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Issue No. 25 (June 2001) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Coming to grips with biotechnology:
Beyond complacency and fear

Presidents rarely encourage us to look at the big picture. So I was pleasantly surprised when President Clinton declared, at Carleton College’s commencement last month, that the world “is moving to the beat of two great forces: globalization, and the revolution [in the] biological, environmental and material sciences.”

Of course, naming these forces is not the same as coming to grips with them. In RAM #2, 6 and 8, we offered a fresh, principled, and positive approach to globalization that expresses the emerging planetary sensibility far better, I think, than either the realpolitik of the Clinton administration OR the bitter alienation of the Seattle protesters. This Special Issue of RAM -- our first -- does the same for biotechnology. (Even the Mail Call section got bumped. Sorry!)

Immediately after the leaders of Celera Genomics and the publicly-funded Human Genome Project held a press conference last month to announce that they’d completed the first “working drafts” of the human genetic code, the spinmeisters began spinning their self-serving tales.

In one corner were the Masters of the Universe. Overwhelmingly, their message was “Not to Worry,” nothing really significant had happened, we could just go on as before.

“Breakthroughs in genetic engineering are no different from any other form of technological or social progress,” purred a man from Norvartis, the big drug company.

Even the heads of Celera and the Genome Project toned down their heady rhetoric in the days following the press conference. Although they clearly enjoyed the limelight, the last thing they wanted was to provoke a firestorm of public concern.

In another corner were the Political Saviors of the Universe, many of whom associate science and technology with white, male, American imperialism.

In The Nation, for example, Patricia Williams fulminated about “scientist-explorers plant[ing] an infinity of little flags in [the genetic] New World. . . . That which was unmastered, unowned, now will be transformed into corporate fiefdoms.”

A hipper brand of hostility found its way into Slate, the online magazine, where William Saletan dissed “smooth-talking scientists” and issued ominous warnings about new ammunition for “racists.”

Unfortunately, the Masters and the Saviors have dominated the biotech “debate” from the start.

The Masters are incorrigibly optimistic, and their premier group is the Biotechnology Industry Organization, or “BIO” (www.bio.org). But they have plenty of moles among academics and futurists.

For example, Richard Oliver, a business professor at Vanderbilt (and former marketing exec at DuPont), has just come out with an exceptionally chipper and gung-ho book called The Coming Biotech Age (McGraw-Hill, 2000). Its rap is pure BIO.

The Political Saviors are no more nuanced. Their poisonous pessimism matches the Masters’ syrupy optimism tit for tat.

Their most militant organization, or happening, is Biodevastation 2000, a Seattle-style coalition that brought 4,000 people into the streets March 26 in Boston (www.biodev.org).

According to the organizers, “[W]e will not allow corporations and state governments to turn the world into a laboratory for the development of a brave new world of capitalist control.”

The Saviors’ most impressive organization is the Council for Responsible Genetics, consisting largely of scientists who appear to doubt the use-value of their work (www.gene-watch.org).

There may be more books by Saviors than by Masters. The most honest is probably Double Helix Hubris: Against Designer Genes (1997), by J.P. Harpignies, a producer of the annual Bioneers Conference (www.bioneers.org).

But the most scientifically respectable are Ruth Hubbard’s Exploding the Gene Myth (rev. 1999) and Mae-Wan Ho’s Genetic Engineering, Dream or Nightmare? (rev. 1999). Hubbard teaches biology at Harvard, Ho at Britain’s Open University.

I don’t think I’ve ever read “reputable” books written in tones more hostile and rancid than those two. Ho’s subtitle says it all: “Turning the Tide on the Brave New World of Bad Science and Big Business.”

In search of adult voices

Although the Masters and the Saviors currently monopolize the biotech debate, a third voice -- nuanced, hopeful, adult -- is beginning to appear. Call it the voice of cautious optimism.

You could hear it the morning after the genome-mapping press conference, in the tone of certain reporters who “got” the meaning of it all. “Have we not now broken back into the [Garden of Eden],” stammered Nicholas Wade in the New York Times, “for a second bite [from] the Tree of Knowledge?”

You could hear the new voice in certain recent books -- in Catherine Baker’s simply written call to reflection, Your Genes, Your Choices (1999), published online by the AAAS (http://ehrweb.aaas. org/ehr/books); in biologist Michael Reiss and moral philosopher Roger Straughan’s thoughtful collaboration, Improving Nature? (1996); in law professor Martha Nussbaum’s searching anthology, Clones and Clones (1998); in science writer Matt Ridley’s compelling bestseller, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters (1999). . . .

You could hear the new voice in the writings of certain real scientists (see below).

