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WHO report sanctions genetic enhancement and inheritable genetic modification

Genetic Crossroads
June 12th, 2002

In an extremely disturbing development, advocates of genetic enhancement and germline modification appear to have secured influential roles within the World Health Organization. An important new WHO report, "Genomics and World Health," includes a passage saying,

"If at some point in the future it becomes possible safely to enhance, for example, individuals' memory, intelligence, or immune system, doing so would likely be beneficial to almost everyone in most social contexts.... Any enhancements of children undertaken by their parents should be of traits like these" (Ch. 8.8, p. 22).

Regarding inheritable genetic modification, it says,

"If extensive animal studies were to show that [germline modification] is effective, it is difficult to see why it would raise major ethical issues if used to eradicate a lethal disease from a family; some would not even rule out the possibility of germ-line enhancement in the future" (Ch 8.8, p. 24).

These statements are in direct opposition to policies already adopted by many countries and international bodies. For example, the 1996 Convention on Biomedicine and Human Rights, adopted by the 41-member Council of Europe, explicitly bans both genetic enhancement and inheritable genetic modification, as does legislation now before the Canadian Parliament.

Other sections of the report predict that genomics will have major effects on the prevention, diagnosis and management of many diseases, while acknowledging that some claims for its medical benefits have been overstated. It also notes that new genetic technologies could exacerbate existing inequalities in health and health care both between and within countries.

The WHO report is at http://www3.who.int/whosis/genomics/genomics_report.cfm. See especially Chapter 8 at http://www3.who.int/whosis/genomics/pdf/genomics08.pdf.


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