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Opening Comments at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) consultation on Human Enhancement

by Richard Hayes
June 1st, 2006

Mark Frankel asked if we’d share some general perspectives on what we believe to be the major challenges posed as we consider technologies of “enhancement.”  I’d like to share the perspective of the Center for Genetics and Society, as well as what we’ve learned about the perspectives of a wide range of Americans and others.

CGS got started following a series of meetings held in 2000 on the social and political implications of the new human genetic technologies. The meetings brought together people concerned about social and economic justice, women’s health and reproductive rights, science and society, environmental protection, and the rights of the disabled.

Those participating  became concerned when they learned how rapidly these new technologies were being developed,  how profoundly consequential these could be, how thin were the few rules and regulations in place, and how well below the radar screens of both the general public and policy makers all this was.

A major concern was that use of these technologies could greatly exacerbate human inequality, in particular through a revival of eugenic technologies and ideologies, this time as the natural play of free markets, technology, and human desire.  

At the same time there was appreciation of the many beneficial applications that human genetic technology offered - for disease prevention, health care, and yes, perhaps, for human enhancement.

So the central question was easy to pose, though not so easy to answer: where do we draw the lines?  Since the initial meetings that lead to its creation, CGS has organized or participated in several hundred conferences, workshops and briefings largely focused on addressing this question. I want to mention some key things that we’ve learned.    

First, we learned that public opinion concerning these issues doesn’t neatly divide into the polarized categories of conservative vs liberal or right vs left. The great majority of people are more sophisticated; they see a continuum. Some new genetic technologies are clearly both benign and beneficent, and should not only be permitted but affirmatively supported. Other technologies have both real benefits and real risks; we don’t want to ban them, but we certainly want to make sure that they’re tightly regulated.  And still other technologies, hopefully few, pose such potentially harmful risks that they need to be prohibited.  

Second, we learned that this nuanced, majoritarian voice is not well represented in the public debate.  The most well-organized voices have been, on the one hand, those calling for blanket bans on most embryo research, and, on the other hand, those resisting any meaningful social oversight and control of these technologies, other than for reasons of safety and efficacy.

And third, we learned that key constituencies are not represented in the public debate. Whenever we’ve spoken with human and civil rights organizations, women’s health groups, global public health advocates, environmentalists, disability rights leaders and others, we’ve found a keen interest in these issues, coupled with a deep concern that developments are moving at a pace and in a manner that leaves the great majority of people excluded from the debate.

In this regard I can’t help but remark on the demographics of today’s meeting.  In his opening comments Mark appropriately noted the lack of diversity, and expressed his intent to make sure that future meetings are more representative.  There’s an imbalance of point-of-view here as well: techno-enthusiasts far outnumber what might be called techno-moderates. And there’s an imbalance between types of expertise represented. Most of us here are technical or academic experts, but there are many other types of relevant expertise, including social constituency expertise. Given the topic at hand – the biological enhancement of the human species – it’s imperative that participation not only “look like America,” but “look like the world.” The AAAS has a number of exemplary initiatives underway to ensure diverse participation in its programs, and I hope that spirit informs whatever subsequent meetings are held concerning enhancement.  We would be very interested in participating.

It’s to the long-run advantage of the scientific community to meet the rest of society at least half way. The good news, I believe, is that you can trust the democratic process. In those countries where legislators have crafted national policy to oversee new human genetic technologies, they have affirmed the nuanced, majoritarian perspectives I noted earlier.

I’m thinking of the Council of Europe’s Convention on Biomedicine and Human Rights, the Human Fertility and Embryological Act in the United Kingdom, the Assisted Human Reproduction Act in Canada, the Prohibition of Human Cloning Act and the Research Involving Human Embryos Act in Australia, among others.  

These policies have several things in common.  First, they take a limited number of the most socially unacceptable technologies off the table, in particular reproductive cloning and germline modification.  Second, they establish structures for monitoring and oversight of other genetic and reproductive technologies. And third, they build some measure of democratic accountability into the process.  

Will policies of this sort slow things down?  Most likely they will, and this should be seen as a virtue, not a defect.  It helps ensure that fewer mistakes will be made, and it ensures that approved technologies have greater societal buy-in.

The need to avoid mistakes, and to ensure societal buy-in, is especially important when we consider enhancement technologies.  The reason is the potential they hold for triggering a runaway positive feedback loop of increasing human inequality.  It’s been suggested that enhancement technologies could be used to bring the “genetically disadvantaged” up to the level of the current mean in health, cognitive skill, life expectancy and other measures, after which all humanity would embark upon its posthuman journey more-or-less in unison.  But this is imaginable only under the most absurdly authoritarian conditions.  Short of that, enhancement technologies would quickly be adopted by the most privileged, with the clear intent of widening the divisions that separate them and their progeny from the rest of the human species.  And what happens then?  In a world that is far from having overcome its tendencies towards xenophobia, racism and warfare, the introduction of powerful technologies that deepen genetic and biological inequality among individuals and groups could be a mistake of world-historical proportions.

So what is to be done?  These technologies raise a host of questions that are going to occupy all of us for the coming several decades and beyond.  The suggestion  I’d like to leave you with is that these questions should be addressed in the same spirit that has already informed the policy making process in the UK, Canada, the Council of Europe, Australia and elsewhere.  Engage the full range of social constituencies well before the fact. Take those technologies and applications judged to pose the greatest social risks off the table now.  Establish democratically accountable structures of oversight for the others.  

The scientific community is at a threshold in its relation to the rest of the world far more profound than the one it crossed when the first atomic bombs were ignited at Alamogordo. We can’t afford big mistakes. Let’s work together to ensure that these new technologies are developed and used in ways that will enhance the human experience, for the entire humanity community.


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