I’ve spent the last two months seeking out this complex, grown-up Third Voice. And I am happy to report that, taken together, its words lay the foundation for a “radical middle” approach to biotechnology -- an approach emphasizing cautious optimism and the alleviation of human suffering.

What is biotechnology?

Harpignies (cited above), a militant Savior, gives a loaded but vivid definition when he says, “Genetic ‘engineering’ [aka biotech] involves manipulating DNA -- the double-helixed carrier of genetic data -- by removing, inactivating, adding and combining parts of the genetic material in cells to achieve specific goals. . . .

“This can include mixing genes of different species [to create] ‘transgenic’ species never seen before which can then be patented by their ‘creators.’”

Reiss and Straughan (cited above), prominent Third Voices, give a more sober definition: “Every organism carries inside itself what are known as genes. This is as true of bacteria and fungi as it is of plants and animals, including ourselves.

“These genes are codes or messages. They carry information. The information they carry is used to tell the organism what chemicals it needs to make in order to survive, grow and reproduce.

“[Biotechnology] typically involves moving genes from one organism to another. . . . Suppose that the gene concerned promotes frost-tolerance. [M]oving it into an important crop plant that is all too often damaged by frosts might have considerable benefits.”


What is GM food?

Elongated tomatoes are a trivial and often laughed-at example of genetically modified (“GM”) food. But tomatoes that can stay fresh longer on the supermarket shelf -- or in a market stall -- are a more pertinent example, with obvious benefits for consumers, farmers and marketers.

“In agriculture, new plant varieties created [by biotechnology] will offer foods with better taste, more nutrition, and longer shelf life,” says a recent report from the Subcommittee on Basic Research of the Science Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives (aka the “Smith Report”).

“Farmers will be able to grow these improved varieties more efficiently, leading to lower costs for consumers and greater environmental protection” (www.house.gov/science/smithreport 041300.pdf).

Already, bioengineering can create herbicide- and pest-resistant crops.

Anti-freezing genes from the winter flounder are being used to produce cold-resistant apples.

Potatoes will soon contain less starch and thus absorb less fat during frying.

A team of researchers in Switzerland has modified rice genetically so it can deliver Vitamin A. (About 250,000 Asians become blind each year because of Vitamin A deficiency.)

Edible vaccines, bioengineered into locally grown crops, “could do more to eliminate disease than the Red Cross, missionaries and U.N. combined,” says Martina McGloughlin, a biologist at U.C.-Davis, in the on-line magazine AgBioForum (www.agbioforum.org/Default/mcgloughlin.htm).

Is GM food safe to eat?

The Saviors are deeply opposed to genetically modified food -- in part (they claim) because it isn’t safe to eat.

The National Academy of Sciences -- in a report co-authored with the British, Brazilian, Chinese, Indian and Mexican national academies and about to be officially released -- humbly begs to differ.

“To date,” the scientists write, “over 30 million hectares of transgenic crops have been grown, and no human health problems associated specifically with the ingestion of transgenic crops or their products have been identified” (http:// stills.nap.edu/html/transgenic).

Martina McGloughlin (cited above) also takes issue with the Saviors’ claim that biotech crops have been commercialized without proper testing.

“Over 4,000 field tests have been performed in some 18,000 sites throughout the U.S. over the last 15 years,” she says. “Thousands of similar field tests have been performed in other countries. . . . Volumes of data have been generated . . . with no evidence of safety risks.”

Some Saviors are simply squeamish about the fact that, e.g., fish genes are being inserted into plant genes. But as the Smith Report (cited above) notes, “[F]ish, squash, and tomato genes are not unique to themselves, but are likely to be found in a wide variety of plants and animals.

“[Genomics research has revealed] that different life forms already share a remarkably high percentage of the same genes. Even plants and humans have many genes in common naturally.”

Safe for the environment?

Many of biotech’s Third Voices have devoted themselves to addressing potential environmental risks from the new technology. Their conclusion: All the risks are minimal, and all can be dealt with by proceeding “with caution on a case-by-case basis,” as Reiss and Straughan put it.

The National Academy of Sciences report (cited above) perfectly expresses this cautiously optimistic view. On the one hand, full speed ahead; on the other, do “thorough risk assessment of likely consequences at an early stage in the development of all transgenic plant varieties,” and implement a “monitoring system to evaluate these risks in subsequent field tests and releases.”

McGloughlin devotes much of her paper to responding to Saviors’ environmental claims. Among her conclusions:

-- “Assertions that cultivation of herbicide resistant plants will result in ‘superweeds’ through gene flow are misleading and alarmist. . . . The risk of gene flow is not specific to biotech” and there are strategies to reduce it.

-- “The argument that herbicide resistant crops ‘reduce agrobiodiversity’ is incorrect. . . . Indeed, herbicide resistant plants improve agrobiodiversity by encouraging minimum tillage and no-tillage cultivation systems.”

