Direct Action? Seats at the Table? All of the Above?
Posted by Pete Shanks on May 2nd, 2013
Last week, some 15 French activists in chimpanzee masks disrupted a Forum on Synthetic Biology at the National Center for Arts and Crafts in Paris. This was the first public event held by the "Observatoire de la biologie de synthèse," a body set up by the government to monitor and debate the technology and its social implications. The meeting was effectively shut down. The only reports available are in French (by protesters here, by organizers here) but this placard speaks for itself:
To participate is to accept
I have to admit, my first reaction to seeing pictures of this protest was to laugh out loud and cheer. It's easy to agree with slogans such as "Non à la Vie Synthetique." (Translation is inexact but that's roughly "No to Living Synthetically.")
But are they right to claim that to engage in debate over how to implement synthetic biology is to concede the thin end of the wedge — to trade in your principles for a seat at the table — or is this counter-productive flamboyance?
In this particular case, critics of synthetic biology have in fact been part of the private discussions that preceded this public event. I have no idea if they managed to change the dynamic or to raise significant questions in the minds of civil servants, let alone representatives of industry. But the reaction to this disruption might be to drive all discussion away from public view, and it's hard to see how that could be helpful.
Conversely, it is vital that policymakers understand the depth of feeling on the issue. Opinion polls tell a nuanced story, according to research conducted by the Wilson Center (abstract here). The public is skeptical, and capable of making fine distinctions. But that doesn't mean that industry can rely on passive acquiescence by any means. The kind of drama enacted in Paris does show that opposition is not only mild and general but also intense. That's worth something.
The relationship between campaigners and negotiators is often fraught with suspicion, as a couple of other current controversies illustrate. Some of those who worked hard on California's GM labeling proposition last year are skeptical about the value of the new federal labeling bill (which the Center for Food Safety is supporting). Will it "pre-empt anything any of the states will be doing?", one asked me in a private communication. Will the big food companies make sure that "any federal bill passed will be way gutted"? Such cynicism is easy to understand, and important to factor into activist strategizing.
By coincidence, I just received an announcement from the Global Justice Ecology Project (GJEP), which works at multiple levels, nationally and internationally, to stand up for native forests and promote climate justice, among other issues. The latest email was about the Stop GE Trees Campaign, which includes planned public protest at the the Tree Biotechnology 2013 Conference in Asheville at the end of May.
We are kicking off the week with a teach-in on May 27 followed by a mass march to the conference center on May 28th. We are organizing and encouraging affinity group actions throughout the week to ensure the GE tree industry does not get a moment's rest during their stay in Asheville.
Sleep deprivation is presumably not on the actual program of activities. But a combination of education, media-friendly actions, and specifically directed demonstrations seems like a plausible plan. And I hope someone is holding the USDA and others accountable.
Conflicts between principled activists (or radical nutcases) and sensible legislators (or sell-out collaborators) are long-standing and not about to disappear. Nor should they, in my view. We certainly need debate and discussion. We also need to recognize how important these issues are. So perhaps the appropriate response is not to choose: Perhaps we need both direct action and seats at the table.
on Biopolitical Times:
“World's First GM Babies Born”: 12-Year-Old Article Continues to Cause Confusion
Posted by Jessica Cussins on April 25th, 2013
An undated Daily Mail article that is actually over a decade old continues to spread misinformation about the current state of human genetic modification. In fact, the operations it describes were shut down by the FDA in 2001, and the specific techniques it refers to have been abandoned.
The article begins with the provocative statement, “The world's first genetically modified humans have been created, it was revealed last night.” There is no date anywhere within it, which has led to a great deal of confusion. Many understandably believe it happened last night given that today’s date shows up at the top of the page.
It is important to set the record straight and understand this history in context. This significant event made headlines when it happened. BBC News coverage of May 4, 2001 is here: Genetically altered babies born, and the CNN coverage of May 5, 2001 is here: World's first genetically altered babies born.
These reports, and the Daily Mail article, discuss up to 30 births that followed a process called ooplasmic transfer. Fifteen of these babies were reportedly born at the Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Science of St Barnabas in New Jersey under the guidance of Professor Jacques Cohen in an attempt to help infertile women have a child. Altering the human germline – something he was aware he was doing and in fact made a point of publicizing – was not of great concern to him.
