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A s 2003 began, the mainstream press was grappling with a cloning hoax. This January, it launched extended coverage of the 50th anniversary of the identification of DNA’s structure. Both events provided golden opportunities to deepen public understanding of the social and political implications of new human genetic and reproductive technologies.
Unfortunately, the media have mostly flubbed these opportunities. The coverage of the Raelians’ cloning claims obscured rather than illuminated the critical issues. Early signs on the second media opportunity—a series of carefully planned celebrations throughout the spring—are none too promising. Fortunately, a civil society response to dangerous new human genetic and reproductive technologies is emerging in a number of countries, as witnessed at January’s World Social Forum in Brazil.
The year’s first human biotechnology media frenzy actually began at the end of December 2002, when a previously obscure alien-chasing sect announced that its scientists had produced the world’s first human clone. The initial news reaction appropriately focused on whether the claim could be true. But by the time the Raelians’ excuses as to why they were unable to show the cloned baby became obviously outlandish, the media had moved on to its next news cycle. The result is that many readers falsely believe that a human clone has been produced. Many more are left with the impression that dangerous human genetic technologies are the province of bizarre cultists. Numerous media-oriented events are scheduled to laud the discovery of the double-helical structure of DNA. To a certain extent, praise is justified: the discovery was a milestone in biology, and has led to advances in medical genetics in the form of techniques to treat and even prevent diseases. Missing from the celebrations, however, is a meaningful dialogue about the past relations of genetic science (the study of the expression and mechanisms of genetic traits) to the eugenics movement (20th century efforts to “improve the human gene pool” through reproductive policies). Also absent is critical reportage of current advocacy by a number of influential figures of a new high-tech, market-driven eugenics.
Many Americans are unaware that a eugenics movement existed before and outside Nazi Germany. In fact, eugenic beliefs once enjoyed wide support among liberals and conservatives alike, underwriting a social movement and government practices that encouraged the “fit” to have more children and discouraged childbearing for the poor, the criminal, and the “feeble-minded.” In the United States, eugenics helped shape a racist immigration policy in the first decades of the 1900s and justified forced sterilizations of tens of thousands that lasted into the 1970s.
Of those who know about this history, most believe that advocacy of eugenics died when the Nazis carried the ideas to an unimaginable extreme. This is not the case. Support for eugenics persisted quietly among some scientists and intellectuals in the United States, particularly those associated with the development of modern human genetic science. Historian of science Diane Paul states, “From the start, human genetics was intertwined with—and sometimes indistinguishable from—eugenics.” Paul notes that five of the first six presidents of the American Society of Human Genetics, founded in 1948, served simultaneously on the board of the American Eugenics Society.
Post-World War II eugenicists made efforts to remove overt racial and class biases from their policies. As social standards evolved, they updated their preferred terminology and techniques. In 1968, AES president Frederick Osborn commented, “[e]ugenic goals are most likely to be attained under a name other than eugenics.”
The historical connections between genetic researchers and eugenics do not mean that human genetic science is automatically suspect. But ignorance about this history is surely worrisome. The paucity of critical reporting about advocacy of a new eugenics is very disturbing. When reporters broach the topic of eugenics at all, they are likely to contrast the misguided scientists of the past, who supported state interventions in reproduction, with the enlightened scientists of today—including those who support a high-tech, market-driven eugenics.
Lost among relegation of abuses to the past, dismissal of religious misfits posing as scientists, and blind praise of scientific pioneers, is serious analysis of dangers that are looming close. Today, a number of respected writers, academics, and researchers are either explicitly advocating or refusing to challenge the development of technologies that would set us on our way towards a new eugenics. The road to human clones and designer babies is being built not by easily dismissed sects, but by some leading bioethicists and biotechnologists. Although nearly all scientists oppose reproductive human cloning, many do so on narrowly defined grounds of safety. Some go out of their way to say that if the creation of cloned or genetically redesigned children is shown to be safe, it should be supported. Others assert that the development of these technologies is inevitable.
Worse yet is the loose network of futurists and scientists who advocate a “post-human” future in which cloning and inheritable genetic engineering “enhance” the privileged, leaving most people behind as a genetic pariah caste. None other than the mega-hero of DNA’s anniversary, James Watson, said a few years ago that “[i]f we could make better human beings by knowing how to add genes, why shouldn’t we? What’s wrong with it?… Evolution can be just damn cruel, and to say that we’ve got a perfect genome and there’s some sanctity? I’d like to know where that idea comes from, because it’s utter silliness.” John Robertson, an influential legal scholar and bioethicist, has commented that genetic enhancements are “simply another instance in which wealth gives advantages.”
Fortunately, civil society voices are beginning to speak out, as witnessed by January’s World Social Forum. A workshop titled “Genetics and Social Justice: The Global Politics of the New Human Genetic and Reproductive Technologies” was organized by the Center for Genetics and Society (www.genetics-and-society.org) and Ser Mulher, a Brazilian feminist organization (www.sermulher. org.br). Speakers from Brazil, Peru, and the United States called for public debate and political action on decisions about and regulation of human biotechnologies.
Ser Mulher executive coordinator Alejandra Rotania spoke of the particular dangers that the new technologies pose for “women in general and especially for women of the Third World in the context of global hegemonic politics.” “[C]urrent global scientific and technological developments transform life, nature, beings, and bodies—their functions and components, their most intimate nature—into objects of engineering and products for the market,” Rotania said. In a presentation titled, “What’s Mine is Mine and What’s Yours is Mine,” Marsha Darling, director of the Center for African-American and Ethnic Studies Programs at Adelphi University, explored the ways that patent laws and other claims to “intellectual property rights” are fostering biopiracy in the “genetics age.” “[G]enes already belong to living organisms and cannot be claimed as the property of someone else,” Darling argued. “We have been there before, with the ownership of people’s bodies.”
Jurema Werneck, director of the Brazilian women’s group CRIOLA (www. criola.ong. org), put the prospect of cloned and genetically redesigned human beings into the context of the ongoing rampant racial discrimination against Brazilians of African descent. She warned of the prospect of new forms of discrimination and eugenics based on characteristics measured by modern biotechnologies. We are confronting the new technologies, Werneck concluded, “so that other human beings will not be treated as we Blacks have been treated for the past 500 years.”
Rosario Isasi, a Peruvian human rights lawyer and bioethicist working at the University of Toronto’s Joint Center for Bioethics, described and analyzed the current policy situation regarding human cloning and inheritable genetic modification, both nationally and in international bodies. Isasi focused especially on the French-German proposal for a United Nations treaty to ban reproductive human cloning. “This ban would not only be important in itself, but it would also mark the first time the world worked together to control a biotechnology,” Isasi said.
In a separate panel, organized by medical geneticists from the Hospital de Clinicas in Porto Alegre, Alda Sousa, a geneticist at the University of Porto in Portugal, asserted that patents on genes and gene fragments are actually slowing down medical research, and making new medicines too expensive for the world’s poor. Sousa concluded her presentation with a paraphrase of the World Social Forum’s well-known refrain: “A world without patents on life is not just necessary,” she said, “but also possible.”
A third WSF panel addressed the new human genetic and reproductive technologies within a broader focus on “Ecology and Sustainability” as part of Z Magazine’s Life After Capitalism “conference within a conference” (www.zmag.org/lacsite). Marcy Darn- ovsky, of the Center for Genetics and Society, described proposals by distinguished U.S. scientists for a “post-human” future to an audience that included many grassroots activists from rural Latin American communities. Emphasizing that the prospect of human clones and designer babies can no longer be considered science fiction, she urged that it be evaluated using the same tools of critical political analysis that we apply to governmental and corporate policies. “The emerging human genetic technologies are a turning point,” Darnovsky warned. “Unless we harness our moral intelligence and political will to shape them, they will conform to existing social divides and to the inadequacies of our democracy, and they will exacerbate both.”
Progressives of many stripes—environmentalists, women’s advocates, human rights campaigners, disability rights activists, and others—are increasingly realizing that technologies such as human cloning and genetic redesign influence social relationships and power arrangements at least as much as do laws or elected officials, and like them should be subject to meaningful democratic control.
Jesse Reynolds is on the staff of the Center for Genetics and Society. See www.genetics-and-society.org.
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
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BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
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LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
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ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16 in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops.
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IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
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