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The Politics of Human Biotechnology

Human genetic and reproductive technologies pose immense challenges for the human future. If used responsibly they offer new ways to treat disease and otherwise improve the human condition. If misused, they could exacerbate existing disparities, create new forms of discrimination and inequality, and open the door to high-tech eugenic practices. In short, biotech tools and practices have the power to promote or undermine individual well-being and public health, to create private fortunes or advance the public interest, and to foster or threaten a just and fair society.

New human biotechnologies are being developed very rapidly. Neither the general public nor policy makers are fully aware of the nature and magnitude of the challenges they present. Regulatory oversight is inadequate at both national and international levels. Few civil society organizations have identified the issues these technologies raise as priority concerns.

The result is an accelerating stream of technological, social and commercial "facts on the ground" new products and industries, cultural icons and images, and concentrations of wealth and influence that undermines the prospect of democratic governance of human biotechnologies.

Contrary to many accounts, however, the genie is not out of the bottle. The most dangerously consequential biotechnologies have yet to be fully developed and marketed. Influential individuals and institutions are beginning to focus on the risks at hand. Responsible scientists acknowledge the need for strong societal oversight. Many countries have adopted comprehensive policies that can serve as models for others.

There is no reason that people of different nations, cultures, religions and philosophies cannot work together in support of policies needed to protect our common human future. Appropriate social oversight and regulation need not impede potentially beneficial medical research and applications. The next decade is a window of opportunity during which we can forge understandings and reach agreements on national and international policies that will allow us to reap the benefits and avoid the risks of these powerful biotechnologies.


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