However, many others were quite concerned. BBC News Online reported,
Altering the germline is something that the vast majority of scientists deem unethical given the limitations of our knowledge.
It is illegal to do so in many countries and…
The [US Government Recombinant DNA Advisory] Committee said that in no circumstances would it consider any request for government funds that would result in modification of the human germline. In June 2001 the FDA communicated with the fertility clinics that were attempting ooplasmic transfer and told them to stop, indicating that such protocols would have to be undertaken under Investigational New Drug exemptions. The FDA letters cited concerns regarding the genetic abnormalities found in resulting children (including Turner’s syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder), the lack of oversight, the paucity of safety data, and the resulting permanent changes to the human genome.
Understanding this history is particularly important right now as the UK contemplates granting the world’s first regulatory approval for a variation of these techniques, mitochondria replacement, which would also modify the human germline. Biopolitical Times (1, 2, 3) and many others (1, 2, 3) have pointed out that mitochondria replacement is unneeded to prevent future children affected by mitochondria disease , would be extraordinarily risky for any resulting children, and would violate widespread legal prohibitions and a globally observed understanding against human germline engineering.
Back in 2001 no one would have guessed that the UK would be the country to go against the worldwide consensus against such human experimentation. Lord Robert Winston, Professor of Science and Society and Emeritus Professor of Fertility Studies at Imperial College, told the BBC: “There is no evidence that this technique is worth doing... I am very surprised that it was even carried out at this stage. It would certainly not be allowed in Britain.” Additionally, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the UK’s regulatory agency for reproductive medical activities, said that it would not license the technique because it involved altering the germline.
Fast forward 12 years and the HFEA seems to be promoting just this. Last month, it submitted a report about a public consultation it conducted on mitochondria replacement to the UK Parliament, declaring that it found “broad support” for the techniques even though the majority of those who took part in the largest portion were against the techniques. The UK Department of Health must now decide whether to draft regulations for approval by Parliament, which could allow the procedure to move to human clinical trial.
Despite or perhaps because of the publicity around the current controversy, the old Daily Mail article continues to circulate and lead to commentaries based on the false assumption that this just happened. Just how much confusion has this created? Here are some of the recent re-postings and commentaries based on the 2001 article:
The hosts of the recent Al Jazeera debate ‘The Baby Blueprint’ were understandably confused about the issue when they noted that they had just learned from an article that 30 genetically modified babies were born last year.
- April 14, 2013, Daily Unconstitutional: Worlds First Genetically Modified Babies Born
The creepiest news of the day goes to this article from the Daily Mail.
- March 23, 2013, The Christian Post: Now a Reality, Should Genetically Modified Babies Be Prohibited?
- March 11, 2013, Four Winds: World’s First Genetically Modified Babies ‘Created’ in US
In a developing story, the Daily Mail is now reporting that the very first (admitted) group of genetically modified babies have been ‘created’ in the United States. The scientists involved reportedly announced the result on the night of June 27th.
- March 10, 2013, Conscious Life News: World’s First Genetically Engineered Babies Born (repost of the original Daily Mail article with this date on it.)
- Mar 9, 2013, Official Tea Party USA: World's First Genetically Modified Babies Born - Official Tea Party USA
- January 7, 2013, Daily Paul: World's First Genetically Modified BABIES Born (repost of the original Daily Mail article with this date on it.)
- July 06, 2012, Indian Country Today Media Network: Birth of 30 Genetically Modified Babies May Lead to a 'Designer' Human Race
The recent birth of 30 genetically modified (GM) babies has sparked an ethical debate over whether fertility experiments help hopeful parents conceive or if scientists are altering humanity.
- Jul 3, 2012, Natural News: U.S. researchers create 30 genetically modified human babies
Misinformation has been a hallmark of the debate around mitochondria replacement. Adding the accurate date to the Daily Mail article could help alleviate some of the confusion. Hopefully this will be remedied soon.
Previously on Biopolitical Times:
Posted in Assisted Reproduction
, Biopolitics, Parties & Pundits
, Biotech & Pharma
, Genetic Selection
, Inheritable Genetic Modification
, Jessica Cussins's Blog Posts
, Media Coverage
, Public Opinion
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, US Federal
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Earth Day in Biopolitics
Posted by Jessica Cussins on April 22nd, 2013
Happy Earth Day everyone! The question of how to protect our planet is one of the most pressing of our time, and everywhere you look, there are different ideas about the best way to manage the crises of climate change, environmental disasters, and loss of biodiversity. One solution that has been gaining some popularity lately is synthetic biology. A recent conference at the University of Cambridge in the UK brought together leading conservationists and synthetic biologists to consider how new technologies may be used to benefit the planet.
