Re: Questioning Genetic Engineering

From: Joseph Sterlynne (
Date: Thu Jul 13 2000 - 21:15:58 MDT

> An essay published in the San jose Mercury News (originally written for the
> Washington Post) asks some questions abotu genetic engineering {. . .}.


This article (by Tom Delbanco) was mentioned here in the last few days in
the thread [SOC/MED: Washington Post article calling for "Genome
Commission"]. Look at the way in which it approaches the issues.
Paragraph after paragraph of handwringing without any consideration of the
positive potential of the technology, the fact that the rest of the world
does not stand still, or freedom of personal choice.

    If genetic therapies that increase life expectancy arrived tomorrow,
    they might bankrupt our health-care system or siphon vital resources
    away from education, human services and other essential functions of
    society. Are we ready to deal with this kind of success?

Well, all right. So let's just forget about genetics technology, then.
People might actually live a lot longer. But that's all right---we can
just let them die.

    And consider the next step: full-blown eugenics. In today's
    narcissistic society, people aspire increasingly to their notion of
    perfection: the cherished height, gender, skin color. How will we
    build moral consensus, a code that stymies those who would create a
    master race or a Frankenstein?

Eugenics, of course, is going to be one of the big hypewords. Delbanco
does not hesitate in launching into an attack on the notion that people
might actually choose their own or their children's physical
characteristics. It's a problem that this sort of attack can appear mainly
on the accusation of being [narcissistic] and not look preposterous.

This code that he calls for is not a polite suggestion from Miss Manners:
it is supposed to be effective in extinguishing what sounds like personal

    Think about the anguish of those deciding whether to learn if they or
    their children have genes that forecast Huntington's disease, or
    increase the likelihood of breast cancer or dementia.

Think about the anguish of knowing that there is a problem that you might
be able to prevent or solve.

    Reflect on the uncertainties that already attend the relatively
    primitive genetic tests that amniocentesis offers the pregnant woman
    and multiply those dilemmas a thousandfold.

Reflect on the uncertainties that attend people not knowing anything. With
more sophisticated genetic tests you increase your certainty as to whether
there is a problem or not. So what Delbanco is really concerned about is
having decisions to make---or maybe the fact that the knowledge and
decisions are available.

    How will we feel when fantasies of genetic perfection are destroyed?

Since when do people think that their genes are perfect?

    Learning about one's genetic map may induce far more pain than

All right, then, don't ask. We won't tell you. Just stay out of our way.
This myth that learning something about yourself only ruins your life
should have been killed centuries ago. If we didn't learn these things
we'd be back living in muddy caves and wondering whether or not we should
use fire.

    Will it {genetic determinism} stop our search for mystery, community,
    art, spirituality and the deepest pleasures? Will the genetic map
    replace the dream?

Yep. Once we learn something important about the world we just stop
everything and stand around, staring at the ground. You've never noticed
everyone else doing that?

These comments don't deserve much more than sarcasm.

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