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Genetic Crossroads
February 7th, 2003

Progressives of all stripes—environmentalists, women’s advocates, human rights campaigners, disability rights activists, and others—are increasingly realizing that technologies such as human cloning and genetic redesign are a challenge to concepts of human rights, social justice, and equality. These technologies and their potential consequences were discussed by progressive activists at the World Social Forum held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, on Jan. 23-28, where CGS co-organized a workshop and presented at two others.

Speakers from Brazil, Peru, and the United States called for public debate and political action on decisions about and regulation of human biotechnologies at the workshop “Genetics and Social Justice: The Global Politics of the New Human Genetic and Reproductive Technologies,” co-organized by CGS and the Brazilian feminist organization Ser Mulher (http://www.sermulher.org.br).

The particular dangers that the new technologies pose for “women in general, and especially for women of the Third World in the context of global hegemonic politics” were highlighted by Ser Mulher executive coordinator Alejandra Rotania. “[C]urrent global scientific and technological developments transform life, nature, beings and bodies – their functions and components, their most intimate nature – into objects of engineering and products for the market,” Rotania said.

The ways that patent laws and other claims to “intellectual property rights” are fostering biopiracy in the genetics age were explored in a presentation titled “What’s Mine is Mine and What’s Yours is Mine” by Marsha Darling, director of the Center for African-American and Ethnic Studies Programs at Adelphi University. “[G]enes already belong to living organisms, and cannot be claimed as the property of someone else,” Darling argued. “We have been there before, with the ownership of people’s bodies.”

The prospect of cloned and genetically redesigned human beings was placed in the context of ongoing rampant racial discrimination against Brazilians of African descent by Jurema Werneck, director of the Brazilian women’s group CRIOLA (http://www.criola.ong.org). She warned of the prospect of new forms of discrimination and eugenics based on characteristics measured by modern biotechnologies. We are confronting the new technologies, Werneck concluded, “so that other human beings will not be treated as we Blacks have been treated for the past 500 years.”

Another presentation described and analyzed the current policy situation regarding human cloning and inheritable genetic modification, at both national and international levels. Rosario Isasi, a Peruvian human rights lawyer and bioethicist working at the University of Toronto’s Joint Center for Bioethics, focused especially on the French-German proposal for a United Nations treaty to ban reproductive human cloning. “This ban would not only be important in itself, but it would also mark the first time the world worked together to control a biotechnology,” Isasi said.

Patents on genes and gene fragments are actually slowing down medical research, and making new medicines too expensive for the world’s poor, according to Alda Sousa, a geneticist at the University of Porto in Portugal. Speaking at a session organized by medical geneticists from the Hospital de Clinicas in Porto Alegre, Sousa concluded her presentation with a paraphrase of the World Social Forum’s well-known refrain: “A world without patents on life is not just necessary, but also possible.”

Marcy Darnovsky, associate director of the Center for Genetics and Society, emphasized that technologies influence social relationships and power arrangements at least as much as do laws or elected officials, and like them should be subject to meaningful democratic control. In a third WSF session on “Ecology and Sustainability,” organized by Z magazine, she described proposals by U.S. scientists for a “post-human future.” Emphasizing that the prospect of human clones and designer babies can no longer be considered science fiction, she urged that it be evaluated using the same tools of critical political analysis that we apply to governmental and corporate policies. “The emerging human genetic technologies are a turning point,” Darnovsky warned. “Unless we harness our moral intelligence and political will to shape them, they will conform to existing social divides and to the inadequacies of our democracy, and they will exacerbate both.”


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