Sunday, June 29, 2008

From Fear of Genetics to Genetics of Fear

In the most sober response to common left-wing fears of reprogenetics, Henry Greely wrote:
When not speculating about future speciation events, Metzl seems most worried about fairness–that genetic enhancement would be a way for the rich and powerful to stay both, and to ensure their children’s wealth and power. This is a real issue, today and tomorrow. Fairness in access to life-enhancing activities like good education, adequate nutrition, safe streets, and decent health care need to be among our primary concerns today. But if, against my own expectation, human genetic enhancement becomes both effective and clinically available, the better policy response would be to assure that it is available to those who want it. This is both more practical and more ethical than trying to ban it. Just because educational opportunities are unequal doesn’t mean we should ban education.

Safety issues can and should be addressed, but as safety issues are for other biomedical technologies. In the United States that largely means through the Food and Drug Administration (though an FDA free from the political and budgetary constraints that have caused it to leave genetic testing, for example, almost totally unregulated). Europe, the United States, and Japan do not have identical safety regimes, but they have proved effective regardless. Why should genetic engineering be any different? And, of course, when coercion is a concern, the regulatory response that deserves primary attention is banning or limiting coercion, not eliminating the object of the coercion.

Some have a deeper concern about human genetic engineering, one Metzl does not expressly name but hints at–and one that is attractive to parts of the left in the United States and elsewhere. It is a concern about the naturalness of genetic engineering, about the need to "preserve" the human genome against its intentional modification by humans (as opposed to its constant and unintentional modification by chance and natural selection). This concern peeks through in Metzl’s apparent but unexplained eagerness to ban human reproductive cloning, even if it were shown to be safe.

But it is neither progressive nor prudent to launch complex crusades without close analysis or to be dazzled into seeing everything new as posing uniquely new problems and requiring dramatic action. Indeed, such arguments, in reproductive cloning and elsewhere, are being made by the "bioconservatives," centered, in the United States, in President Bush’s Council on Bioethics. This branch of the religious and philosophical right is convinced that biotechnology is dangerous because humans should not tamper with their human natures or their human selves, which were, after all, made in God’s image. The chief spokesman for the bioconservatives, Leon Kass, is famous for propounding the "wisdom of repugnance."

The parts of the American left–found in both activist groups like Greenpeace or California’s Center for Genetics and Society, as well as in various corners of academia–drawn to arguments against biotechnology are pulled in, I think, by the lure of naturalness. But we need to worry about what–and whom–an emphasis on "the natural" human may exclude. We cannot let "natural" be an important guide to what is "human," especially when religious fundamentalists and conservative bio-Luddites will be only too eager to provide their definitions of human nature. Progressives must be very wary of allying themselves with a line of argument that was used against freedom for slaves, votes for women, and tolerance for gays and lesbians
You can read the entire response in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

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