"O brave new world, that has such people in it … "
- William Shakespeare, The Tempest, quoted by Aldous Huxley
Opponents of human genetic engineering spoke forcefully at a workshop at San Diego City College June 24 as part of the Biojustice/Beyond Biodevastation V event. Among the topics they discussed were the strong forces pushing society towards acceptance of human cloning and "designer" reproduction, the possibility of a future of genetic apartheid and the extent to which genetic engineering might combine with long-established prejudices to eliminate people of color and people with disabilities from the future human gene pool.
"When I started doing this work, my daughter was four and I was at a loss to explain human cloning to her," Dr. Marcy Darnovsky of the Exploratory Initiative on the New Human Genetic Technologies told a workshop on human genetic engineering at San Diego City College as part of the Biojustice/Beyond Biodevastation V events in San Diego June 24. "I finally said, 'You know, when I give you a quarter for a gumball and you have to take what comes out? That's what I want to see about human babies.'"
The purpose of Dr. Darnovsky's organization and her current activism is to make sure human reproduction stays that way, and that researchers and companies currently working on human genetic engineering aren't allowed to provide parents who put thousands or millions of dollars into the embryo gumball machine to come out with whatever they want.
Most people polled on the subject have agreed that using genetic engineering to produce "designer babies" is inappropriate. Even the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), whose national convention in San Diego June 24-27 was the target for the Biojustice events, released a statement last April 5 stating their opposition to human cloning on the ground that "it is too dangerous technically and raises far too many ethical and social questions." But, according to Darnovsky, it may happen anyway despite opposition not only from the public but from the official organ of the biotechnology industry itself.
The reason? There are too many researchers organizing small companies to raise the money for laboratory research to achieve the human clone. According to Britt Bailey, co-author of the anti-genetic engineering book Against the Grain, the genetic engineering of plants for food use has been dominated from the get-go by a handful of giant chemical and pharmaceutical companies - but the experiments in human cloning have followed the more entrepreneurial model that also fueled the dot-com boom: "hundreds of small drug companies with relationships or pending mergers with the big pharmaceutical companies."
Dr. Darnovsky said she got involved in the issue after reading a book called Remaking Eden, by Lee M. Silver. (Actually Silver has published two books with that title: a 1998 book called Remaking Eden: How Genetic Engineering and Cloning Will Transform the American Family, and an earlier, now out-of-print one called Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World.)
She read a bit of the preface of one of Silver's books, which predicted that in the future society will be divided between a "gen-rich" elite of the most affluent 10 percent of the population, who will control the genetic characteristics of their children; and the "naturals," the remaining 90 percent of the population, who won't be able to afford having their children genetically engineered and will have to reproduce the old-fashioned way.
Eventually, said Silver, the "gen-rich" 10 percent will control all political, social, business and educational opportunities, and ultimately they will evolve into a completely different species from the "naturals." Aldous Huxley's 1932 novel Brave New World and the recent film Gattaca presented similar visions as horrifying nightmares the world should avoid - but Silver's views are quite different, according to Dr. Darnovsky.
"I couldn't believe someone would actually write that this was not only inevitable but desirable, and would lead to 'the end of our common humanity' and the end of any human equality or solidarity," Dr. Darnovsky said. "For a while I was convinced that this was just a guy who'd just worked too long in his mouse lab. Then I found out there are a lot of scientists, journalists and bioethicists who share these ideas and are doing a major PR campaign to convince the American people that these ideas are desirable. Nobel laureates are involved, and there are very few people taking this on and calling for a ban on this technology."
What's even worse is that most of the people who have mobilized against human cloning are also anti-abortion activists. Dr. Darnovsky said there are two bills in Congress addressing the human cloning issue, but only one of them, the Weldon bill, actually calls for a flat-out ban. "The Weldon bill has 120 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives, but most of them are Republicans and opponents of abortion rights," Dr. Darnovsky explained. "People in Congress don't know that there's a progressive movement against human cloning. We need to have this not be an issue that divides people along the lines of their positions on abortion."
Dr. Darnovsky worries that the anti-abortion associations of the Weldon bill will fool progressive opponents of human cloning to endorse a competing bill by Florida Republican James Greenwood, recently endorsed as "Legislator of the Year" by the biotechnology industry. "He says that we shouldn't do human cloning, but his bill is not a prohibition, just a 10-year moratorium on human cloning and a statement that they should encourage human embryo cloning."
According to Dr. Darnovsky, the Greenwood bill is a Trojan horse that would allow the advocates of human cloning to slip their technology into commercial reality while ostensibly banning it. "They don't want human cloning to begin too early because they won't know how to do it, but they say let's do embryo cloning now and wait for human cloning until 10 years passes and they can do something about it," she explained. "A law against cloning would only be a first step anyway. We also need a global ban on designer children, so cloning researchers and affluent parents can't shop around the world for a small country willing to allow it."
The last time any group of scientists went as far out of their way to alter the course of human reproduction was during the first half of the 20th century. Their movement was called eugenics, and its major philosophies was that "superior" people (usually defined as affluent whites of northern European descent) ought to be allowed and even encouraged to reproduce, while "inferior" people (people of color, white ethnics from southern Europe, and people with physical or mental disabilities) should be prevented from doing so.
During the big Biojustice teach-in at the Starlight Bowl in Balboa Park before the City College workshop June 24, Anthony Imparato, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities, read a chilling expert from a 1927 U.S. Supreme Court opinion by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (usually known as a liberal) upholding the constitutionality of forced sterilization of the so-called "feeble-minded" on the eugenic principle that preventing such people from having children would improve the overall health of the U.S. population.
Eugenics fell out of favor after World War II, after the Nazis had taken it to the max and justified many of the groups they targeted in the Holocaust on eugenic grounds. But according to Imparato and the other speakers at the City College workshop, biotechnology is bringing back eugenic ideas and making them seem both possible and respectable again.
"Human genetic engineering will encourage age-old prejudices," Imparato warned. "Once you identify a person as having a disability, they have a harder time getting work, getting married, doing anything people want to do." Imparato's fear is that future human genetic engineers, under the idea that they are "improving" the human race, will identify the genetic markers for conditions like his own disability (manic-depression/bipolar disorder) and eliminate them from the human gene pool. "The same arrogance that leads them to want to change food leads them to want to change human nature," he warned.
Dr. Darnovsky also warned that the combination of age-old prejudices and human genetic engineering could be potentially lethal to people of color and other historically stigmatized groups. "I'm concerned about the resurgence of genetic reductionism, this idea that all of a person's nature can be put in their genes," she said. "That's dangerous for any group that has historically been discriminated against for something that could be construed as genetic."
Moderating the workshop, and also making his own presentation, was Dr. Paul Billings of the Council of Responsible Genetics. He and Bailey focused mostly on the erosion of medical privacy rights as a result of human genetic research and the increasing practice of hospitals like the University of California at San Francisco to give up all privacy rights in their genetic material in order to be treated for serious diseases. Dr. Billings also gave an opening presentation starkly dramatizing the contrast between his organization's philosophy of what health care should be about and the view of the biotechnology industry.
"Biotechnology draws its strength from two basic human desires: to help the suffering and take care of the ill, and the belief that science can help do that," Dr. Billings explained. "But biotechnology also represents the application of the manufacturing motif and the most intensive industrial methods to human health and reproduction, where they are not appropriate."