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In The Pipeline:

Genetically Modified Humans?

by Richard Hayes

Scientists have long speculated that parents would someday be able to genetically engineer their children for appearance, physical and mental abilities, or other traits of choice. For most people, these predictions have seemed so far in the future, or so patently repugnant, that they didn't need to be taken very seriously.

Such complacency is no longer possible. Well below the radar screen of both the general public and policy makers, a concerted campaign is underway to perfect and justify the development of the technologies that would allow the engineering of "designer babies."

"We've all known that the day would come when we'd have to decide whether or not to allow the reconfiguration of human beings through genetic technology," says Dr. David King, editor of GenEthics News in London. "Well, that day is now."

The social and political consequences of allowing the development and use of these technologies is difficult to comprehend, but most likely it would entail the objectification and commodification of human life and dramatically change the nature of human relationships and society.

In his book, Re-Making Eden: How Cloning and Beyond Will Change the Human Family, Princeton cell biologist Lee Silver looks forward to a future in which the health, appearance, personality, cognitive ability, sensory capacity and life-span of children all become artifacts of genetic manipulation. Silver acknowledges that the costs of these technologies will limit their widespread adoption, so that over time society will segregate into the "GenRich" who control "the economy, the media, the entertainment industry and the knowledge industry," and the "Naturals," who "work as low-paid service providers or as laborers."

Over time, society will segregate into "GenRich" who control "the economy, the media, and the knowledge industry," and the "Naturals," who "work as low paid service providers or as laborers."

-Lee Silver,
Remaking Eden: How Cloning And Beyond
Will Change the Human Family

Eventually, Silver writes, the GenRich and the Naturals will become "entirely separate species with no ability to cross-breed, and with as much romantic interest in one another as a current human would have for a chimpanzee."

Such visions are not the fevered product of a fringe band of futurists. Rather, they lie at the core of a new socio-political worldview and ideology gaining hold among influential scientists, academics, journalists and others. Last August, Ted Koppel featured Lee Silver on ABC's Nightline, and enthusiastically endorsed Silver's techno-eugenic vision. Authors such as Lester Thurow and Frances Fukuyama have written approvingly of the coming genetically engineered "post-human" era.

"The fact that noted scientists and intellectuals are advocating genetic manipulation to enhance human traits is irresponsible in the extreme," warns Dr. Stuart Newman, professor of cell biology and anatomy at New York Medical College and chair of the Human Genetics Committee of the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Council for Responsible Genetics. "There is no way we could determine whether such procedures would even work without massive experimentation on human beings. But in a society obsessed with competition and success, the worst barbarities imaginable could be rationalized if people thought that genetic manipulation might give their children an advantage."

Human Genetic Engineering

Genetic engineering provides the ability to add or delete specific genes within a living cell nucleus. Gene modifications can have an impact solely on a single person (somatic manipulation), or on a person's children and all subsequent descendants (germline manipulation).

Somatic manipulation seeks to change the genetic makeup of particular body (somatic) cells that comprise the organs and tissues -- lungs, brain, bones, etc. -- of a single person. Diseases like cystic fibrosis, for example, may be treated by inserting a corrective gene into malfunctioning lung cells. Changes in somatic genes are not passed on to one's children.

Germline genetic manipulation changes the sex cells (i.e., the sperm and egg, or germ, cells), which pass the parental genes to the next generation. While germline engineering is sometimes suggested as a way to prevent transmission of genetic diseases, the same result can be achieved by preimplanation screening and other means. Germline engineering is necessary, however, to go beyond disease prevention and modify the genetic endowment of children otherwise expected to be healthy.

The ability to put genes into living cells was perfected in animal experiments conducted during the late 1970s. Proposals to begin human gene manipulation followed shortly thereafter, and aroused much controversy.

Scientific, religious, environmental and political leaders and organizations generally approved of somatic gene therapy, but strongly opposed germline manipulation. In 1983, a coalition of 58 religious leaders declared that genetic engineering of the human germline "represents a fundamental threat to the preservation of the human species as we know it, and should be opposed with the same courage and conviction as we now oppose the threat of nuclear extinction."

In 1990, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) approved somatic gene therapy trials, but said that it would not accept proposals for germline manipulation "at present." That ambiguous decision did little to discourage advocates of germline engineering, who continued to perfect their technologies using animal models and human somatic gene therapy trials.

By the late 1990s, proponents of germline manipulations were ready to begin a concerted effort to generate public support. In 1998, nearly 1,000 people attended "Engineering the Human Germline," a major conference held at UCLA. The conference received front-page coverage in the New York Times and Washington Post.

Four months later, W. French Anderson of the University of Southern California, a pioneer of human somatic gene therapy, submitted a proposal to the NIH to begin experiments involving human germline manipulation. Anderson anticipates being ready to begin human trials as early as 2003.

The campaign for techno-eugenics

Supporters of the techno-eugenic future are working diligently on a number of fronts to advance their cause. The broad strategy, as discussed at a members-only conference held by the Extropy Institute in Berkeley, California last summer, includes the continued development of genetic manipulation technologies, mobilization of a credible and vocal minority of the public to actively embrace and call for a techno-eugenic future and persuading the majority of the public that attempts to restrict the use of human genetic technologies would be an infringement of individual rights.

Human germline engineering is at least a decade away from being ready for commercial marketing, and the large biotech firms do not yet have the billions of dollars invested in it that they do in genetically engineered crops or pharmaceuticals. However, a few small but aggressive firms, with the support and encouragement of established companies such as Novartis, are speeding development of the most controversial technologies. Among the key firms:

The Techno-Eugenic Lobby

Recognizing the controversial nature of their broad project, supporters of the techno-eugenic future have set up a number of programs and institutes whose function is to encourage public acceptance of the new techno-eugenic technologies. These include:

These and other institutes have benefited from support from many of the new info-tech and rich with strong techno-eugenic political sympathies. Nathan Myrvold, the recently retired research director of Microsoft (age 39; net assets: $250 million), has been a vocal advocate of human cloning and genetic enhancement. Arizona billionaire John Sperling, founder of Phoenix University, recently donated $20 million to a group that is supportive of efforts to extend the human life span by decades or centuries via genetic engineering. The grant will establish a chain of high-tech anti-aging centers across the United States. Sperling is also reported to be the source of the $2.3 million grant to Texas A&M to have a pet dog, Missy, cloned.

Nearly every industrialized country, with the exception of the United States, has already banned germline manipulation and cloning.

Article 13 of the 1996 Council of Europe Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine, for example, signed by 23 countries, states: "An intervention seeking to modify the human genome may only be undertaken -- if its aim is not to introduce any modification in the genome of any descendants." This allows somatic engineering but precludes germline engineering.

And UNESCO, the UN agency, has proposed a global treaty that would ban germline engineering and cloning.

But these international agreements and proposals have not dampened the enthusiasm or slowed the momentum of germline engineering proponents.

No one can be sure how the technology will evolve, but a techno-eugenic future appears ever more likely unless an organized citizenry demands such visions be consigned to science fiction dystopias.

Richard Hayes is director of the Exploratory Initiative on the New Human Genetics Technologies

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