Where Is Genetics Leading Us?

The Promethean Temptation of Biotechnology

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WASHINGTON, D.C., JUNE 22, 2002 (Zenit.org).- As the U.S. Senate continues to deliberate over the question of cloning humans, doubts grow over where genetic experiments will lead society.



Feeding a media debate over genetics is Francis Fukuyama´s new book, "Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution." In an interview published June 13 in the International Herald Tribune, Fukuyama explained, "Biotechnology potentially gives you a set of new tools for manipulating and controlling social behavior." Such technology could lead to a revival of social engineering, reminiscent of the 20th-century attempts at creating utopian societies, he warned.

Pointing to the wide use of Prozac and Ritalin, Fukuyama noted how pharmaceuticals are already used to as a substitute in children for the socializing influence of parents and teachers. "You have a medical shortcut," he contended, "which undercuts the traditional understanding of how you build character, and the degree to which you´re responsible for your own character."

We will soon have the possibility of changing our genetic structure. Already in the 1920s and 1930s there were theories of "scientific racism," observed Fukuyama. "So if you have a technology that could actually reinsert these kinds of differences into the human species, then you´re setting yourself up for some real problems."

Eugenics has its defenders, of course. Richard Lynn, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Ulster, has written a book in which he says it is time to rethink the matter, BBC reported April 26.

Lynn argues that the condemnation of eugenics went too far. Although the concept got a bad name because of the Nazis´ "master race" program, he says, advances in medical technology, such as the prenatal diagnosis of pregnant women for genetically disordered fetuses, mean that in a sense eugenics is already being practiced.

"The general principle of eugenics, that we could improve the genetic quality of the population, needs taking seriously," insists Lynn. "Parents would like to have children who are free of genetic diseases, and potentially in the future they will want to have children who are intelligent. This is serving people´s needs and wishes. As the technology comes online to allow them to do this, people will take it up."

Of mouse and man

Another area of concern is human and animal gene codes. Should they be mixed and then patented? A New York medical school professor, Stuart Newman, is in the process of seeing if he can patent a "humouse," the Los Angeles Times reported May 12.

In past years the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has granted patents for some human genes and human cells. Patents have also been given for animals made with bits of human DNA so scientists can study cancer and other diseases. So far the patent office has refused attempts to patent human embryos and human beings.

Now, explains the Los Angeles Times, the "humouse" is forcing the patent office to defend its position. During five years of sparring over Newman´s application, "the office appears to concede that it has little or no legal authority to stop what would clearly be a controversial development: the patenting of human embryos."

Newman said that he has never made a humouse and probably never would. Both he and his patent partner, biotechnology critic Jeremy Rifkin, object to manipulating human life. They believe, however, that federal law does not sufficiently limit scientific work with human embryos and human life, and their patent application is intended to force legislators to change that.

Companies could be interested in patenting humans in cases where embryos could be used to generate cells for therapeutic use, explained Elizabeth Howard, a patent lawyer with the firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. In particular, Howard said, scientists will try to modify human embryos to produce stem cells that can be transplanted into patients without resulting in tissue rejection, a common problem in transplants today.

In fact, attempts to mix humans and animals are under way. Researchers in Korea last summer launched a project to create cross-species embryos combining human DNA with cow ova, the Wall Street Journal reported March 19. The experiments, suspended last December due to protests, were led by embryologist Park Se Pill at Maria Bio Tech, a spinoff of Maria Infertility Hospital, the nation´s largest fertility clinic.

The Journal explained that researchers for a U.S. company, Advanced Cell Technology Inc., were the first to admit putting human DNA into a cow egg in 1998. Because of protests, research in this area has largely shifted outside the United States.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office already has received an application from Advanced Cell Technology based on the work it was doing. The office also has received applications on human embryos cloned using cow eggs from a separate South Korean team at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Seoul National University.

The University of Missouri in fact has already received a patent that some lawyers say could cover human cloning, the New York Times reported May 17. The patent covers a way of turning unfertilized eggs into embryos, and the production of cloned mammals using that technique. Unlike some other patents on animal cloning, this one does not specifically exclude human from the definition of mammals; indeed, it specifically mentions the use of human eggs.

The patent was issued in April 2001, but attracted no attention until the International Center for Technology Assessment, a Washington, D.C., group that has long opposed patenting of living things and also wants to ban all human cloning, drew attention to it.

Senator Sam Brownback, the Kansas Republican who has been a leading opponent of human cloning, said he intended to introduce a bill to prohibit patents on human beings and human embryos, which he said were "akin to slavery."

Science not the final arbiter

Eric Cohen, a scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, explained in an essay in the June 24 issue of The Weekly Standard, "We are told that science should not be judged on moral or social grounds, but according to scientific criteria alone. Then we are told that science is a moral crusade to improve the human condition."

Scientists believe they are defending the twin goods of "the relief of suffering and the freedom of the scientist to push the boundaries of his research," noted Cohen. "The problem is that this most pragmatic of human undertakings -- mastering nature to relieve man´s estate -- is in fact an unrealistic (or incomplete) way of seeing the world."

Pope John Paul II took up this theme in a May 2 address to the members of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers. He noted that the new frontiers being opened up in the sciences of life "have put enormous power and responsibility in man´s hands."

"If in the field of medicine and biomedical research those doing the research let themselves be conditioned by selfish and Promethean ambitions, it is inevitable that human dignity and life itself will be dangerously threatened," he warned. "However, if work in the important health care sector is shaped by the culture of life, under the guidance of right conscience, the human being will find an effective response to his deepest longings."