Megan Susman, a young policy analyst at the Progressive Policy Institute (RAM #6), recently addressed the famous butterfly scare. “In a much publicized study,” she says, “scientists found that corn infused with a gene for Bt, a bacterium that kills corn borers and other pests, killed some Monarch butterflies that fed on [pollen from the corn].

“Few media outlets bothered to report on other studies that showed, for example, that the amount of pollen used in the lab tests was far more than would be found in the field [to put it mildly! - ed.], or that some [strains of] Bt corn do not produce Bt in [their] pollen” (www.ppionline.org, then click on “Technology and the New Economy,” then “Science and Technology Policy”).

Good for developing nations?

The Saviors are convinced that biotechnology will harm the developing world. The Third Voice is surely closer to the mark when it asserts that (carefully tested and monitored) biotech is an important part of the solution to world poverty.

By the year 2025, average cereal yield is going to have to increase by 80% to meet projected food demand in the developing world -- and there’s almost no additional arable land.

“There are, in my mind, no alternatives to using biotech . . . to achieve a rise in the yield potential per hectare,” says Klaus Leisinger in the current Foreign Policy.  “Without [it], the productivity of small farmers cannot be raised and hence their incomes will not rise. . . .

“Better rural incomes [will] indirectly help the urban poor . . . by reducing rural-urban migration. . . . Higher production quantities also lower food prices, the most important variable for the living conditions of the urban poor.”

The Smith Report touched on bio- tech’s capacity to improve nutrition and health among the poor: “The Subcommittee heard about . . . research aimed at improving the nutrition of a wide variety of food staples, such as cassava, corn, rice, and other cereal grains. . . . Work is underway that will deliver medicines and edible vaccines through common foods. . . .”

Should GM food be labeled?

This is a harder question than it seems.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) has introduced a bill requiring labeling of genetically modified food (http://thomas.loc.gov, then enter “hr3377”) -- and on the surface, who could object? The more information, the better.

The real question, though, is what the label would convey to consumers. The Smith Report suggests the label might have a “skull and crossbones” effect, indicating to the “average consumer that safety risks exist, when the evidence shows that they do not.”

Mandatory labeling could kill the emergent food biotech industry -- which is without question what some of the bill’s supporters want.

The issue illuminates the dark side of democracy -- public cluelessness. One recent poll found that only 59% of those surveyed approve of the production of plants through traditional hybridization techniques -- i.e., methods that have been used routinely for hundreds of years.

Some labeling has already been ventured. The FDA requires that biotech foods containing allergens or toxins -- or those that are substantially different from similar foods -- carry labels to that effect.

As a next step, some sort of voluntary labeling regime might be in everybody’s best interests.

Producers are already free to label some qualifying foods as GM-free. Perhaps all such foods could be so labeled.

But GM-free producers might soon rue the day envisioned by Megan Susman (cited above):

“Although right now a voluntary labeling policy would appear to benefit mostly [GM-free companies], when foods bioengineered to enhance health [or nutrition or taste - ed.] begin to appear on supermarket shelves, a voluntary label could prove a valuable marketing tool to producers who embrace biotechnology.”

Is biotech opposed to organic?

The saddest thing about the ongoing Masters vs. Saviors debate is how it tends to polarize and then freeze our imaginations. Earlier this year, many people at the AAAS convention were horrified -- horrified! -- when it was suggested that a combination of traditional, biotech and organic farming methods could best feed the developing world (RAM #8).

Among the Saviors I’ve read, only Jeremy Rifkin -- in The Biotech Century (1998) -- asked why the organic and biotech approaches “can’t live side by side, each complementing and augmenting the other.” But rather than trying to answer the question, he immediately re-focused his rhetorical guns on Capitalism.

There’s an easy way to tell whether you’ve come upon a genuine Third Voice in the biotech debate.

Just ask yourself whether biotech is being spoken of as a means to environmental sustainability (as distinct from a barrier or alternative to it).

By that measure, Sussman is Third Voice when she says, “Higher crop yields [from biotech] mean more food can be grown on less land, thus . . . preserving forests, uncultivated open space, and other wildlife habitats.”

Prominent futurist Joe Coates is Third Voice when he suggests that, by 2025, “Genetic engineering [will be] used for a vast range of environmental services -- from breaking down toxic wastes to restoring degraded ecosystems. [Bio- e]ngineered organisms [will] speed [hazardous waste] cleanup. . . .” (www.coatesandjarratt.com/2025.htm).

Even the Smith Report is Third Voice when it says, “[A]t a time when many are worried about the fate of the family farm, biotech can provide an array of specialty products -- such as ‘designer’ foods [and] biodegradable plastics -- ideal for small-scale agriculture.”