However, the heart of synthetic biology is not conservation, but creation. Synthetic biologists make headlines because they seem to see themselves as God-like figures who can make the natural world better. It is exactly this kind of hubris that has led to many of the largest environmental disasters. As Biopolitical Times contributor Pete Shanks argues,
The entire approach of designing and controlling nature is at odds with the deepest goals of the environmental movement. We cannot live in harmony with a world we are actively trying to redesign in accordance with our whims.Shanks called this trend for exactly what it is: greenwashing. Collaboration with environmentalists is great PR for a field that poses extreme environmental risks and is entirely unregulated. From the “transparently phony concept” of “de-extinction,” to the news that pharmaceutical giant Sanofi is producing a synthetic malaria drug, which will really amount to “the start of a new hi-tech assault on farmers,” synthetic biology ventures certainly engage the environment; whether they will be good for it is quite another matter.
Former CGS Staff Associate Daniel Sharp noted,
As appealing as they might sound, these grandiose and messianic promises are not only false but dangerous. Synthetic biofuels have been widely criticized (see: 1, 2, 3, 4) as a non-starter solution to the climate crisis, which threaten to harm the environment and prompt massive land grabs in the global South. In addition, the field threatens to re-entrench corporate dominance and global inequality by opening the door to patents on synthetic life-forms and genomes. And none of this is to mention serious risks to public health and worker safety that much synthetic biology research poses.
In honor of Earth Day, here’s to the public policies, and societal and personal changes, that address the root of the problems facing our Earth. One synthetic biologist at Cambridge made the glib statement that this technology will win simply because those in favor of it are younger than those who are against it. (He did walk it back.) Well, here’s one young person who is not convinced that synthetic biology will save us all.
Previously on Biopolitical Times:
Posted in Animal Technologies
, Biopolitics, Parties & Pundits
, Biotech & Pharma
, Global Governance
, Jessica Cussins's Blog Posts
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, Research Cloning
, Synthetic Biology
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Supreme Court Hears Gene Patent Case; Activists Rally on Courthouse Steps
Posted by Pete Shanks on April 18th, 2013
On Monday, April 15, the U.S. Supreme Court held its hearing on the Myriad gene patent case. Their ruling is not expected until June, and it's hard to tell what that will be. It's not inconceivable that, as with the healthcare decision last year, the court will come up with a creative and unexpected approach, which might lead to a narrow rather than sweeping ruling. These sample headlines give a sense of the initial reactions:
Justices Seem Wary of Bold Action in Gene Patent Case
(New York Times)
Supreme Court critical of patents on human genes
(Los Angeles Times)
High Court Justices Seek Compromise in Gene-Patent Case Supreme Court skeptical of patent on breast cancer gene
Jacab Sherkow at the Stanford Law and Biosciences blog had perhaps the most detailed review of the oral arguments, which he called "wide-ranging — and often-times confusing." He noted that some of the justices seemed to have difficulty with basic genetics, and tended to cling to analogies of dubious applicability. Bravely, he concluded:
I count at least five votes decidedly on board to invalidate Myriad's claims: Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan.
As to the rest, he placed Alito and Breyer stalwartly in Myriad's camp, pegged Thomas as even-handed on patents, and "all bets are off when it comes to Justice Scalia and anything scientific."
Outside the Court, Breast Cancer Action (BCA) — one of the plaintiffs in the case — held a rally in support, which CGS had endorsed. The next day, BCA's Karuna Jaggar appeared on HuffPost Live in an entertaining debate: The host was amazed (and professionally delighted) that a discussion of patents could come to a close with four panelists simultaneously trying to shout over each other.
Jaggar had cowritten a Los Angeles Times op-ed with CGS's Marcy Darnovsky that appeared the Friday before. The subtitle (adapted from a famous quote by Jonas Salk) sums up the plaintiff's point of view:
You can't patent the sun; why should you be able to patent human genes?
In a few months, we'll know how many justices agree.
Previously on Biopolitical Times: