precaution in the face of powerful new biotechnologies


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