And McGloughlin is all Third Voice when she says, “Pests tend to overcome any control mechanism, including those introduced through biotech, synthetic pesticides, or even [organic methods]. That is why it is imperative to develop a multi-pronged approach. Integrating crop rotation and ecology with biotechnology is not only feasible but also the logical way to progress.”


What are the new possibilities?

Genetic engineering of human beings opens up extraordinary possibilities. By the middle of the 21st century, most Americans will feel far more responsible for who they are, how they act -- and who they bring into the world.

Coming attractions:

Genetic testing. Researchers have already learned how to test for hundreds of genetic disorders in children and adults.

Genetic screening. Soon, a single test will be able to examine thousands of your genes and reveal whether any are defective or unusual.

Gene therapy. Increasingly, it will be possible to correct serious diseases and disorders of children and adults (e.g., cystic fibrosis, albino skin pigment) by going inside cells and altering genes.

Prenatal testing. Today, prenatal genetic testing is typically done when there’s a risk for a disorder (e.g., because of family history). Soon, prenatal tests will be able to check for many genetic disorders and will become routine.

Genetic enhancement. Someday, prenatal testing may be used not only to avoid disorder but as a preliminary step to altering genes to enhance desired features -- height, IQ, athletic ability. . . .

Germline therapy. Someday, we’ll be able to alter not only our genes, but the genes we pass on to our children (by altering the DNA that’s copied and passed on through our eggs or sperm).

DNA typing. Police and lawyers have already begun using DNA “prints” to help prove innocence or establish guilt. You can get a print from hair, blood, saliva, semen, skin -- anything that’s made up of cells containing DNA.

Masters of the Universe in the biotech debate tend to be gung-ho about all the above; Political Saviors tend to be dubious or hostile (except when it comes to using DNA to exonerate criminal suspects). Third Voices tend to be cautiously optimistic. . . .

Is genetic testing a good thing?

You’d think genetic testing and screening would be unalloyed goods. As Joe Coates (cited above) points out, most people might be expected to “change their behavior or alter their environment . . . after a genetic test reveals a predisposition.”

But the real world is more complicated. Catherine Baker (cited above) invites us to consider the case of a young woman who fears she may be carrying the gene for Huntington’s disease (since some relatives had the disease).

Suppose she’s tested and she’s found to have the gene and no treatment is available. What then?

Suppose a treatment is available but is well beyond her means?

And who else should know? Does her boyfriend have a right to know? At what point in the relationship?

And suppose she doesn’t have the gene. Will she feel happy -- or will she feel “survivor’s guilt” because other members of her family have not been spared?

“The fact is,” Baker says, “[the young woman] cannot know ahead of time how she will react to the test results. And she cannot predict other problems that may come as a result of testing.”

Joe Coates looks forward to the day when genetic screening will be mandatory for public school students, soldiers, police, and other public servants. The least we can do is make sure we have plenty of “genetic counselors” on hand -- and sensible insurance arrangements.

Is gene therapy a good thing?

The Third Voice answer is, “Yes and no.”

For those who can be helped, the answer may be an unequivocal “Yes.” But for others, gene therapy may prove a cruel mirage.

Currently, gene therapy is being tried with cystic fibrosis and some other disorders. But it’s too early to tell how many of these treatments will work.

And for many health problems, genes are only marginally responsible for what’s wrong.

In this ambiguous context, the promise of gene therapy has -- perhaps inevitably -- begun to create a mushrooming of unrealistic expectations.

“[P]atients may demand access to gene therapy when they first hear about it, even though it’s still in the early stages of testing,” says Maxwell Mehlman, director of the Law-Medicine Center at Case Western Law School.

“And they may seek to hold health professionals legally responsible for failing to provide them with the nascent treatment. . . .” (Judicature, Nov. 1999, available online at www.ornl.gov/hgmis/publicat/judicature).

Meanwhile, the dark side of the development of “precision prescriptions” -- prescriptions geared to patients’ personal genetic codes -- was recently captured by the Washington Post’s Rick Weiss:

“Many people are already nervous about their genetic profiles falling into the wrong hands. . . . How will people react when a genetic test is required just to get a proper prescription?”

It’s not easy being radical middle!

Is prenatal testing a good thing?

On the surface, who can object? If a fetus appears to be carrying a gene for Tay-Sachs disease (a disorder in which children are born dying), everyone might be better off if the fetus is aborted.

But there are all kinds of genetic disorders. And as Dr. Lawrence K. Altman delicately put it in the New York Times (June 27), some preborn children may be “at risk of developing conditions that are not actually debilitating, but just ‘undesirable.’”

Should parents keep having abortions until they feel they’ve got a perfect fetus?

Our new possibilities will “force judgments that echo debates about what lives are worth living,” agonizes scientist Robert Cook-Deegan in his very Third Voice book, The Gene Wars (1994).

Is genetic "enhancement" OK?

The Political Saviors are apoplectic about this one. Even the Council for Responsible Genetics (“CRG,” cited above) associates voluntary genetic enhancement with “forced sterilization” and “the Nazis.”

The Third Voice is more nuanced. “[A] reasonable argument could be made that it would be in the interests of the individual child and society in general if doctors boosted a low IQ to a normal one,” says Peter Schwartz in The Long Boom (RAM #4).

“But what happens when a parent wants to pop a child’s normal IQ of 100 to the genius level of 150? If the world is heading into the Knowledge Age . . . maybe we’d be better off with a lot more smart people.

“Then again, we might end up creating a two-tier society of the brain-enhanced class and the rest of us.”

Surely that is the root fear, and it’s addressed head-on by philosopher of science Philip Kitcher in his book The Lives to Come (1996):

“Injustice can affect the distribution of gene replacement therapies just as it attends the division of other goods. Yet if a future society assures equal access to treatment to all its citizens, if it attends first to urgent health needs before creating the opportunity to enhance capacities, who could complain?”

Another Third Voice in biotech, Mildred Cho -- senior research scholar at Stanford’s Center for Biomedical Ethics (www.stanford.edu/dept/scbe) -- is even less exercised than Kitcher:

“Many people would be repulsed by the idea of optimizing embryos to have tall, handsome, thin, athletic, intelligent babies. . . . But [ultimately] it’s a private matter.”

At least as private as the decision whether or not to have an abortion.

Is germline therapy OK?

Here again, the Political Saviors are out for blood. Jeremy Rifkin (cited above) says germline therapy -- affecting succeeding generations, not just the individual concerned -- would bring us “to the precipice of a eugenics era.” The CRG “strongly opposes” germline.

Third Voices are of a different mindset. Phil Kitcher (cited above) makes the obvious point that, “if the disease allele is replaced in all cells, including eggs (or sperm), descendants would be freed from the disease and from the need of somatic [i.e., individual] therapy.”

Kitcher also notes that germline therapy will not -- as its critics claim -- be irreversible: “If [current] techniques remain imprecise, then germline interventions [will remain] properly debarred . . . ; if techniques become exact, then what has been done can be undone.”

Another fear -- that germline therapy will reduce genetic variation -- is addressed by Reiss and Straughan: “The argument that evolution needs genetic variation is difficult to sustain faced with someone suffering as a result of a disease that is largely the result of a genetic mutation! . . .

“Germline therapy may one day lead to even more genetic variation as . . . parents opt for [different combinations of] genes in their children.”

The Third Voice perspective on this issue was beautifully summed up by philosopher John Harris, in his book Wonderwoman and Superman: The Ethics of Human Biotechnology (1992), when he wrote:

“We must not act positively so as to cause harm to those who come after us, but we must also not fail to remove dangers which, if left in place, will cause harm to future people.”

Should we have genetic privacy?

The ACLU (RAM #4), the CRG, and similar groups want us to have complete genetic privacy. The CRG has even proposed a new “right” for “all people,” presumably even criminal suspects -- “the right to prevent the taking or storing of [DNA samples] without voluntary informed consent.”

Third Voices want to protect genetic privacy too -- but within reason.

The FBI is creating a national “DNA databank” as I write. A DNA databank that would only be used to identify criminals might save so much time and money -- and discourage so much violent crime -- that its use value would outweigh the privacy lost. Joe Coates, for one, thinks crime might fall by 20%.

On the other hand, if employers and insurers can get access to the FBI’s databank -- or can legally insist on testing potential employees or insureds -- we might end up with what John Naisbitt calls a “genetic underclass” of people who won’t be hired and can’t get insured (see his High Tech, High Touch, 1999).

With a little pluck, we can avoid that (see Ten-Point Plan, #7 and 8 below). For Third Voices, the greater immediate task may be insisting on a balanced approach to the question on privacy.

That’s what National Journal staff correspondent Neil Munro was doing when he asked whether we really, really want folks to have the “right” to shield DNA data from potential spouses or adoptive parents.

And that’s what science writer Matt Ridley (cited above) was doing when he said, “Some [genetic] tests might become good practice for employer and employee alike. In a job where there is some exposure to known carcinogens (such as bright sunlight -- the job of lifeguard, say), the employer may in future be neglecting his duty of care to his workers if he employs people with faulty p53 genes. . . .

“[T]here is a danger that the hobgoblin of genetic insurance tests and genetic employment tests will scare us away from using genetic tests [at all].”

Should genes be patented?

The Saviors hate the idea of patenting human genes. Harpignies gets the feeling-tone right when he says, “Corporate predators are racing to extend the grid of their control not just to every corner of the globe . . . but now into our very cells.”

