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January 8, 2003


From: - 08 Jan 2003

Online extra: Gregory Stock on Raelians, Nazis, and the protection of human dignity

TR: How will recent developments like the announcement of a cloned baby by the Raelians affect the development of something like germline engineering? Will bans on related technologies be more likely?

Stock: It is possible to prohibit various clinical applications of the technologies in specific locations, and in fact, that is done. It doesn’t always stop the activity as a whole. Take Germany, where it is illegal to do embryo screening; wealthy Germans just travel to Brussels or to London. So the ban merely restricts the technologies to the affluent, largely, to those who are able to circumvent those kinds of regulations.

But that’s very different than what people are trying to do when they intervene in basic research and try to actually control the knowledge itself. I think this would be a very dangerous precedent. We should not start trying to regulate and micromanage cellular research, essentially, with bans on technologies like therapeutic cloning and embryonic stem cell research. There are all sorts of laws already in place to regulate clinical activities in medicine and stop people from doing unwarranted kinds of experimentation on other humans. Not only are there various review boards and such, but there is the ever-present threat of litigation, which prevents any mainstream organization from pushing very close to the edge. So, I think that these heroic legislative efforts to control these technologies are not only unnecessary, they’re actually very dangerous because they have a tendency not to impact the sort of renegade scientists and activists who are highly motivated to develop the stranger applications of these technologies.

They’re not going to have any impact on the Raelians, who are trying to clone someone. Indeed, the Raelians’ brilliant manipulation of the media with their repeated announcements of fanciful human clonings will no doubt bring this group the attention and money to move ahead more seriously with their efforts. But these restrictions do interfere with mainstream medical research, where people actually are responsive to legal pressures. So the technological breakthroughs are likely to occur at the extremes, where people are less responsible. Which is really not what you want. The overall effect is that you tend to retard the more mainstream applications, which are largely therapeutic, and have little effect on the more troubling interventions. It may not seem like a problem to slow down progress on these therapies when you’re healthy and your major concern is with some philosophical transgression on human dignity. But when you have cystic fibrosis or Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s or some other major disease, and you’re looking for any possible cure, or you have a loved one with that disease, then these delays seem very cruel. For the afflicted, they carry a great cost, and I find it surprising that so many of those who speak about the need to protect human dignity are so cavalier about this cost.

TR: What are the technologies that will enable us to alter human genetics?

Stock: There’s a huge effort underway to develop therapeutics and biomedicine to understand our genome deeply and to find correlations between genes and clusters of genes and various diseases. We’ll find associations between various potentials and other aspects of who we are as well. All of that information, I believe, is likely to emerge rather suddenly once it becomes economically feasible to screen the genetics of large numbers of people.

Then technologies like human artificial chromosomes will give us ways of inserting clusters of genes into cells. There are several companies already working on that technology—one is Athersys in Cleveland, OH, and another is Chromos in Burnaby, British Columbia. Such technology is still rather primitive, but stable chromosomes nonetheless have been passed from generation to generation in mice. Most of the work in this realm will not be done with germline engineering in mind, at least not human germline engineering; it will be done to introduce genes into livestock and laboratory animals. There’s also an effort to use this in somatic gene therapy to cure diseases like cystic fibrosis or hemophilia.

These two threads will come together along with another—advances in in-vitro fertilization. Once you have that process in place and you have access to lots of embryos, it becomes much more feasible to do screening and even germline interventions.

It’s good to start thinking about these sorts of things now, rather than far in the future, because these potentials will arrive rather quickly once the technology moves forward.

TR: Doesn’t germline engineering play right into the dark history of eugenics movements?

Stock: Most of the things people imagine that parents will seek in such scenarios—blond hair, blue eyes, or any of the other traits the Nazis favored—strike me as the least likely things parents will strive for. Dyeing hair or wearing tinted contact lenses is so much easier these days. We don’t need to fear parental choices but abusive governments.

When parents begin to choose their kids’ genes, though, everyone will probably be offended at one time or another. Some in the deaf community, for instance, say they will use such technology to ensure that their children are deaf. They claim this will help them be better parents and allow their kids to fit into deaf culture. Such a decision would be very hard for most hearing people to accept. Various clusters of preferences and predispositions, like those for strong athletic ability, musical talent, or high IQ may lead each successive generation to seek enhancements in their own offspring to further accentuate these traits. Such a dynamic would lead to increasing diversity among humans in coming centuries as those with these traits spawn lineages that increasingly manifest them. And such diversity will lead to even further fragmentation as society shifts and changes.