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Say "No" To Germline Engineering

An open letter to participants at the Asilomar Symposium on Science, Ethics and Society
Genetic Crossroads
February 16th, 2000

Say "No" To Germline Engineering
An open letter to participants at the Asilomar Symposium on Science, Ethics and Society

Pacific Grove, California
February 16, 2000

It is fitting that a symposium on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Asilomar Conference consider not just the legacy of that event, but also the controversies generated by ongoing developments in genetic technology.

Our primary concern is with human "germline" genetic engineering —the manipulation of the genes passed to our children.

An increasing number of noted scientists, academics, and others are saying that human germline engineering is an acceptable use of the new genetic technologies. Some of their recent statements are shown below.

Many of these advocates have dropped any pretense that their interest in germline engineering is limited to "therapeutic" applications. They now speak enthusiastically of using germline engineering to "enhance" the human species.

This is alarming, and demands a response. Human germline engineering is a threshold technology which, if developed and used, would put into play a wholly unprecedented set of social, psychological and political forces. It would change forever the nature of human society, feeding back upon itself with impacts quite beyond our ability to imagine, much less control.

Some of the new proponents of germline engineering look forward to a world in which parents select their children's genes, literally from a catalogue, in order to give them a competitive "edge" in the quest for success. They freely acknowledge that this could lead to profoundly greater inequality, with humanity eventually segregating into genetic castes, or even into separate species.

This vision of the human future is grotesque. Casually dismissing principles of democracy and civil society, it celebrates nothing less than the end of our common humanity. The fact that many scientists appear ready to welcome it is deeply disturbing.

Equally disturbing is the eagerness of many scientists to authoritatively declared that human germline engineering is "inevitable." In fact, many countries have already banned, or have agreed to ban, germline engineering. The United States and the rest of the world can decide to do the same.

There is no compelling medical justification for human germline engineering. Many existing alternatives allow couples at risk of passing on a genetic disease to avoid doing so. Scientists who propose germline engineering as a general means of preventing conditions such as cystic fibrosis and sickle-cell anemia are abusing the trust the public puts in them.

Citizen concern about genetic engineering is growing rapidly. Controversy over genetically modified food has spilled into the streets. Anixiety can only mount as the public becomes aware of the plans to produce genetically modified humans.

The prospect of human germline engineering presents a point of decision—one that ranks among the most consequential that humanity will ever make. We should acknowledge that human germline engineering is an unneeded technology with potentially horrific risks, and adopt policies to ban it. Such a decision will help clear the way for support of those applications of modern genetic science that hold promise for preventing disease and reducing suffering.

It is imperative that responsible scientists and others speak out in opposition to human germline engineering. In the face of the concerted efforts underway to promote it, silence implies consent.

Many of the participants in this 25th anniversary symposium are pioneers of genetic science. Others are social scientists or policy makers who have shaped its public perception and regulation. All of you have high stakes in the future of genetic science and technology. Your response to the effort to push humanity toward a techno-eugenic future will speak loudly. It will shape the way you and your work are remembered.

The Asilomar 25th anniversary symposium offers a historic opportunity to speak out forcefully and publicly against human germline engineering. We urge you to take it.

[The letter was signed by 247 persons. Organizations were listed for identification purposes only.]


Selected recent statements from scientists and scholars concerning 'germline' genetic engineering

"And the other thing, because no one has the guts to say it, if 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 to it? I'd just like to know where that idea comes from. It's utter silliness."

James Watson, Nobel laureate and founding director of the Human Genome Project

"[M]any people love their retrievers and their sunny dispositions around children and adults. Could people be chosen in the same way? Would it be so terrible to allow parents to at least aim for a certain type, in the same way that great breeders…try to match a breed of dog to the needs of a family?"

Gregory Pence, professor of philosophy in the Schools of Medicine and Arts/Humanities at the University of Alabama

[In the future…] "The GenRich—who account for 10 percent of the American population—all carry synthetic genes….All aspects of the economy, the media, the entertainment industry, and the knowledge industry are controlled by members of the GenRich class….Naturals work as low-paid service providers or as laborers….[Eventually] the GenRich class and the Natural class will become…entirely separate species with no ability to cross-breed, and with as much romantic interest in each other as a current human would have for a chimpanzee…But in all cases, I will argue, the use of reprogenetic technologies is inevitable…whether we like it or not, the global marketplace will reign supreme."

Lee Silver, professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton University

"[B]iotechnology will be able to accomplish what the radical ideologies of the past, with their unbelievably crude techniques, were unable to accomplish: to bring about a new type of human being….[W]ithin the next couple of generations…we will have definitively finished human History because we will have abolished human beings as such. And then, a new posthuman history will begin."

Francis Fukuyama, professor of public policy at the Institute for Public Policy at George Mason University

"Some will hate it, some will love it, but biotechnology is inevitably leading to a world in which plants, animals and human beings are going to be partly man-made…Suppose parents could add 30 points to their children's IQ. Wouldn't you want to do it? And if you don't, your child will be the stupidest child in the neighborhood."

Lester Thurow, professor of economics, Sloan School of Management, MIT

"[O]nce people begin to reshape themselves through biological manipulation, the definition of human begins to drift…. Altering even a small number of the key genes regulating human growth might change human beings into something quite different….But asking whether such changes are `wise' or `desirable' misses the essential point that they are largely not a matter of choice; they are the unavoidable product of…technological advance…"

Gregory Stock, Director of UCLA's Program on Medicine, Technology and Society

"Absolutely, somewhere in the next millennium, making babies sexually will be rare," [bioethicist Arthur] Caplan speculates. [M]any parents will leap at the chance to make their children smarter, fitter and prettier. Ethical concerns will be overtaken, says Caplan, by the realization that technology simply makes for better children. "In a competitive market society, people are going to want to give their kids an edge," says the bioethicist. "They'll slowly get used to the idea that a genetic edge is not greatly different from an environmental edge."

ABCNEWS.com; Arthur Caplan is Director of the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics

SOURCES OF QUOTES: Watson: Gregory Stock and John Campbell, eds., 2000. Engineering the Human Germline (New York: Oxford University Press) pp. 79, 85. Pence: G. Pence, 1998. Who's Afraid of Human Cloning? (New York: Roman & Littlefield) p. 168. Silver: L. Silver, 1997. Remaking Eden: How Cloning and Beyond Will Change the Human Family (New York: Avon Books) pp. 4-7, 11. Fukuyama: F. Fukuyama, "Second Thoughts: The Last Man in a Bottle," The National Interest, Summer 9299, pp. 28, 33. Thurow: L. Thurow, 1999. Creating Wealth: The New Rules for Individuals, Companies and Nations in a Knowledge-Based Economy (New York: Harper Collins) p. 33. Stock: G. Stock, 1993. Metaman: The Merging of Humans and Machines into a Global Superorganism (New York: Simon & Schuster) pp. 165, 168. ABCNEWS.com: http://abcnews.go.com/ABC2000/abc2000living/babies2000.html.


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