For the Third Voice the question is, What are the alternatives? Should governments pump hundreds of billions of dollars of tax revenues into genetic research? The question answers itself.

“It’s analogous to computer technology,” Princeton biologist Lee Silver told John Naisbitt (cited above) last year. “It began through government funding . . . , then computers went out to the private sector and they exploded. The same thing’s happening [in] biotechnology.”

Silver thinks we should approach the whole question of patenting more pragmatically. “We’ve always allowed people to patent therapeutics and diagnostics,” he says. “A gene patent is really worthless [in itself]. . . . The only thing that’s useful, that’s going to make money for people, is if they can use the genetic information” to develop diagnostic tests or cures for disease.

Harold Varmus, former director of the National Institutes of Health, takes an equally pragmatic view. “Patenting of newly isolated genes . . . can be a spur to the development of the next steps that would benefit the public,” he recently told the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Even Reiss and Straughan are pragmatic on this issue, pointing out that patents typically last only 20 years, that patents don’t really convey “ownership” of human genes, and that without patents “private companies may be far less inclined to invest the huge amounts of money needed to develop pharmaceuticals and treatments based on [biotech].”

Should cloning be banned?

The CRG recently issued a position statement on cloning. It’s actually pretty mild by Savior standards:

“The fundamental character of [human cloning] is to transform humans into commodities, and to devalue the relationship of humans to each other and to their culture. . . . We therefore call upon the U.S., individual nations, and the U.N. to declare the cloning of human beings an immoral and illegal activity.”

Third Voices in the biotech debate are not convinced by Savior rhetoric on this issue. Most prefer keeping an open mind on cloning, for reasons best expressed by Lawrence Tribe, Cass Sunstein and Dan Brock in the Martha Nussbaum anthology (cited above).

Tribe, a law professor at Harvard, worries that “the arguments supporting the iron-clad prohibition of human cloning . . . invariably rest on . . . the notion that it is unnatural, and intrinsically wrong, to sever the conventional links between heterosexual unions sanctified by tradition. . . . And the entrenchment of that essentialist notion . . . is most assuredly not costless for lesbians, gay men, persons gay or straight with genetically transmittable diseases. . . .”

Tribe also says that a society that bans human cloning “is a society that risks cutting itself off from vital experimentation.”

Cass Sunstein, law professor at the University of Chicago, suggests that the “argument for a right to clone [may be] far stronger, in many ways, than the argument for a right to abortion. Cloning produces life where abortion denies it.”

More pragmatically, Sunstein suggests that a ban on cloning may “simply drive the practice . . . both abroad and underground.”

Dan Brock, professor of biomedical ethics at Brown University, probably best sums up the Third Voice position when he says, “Because most potential harms feared from human cloning remain speculative, they seem insufficient to warrant at this time a complete legal prohibition of either research on or later use of human cloning.”

Brock is also pure Third Voice when he goes on to emphasize the “need for careful public oversight of research on [human cloning], together with a wider public and professional debate and review before cloning is used on human beings.”


To bolster the cautious optimism above, the Third Voice is growing a concrete and positive agenda. Among its main points:

General goals

1. Inspire dialogue. Every Third Voice in the country wants biotech to get the attention it deserves. Megan Susman urges the U.S. government, itself, to “promote a balanced domestic debate on the benefits and risks” of biotechnology.

“This has to be a societywide debate, not one involving just geneticists or bioethicists,” says Dr. Robert Weinberg of the magnificent Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass. (www.wi.mit.edu).

Even theologians must be included, stresses award-winning physicist Ian G. Barbour.

2. Build public-private partnerships. “Innovative and vigorous forms of public-private collaboration are urgently required if the benefits of [biotech] are to be brought to all the world’s people,” says the National Academy of Sciences in the report it’s releasing next month.

Klaus Leisinger (cited above) offers a great vision of such collaboration: “The special knowledge . . . and patented intellectual property at the disposal of the private sector (but used only for lucrative markets in industrial countries) could be passed on via donated transfers or very favorable licensing terms to public research institutes in developing countries.”

3. Create global guidance mechanisms. Futurist Joe Coates is convinced that regulation of biotech will spearhead a 21st-century push for “global management of global issues.”

He envisions, e.g., an “International Commission on Animal Care in Agriculture” that will pass muster on all transgenic animals, and an international “Genetics Regulation Organization” that will harmonize conflicting genetics regulations.

Megan Susman has high hopes for the recently-created Biosafety Clearing-House, product of the U.N.-sponsored Convention on Biological Diversity.

“This Internet-accessible database,” she explains, “will store research on various genetically modified organisms . . . and other information governments need to make science-based risk assessments.”

