Legalization of Human Genetic Engineering Sparks Controversy
Thursday, August 21, 2003, 4:19:03 PM CT
A decision by the New Zealand government to introduce a bill that some say will
promote human germline modification -- genetic engineering of the species --
has sparked debate among experts around the world.
GE Free NZ, a New Zealand-based nonprofit organization concerned with local,
national and international developments in genetic engineering, describes the
Human Assisted Reproductive Technology bill proposed by the New Zealand
government as eugenic legislation that hasn't been seen since Nazi Germany in
Advocates of human genetic modification have countered those claims, saying
that GE Free NZ and its supporters are fear mongering and pointing out that a
ban on germline modification would limit reproductive options and subject
reproduction to greater state control.
GE Free NZ says that New Zealand members of parliament have no public mandate
to make the country the world's first to legalize inheritable human genetic
The group calls such genetic engineering "the most dangerous of all eugenic
technologies" and says that the New Zealand government has added to controversy
by also proposing to legalize the use of sex selection, embryo selection and
mandatory genetic testing.
"This presents a nightmare scenario for the potential 'genetic cleansing' of
the NZ population," says Jon Carapiet, a spokesperson for GE Free NZ. "The HART
bill needs to be drastically changed."
While HART prohibits some reproductive technologies, such as human cloning and
the creation of human-nonhuman hybrid embryos, GE Free NZ says that this raises
more questions about the government's motivations
"Why the government has rightly proposed a ban on human cloning, but not
inheritable human genetic engineering is a mystery," says Carapiet. "They are
both species-altering technologies that can usher in a posthuman era."
GE Free NZ has enlisted written testimony from a number of people who oppose
human genetic modification, including Mae Wan Ho of the UK Institute of Science
in Society, David King of the UK Human Genetics Alert, Richard Hayes of the US
Center for Genetics and Society, Stuart Newman of New York Medical College and
Gregor Wolbring, a biochemist, bioethicist and disability rights activist from
the University of Alberta in Canada.
Newman calls HART scientifically inconsistent and medically dangerous in
allowing the legalization of germline engineering. He believes that there is no
way to assess the safety of germline procedures in human beings without
exposing prospective children to unwarranted experimentation, and that the
experimental alteration of prospective humans cannot be justified under any
ethical standard of justifiable risk.
King also opposes germline engineering. "Humankind would begin to take charge
of its own evolution, and so enter into a new era of human history," he says.
Other experts in reproductive technologies and human genetic engineering have
accused GE Free NZ and its supporters of fear mongering and working to limit
Gregory Stock, author of Redesigning Humans and director of the Program on
Medicine, Technology and Society at the University of California, Los Angeles
says that germline modification opponents have a tendency to overreact.
"Even cautious approaches to genetic interventions and research are decried by
bioluddite activists who see any alteration of human genetics as pernicious,"
says Stock. "They conveniently ignore that genetic selection is going on with
every reproductive decision we make."
"We should work on developing safe, reliable, beneficial new technologies,
instead of engaging in deceptive fear mongering about the possibilities of the
future," says Stock
Improve human flourishing
Nick Bostrom, an Oxford University philosopher and chair of the World
Transhumanist Association, an organization that supports the use of technology
for transcending human limitations, sees human genetic modification as an
important way to prevent disease and improve human flourishing.
"Genetic medicine is not black magic, as some bioconservative writers seem to
think, but a natural outgrowth of our increasing understanding of the
biochemistry that underlies health and sickness," says Bostrom.
Bostrom believes that society can create a general regulatory framework for
germline modification, but he thinks that it would be both unethical and
dangerous for society to eliminate reproductive choices of parents by banning
"History teaches us that governments ought not to be deciding what sort of
people there should or shouldn't be," says Bostrom. "One mold doesn't fit all."