The new human genetic technologies are arguably the most consequential
technologies ever developed. Many applications have great potential
to prevent disease and alleviate suffering, but others would
open the door to a new, high-tech eugenics that could destabilize
human biology and undermine the foundations of civil society.
Humanity needs a crash course in the science and politics of
the new human genetic technologies. We need to distinguish benign
applications from pernicious ones, and we need to adopt policies
affirming the former and proscribing the latter. We need to
repudiate eugenic political ideologies and deepen our commitment
to the integrity of the human species and the dignity of all
people. We need to do this on a global scale and within less
than a decade.
Two new technologies are of critical concern: reproductive
cloning and inheritable genetic modification. Reproductive cloning
is the creation of a genetic near-duplicate of an existing person.
If I cloned myself, would the child be my son or my twin brother?
In truth, he would be neither. He would be a new category of
biological relationship-my clone. Opposition to reproductive
cloning is nearly universal, and the United Nations has begun
negotiations on an international treaty to ban it.
Inheritable genetic modification (IGM) means modifying the
genes we pass to our children. Most people intuitively understand
that if IGM were allowed it would change forever the nature
of human life. People would quite literally have become artifacts.
If cloning is the atomic bomb of the new human genetic technologies,
IGM is the multi-megaton hydrogen bomb. Only the most egotistical
or deluded would want to clone themselves, but if IGM were allowed
even many who are appalled at the prospect of using it would
feel compelled to do so, lest their children be left behind
in the new techno-eugenic rat-race.
Once we begin genetically modifying our children, where would
we stop? If it were acceptable to engineer one gene, why not
two? If two, why not twenty, or two hundred? IGM would put into
play wholly unprecedented biological, social, and political
forces that would feed back upon themselves with impacts quite
beyond our ability to foresee, much less control.
People often assume that IGM is needed to enable couples to
avoid passing inheritable genetic diseases such as Tay Sachs
and cystic fibrosis to their children. This is not so, and those
who say it is are either misinformed or seeking to mislead.
Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis and other options available
today allow such couples to have children completely free of
the harmful genes, in all but a very small number of situations.
IGM would be necessary only if a couple wished to "enhance"
a child with genes that neither of them carry.
The new eugenic technologies are being actively promoted by
influential scientists, writers, and others who see themselves
ushering in a new epoch for human life on earth. They speak
with enthusiasm of a "post-human" future in which
the health, appearance, personality, cognitive ability, sensory
capacity, and lifespan of our children have all been genetically
modified. They anticipate, with scant concern, the inevitable
segregation of humanity into genetic sub-species, the "GenRich"
and the "Naturals."
This new techno-eugenic vision is an integral element of an
emerging socio-political ideology. It differs from conservative
ideologies in its antipathy towards religion and traditional
social values, from left-progressive ideologies in its rejection
of egalitarian values and social welfare as a public purpose,
and from Green ideologies in its enthusiastic advocacy of a
technologically reconfigured and transformed natural world.
It embraces a triad of ideological commitments: to science and
technology as autonomous endeavors properly exempt from social
control; to the priority of market outcomes; and to a political
philosophy grounded in social Darwinism.
In recent months, leaders of a wide range of civil society
constituencies have begun speaking out against the new techno-eugenics.
Pro-choice feminists and women's health advocates charge that
high-tech consumer eugenics would commodify and industrialize
the process of child-bearing. Environmentalists know that genetically
altered humans would have few qualms about genetically altering
the rest of the natural world. Human rights and civil rights
advocates worry that new eugenic technologies would stoke the
fires of racial and ethnic hatred. Disability rights leaders
know that a society obsessed with genetic perfection could regard
the disabled as mistakes that should have been prevented. Peace
and justice activists fear brutal international conflict as
countries race to create genetically superior populations.
What policies do we need? We need domestic and international
bans on reproductive human cloning and inheritable genetic modification,
and effective, accountable regulation of all other genetic technologies.
At the same time we need to affirm the many beneficial applications
of genetic science-in diagnostics, therapeutics, pharmaceutical
development, and other medical fields-and to ensure that these
are available to all people, regardless of economic status or
Many countries have already adopted such policies. Our challenge
now is to extend them world-wide. If successful, the United
Nations treaty negotiations to ban reproductive cloning will
be both an historic achievement and a model for international
policy on IGM and other human genetic technologies.
Nothing will happen, however, unless people organize to make
it happen. We need to foster new levels of awareness, organization,
and engagement-in short, a new social movement-committed to
affirming the integrity of the human species and opposing the
new techno-eugenics and the post-human ideology. Such a movement
will need to be of the same intensity, scope, and scale as the
great movements of the past century that struggled on behalf
of working people, anti-colonialism, civil rights, peace and
justice, women's equality, and environmental protection. There
is no greater challenge. Our common humanity is at stake.
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