Genetically modified food

4. Monitor food safety. In the U.S., the FDA, the Department of Agriculture, and the EPA are all involved in monitoring biotech foods. But even the Food Biotechnology Information Initiative Act -- a bill recently introduced into Congress by staunch Republicans (http://thomas. loc.gov, then enter “hr4627”) -- urges the government to do more, on the assumption that more studies and better oversight will put the public more at ease.

In developing nations, the need for stepped-up oversight is even greater, and the National Academy of Sciences report recommends that “national governments ensure that [their] capacities are built up to facilitate the implementation of biosafety guidelines or regulations.”

5. Deal fairly with developing countries. There’s a lot we can do. For starters, Klaus Leisinger would have corporations “refuse to conduct [biotechnological] trials in a developing country, if and when those same trials are not legally allowed in an industrialized country.”

He’d also keep private enterprise from gaining “unremunerated control of the genes of plants native to the developing world. . . . Unequivocal regulation is needed to determine who should compensate whom for what and for how much. Funds that result from compensation of genetic material should support the people who for centuries have helped preserve the [plants] in question.”

Genetically modified humans

6. Train genetic counselors. Genetic counseling will be -- has already become -- crucial for anyone wanting to learn about their genes.

“Counselors can help [people] think through ahead of time how different test results might affect them,” says Catherine Baker. “[And] counselors can explain to people what their choices are once they know the results.”

A recent study of people undergoing genetic testing for hereditary colon cancer found that pre- and post-test counseling sessions were “absolutely necessary.”

But there aren’t enough genetic counselors now, and as Baker says, the shortage “is probably going to get worse before it gets better.”

7. Protect genetic information. Anyone who’s ever been the victim of a violent crime wants there to be some kind of comprehensive, national DNA databank. Many experts think that hundreds of thousands of otherwise “successful” rapists, burglars, assailants, etc. could be tracked down with it each year.

The catch, though, is the possibility of your genetic profile falling into the wrong hands.

Joe Coates hopes that, in the next few years, a Genetic Recording Act will erect “substantial safeguards for people’s genetic information, reduc[ing] social resistance to genetic testing” and DNA databanking. Without question it would take all genetic information out of the hands of the states (which vary wildly in their rules and regulations).

8. Prohibit genetic discrimination. “All of us have faulty genes,” says Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), who has degrees in microbiology and public health. “But many Americans are afraid to be tested, because they fear the results might be obtained by insurance companies or employers.”

Slaughter’s new bill -- the Genetic Nondiscrimination in Health Insurance and Employment Act -- would bar discrimination by health insurers and employers based on genetic information (http:// thomas.loc.gov, then enter “hr2457”).

“We want to make sure,” she says, “that insurance companies and employers won’t drop people because they might -- or might not -- get sick at some point in the future.”

9. Regulate genetic enhancements? Joe Coates envisions legislation in the next 10-15 years “establishing a fixed list of genes that could be manipulated. . . . A panel [might] meet[] every three years to review and adjust the list.”

But I think Lee Silver, professor of molecular biology at Princeton and author of Remaking Eden (1998), speaks in a truer Third Voice when he says we’re never going to be able to draw a principled line between desirable and undesirable enhancements.

“In every instance,” he says, “[biotech] will be used to add something to a child’s genome that didn’t exist in the genomes of either of its parents.”

Silver’s point: We have got to learn to make mature use of all our new powers.

10. Maintain the “reasonableness” standard. In the law, most people are held to the standard of care of a “reasonable” person. Law professor Maxwell Mehlman (cited above) asks the delicious question, “Should a [genetically] enhanced person be held to the standard of care of an ordinary reasonable person, or to the [higher] standard of an enhanced person?”

Mehlman argues we should hold them to the ordinary standard. “[B]y not penalizing them with an enhanced person’s standard, we will encourage more people to enhance themselves -- thereby reducing accidents simply because, as a result of their better vision or reflexes or intelligence, enhanced people are better at avoiding them.”


At least five larger issues lie beneath the specifics of the biotech debate. . . .

Is biotech "natural"?

Many Saviors have emphasized the unnaturalness of biotech. Harpignies sees it as “the construction of an eco-alien technosphere on the ruins of nature.”

But the Third Voice sees it as entirely consistent with nature. “[T]he theory of evolution . . . requires that species change over time,” say Reiss and Straughan. “Species that currently exist have passed through many, possibly hundreds, of separate speciation (formation of a new biological species) events. In other words, species are not static. . . .

“Further, a view of evolution that assumes that species remain genetically isolated from one another is out of date. We now realize that a number of distinct processes allow the movement of genetic material from one species to another.

“Certain viruses, for example, carry genetic material between species. Equally, many bacteria have mechanisms that allow them to take up genetic material from other species. . . .”

What is our role in creation?

Many Saviors find biotech to be blasphemous -- or worse! “When you start playing around with genes, you’re playing God,” says David Brower of the Earth Island Institute. “I don’t think we have enough experience to play God.”

Rabbi Irving Greenberg, co-author of Living in the Image of God (1998), takes a very different view. He says the Orthodox Jewish claim “that ‘we are created in the image of God’ means we are godlike. And that it is a commandment to exercise and to develop that capacity. So our development of [biotech] is a positive fulfillment of that command.”

Ronald Cole-Turner, a Christian theologian, gives an equally decisive role to human beings in his book The New Genesis: Theology and the Genetic Revolution (1993). He feels that humans are participants -- through biotechnology -- in redemption, in restoration. He feels that biotech can help overcome genetic defects caused by harmful mutations and so help restore creation to a fuller, richer existence.

Does politics trump technology?

For 35 years, the idealistic fragment of my generation has been arguing that only politics can save us. Not technology.

Looking back on the carnage of the 20th century, though -- over 100 million dead because of various “passionate” political causes -- I think it’s maybe time to stress genetic engineering and the like over social engineering.

The recent book by Paul Hawken and the Lovinses, Natural Capitalism (RAM #3), contains the loose threads of an argument for putting technology before politics. Robert Shapiro, CEO of Monsanto -- one of Hawken and the Lovinses’ clients -- was very explicit on this subject in a speech before the State of the World Forum in 1998 (www.pharmacia.com, then click on “Monsanto,” then “speeches”):

“The issues of better social and economic systems, of fairer distribution, of better environmental regulation, are, of course, . . . critical. But they are secondary to the need for new technologies, in the sense that provision of new technologies is the precondition for beginning to address those other issues. . . .

“The fundamental problem is that the technologies we have today require us to use enormous quantities of stuff in order to create modest economic value. . . . The trick is going to be to multiply value to people to enable them to lead better lives, without multiplying stuff.

“And there are principally three technologies . . . that hold the promise of being able to do that” -- information technology, nanotechnology, and biotechnology.

“[Biotech] cotton . . . has reduced pesticide usage in cotton fields by about 60-70%. It is the substitution of information encoded in a gene in a cotton plant for airplanes flying over cotton fields and spraying toxic chemicals on them. . . .”

Are "corporations" the enemy?

You can’t be a Savior without hating corporations (see p. 1 above). By contrast, the Third Voice sees corporations as a magnificent, fascinating embodiment of who we are -- and, as such, as great places to do good work.

Take Cynthia Robbins-Roth’s very Third Voice book, From Alchemy to IPO: The Business of Biotechnology (2000). A fortysomething biotech business consultant, she doesn’t sugar-coat how biotech firms operate. She promises “a close-up view of the thrills and chills of the biotech industry,” and she delivers.

But there’s no way you can read her without absolutely wanting to run out the door and get involved in a biotech start-up yourself! Here she is on Genentech (where she was a young scientist):

“Genentech and its biotech brethren created a new haven in which to do innovative science without the trappings of the big [drug company] environment [e.g., having to wear dress-up clothes to the lab], and away from the crazed politics of government-sponsored academic research. . . .

“The focus was on productivity, not established corporate behavior. . . . [I]t was not uncommon to work seven days a week, 12 or more hours a day. . . . We were all driven by the science and the sense that what we did could make a profound difference to patients. . . .”

Robbins-Roth’s moral: Corporations will be as good, or as bad, as the people that run them and staff them. So stop whining -- get some credentials and start one or staff one!

To acknowledge human appetites

The Saviors imagine that we can -- or should -- live humble lives. Thoreau and all that. (Of course, the real Thoreau was a painstaking literary craftsman who drove himself as hard as any corporate executive. But leave that aside.)

The Third Voice is more accepting of human appetites, more attentive to what poet and novelist Robert Kroetsch once called “the words of [our] roaring.”

“In just a few short years we will have moved from knowing almost nothing about our genes to knowing everything,” enthuses science writer Matt Ridley. “I genuinely believe that we are living through the greatest intellectual moment in history!”

No humbleness there. But so much life. . . .

“People don’t realize how important [is the] drive to understand ourselves,” says Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at U. Penn. (www.med. upenn.edu/bioethics/center). “In most parts of the world we define ourselves by blood and kin -- and those are just surrogates for genes!”

Lee Silver, in Remaking Eden: How Genetic Engineering and Cloning Will Transform the American Family (1998), reminds us again and again how important (nay, inexorable) is the drive to benefit our offspring.

“We are now well on our way to understanding the human genome,” crows futurist Peter Schwartz. “Governments could not stop this exploration even if they tried! . . . We should celebrate our good fortune but fully understand the very real dangers out there, too.”



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