Progressives can’t—and shouldn’t—remove politics and values from science.
Organizers of the UCLA event, which was covered on the front pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post, acknowledged that one of its goals was to make inheritable genetic modification “acceptable” to the public, and that a key component of their strategy was to avoid regulation. Princeton University molecular biologist Lee Silver–who in his 1997 book, Remaking Eden, predicted the emergence of a genetic elite that he termed the “GenRich” (he called the nonengineered 90 percent “Naturals”)–noted approvingly that “this country is unique in that there are no federal regulations of [in-vitro fertilization] clinics,” adding, “I don’t see why you need extra regulations for germ-line engineering.” Nobel Laureate and DNA pioneer James Watson–who in 2007 was disgraced after making racist comments in a newspaper interview–told the conference, “I think our hope is to stay away from regulations and laws whenever possible.”
Given that these scientists and futurists were proposing genetic interventions that they anticipated would biologically alter the human species and possibly introduce a new social system of genetic castes, their antipathy to “regulations and laws” makes perfect sense. And in fact, a decade after these remarks, the United States remains a global outlier on inheritable genetic modification: Unlike almost four dozen countries on every continent, it has no federal policies to rule out the designer-baby future that so entices Watson, Silver, and others of their ilk.
The technologies themselves have progressed. Scientists can produce genetically modified animals: goats that lactate spider silk, mice that run mazes faster and better than their non-engineered counterparts, rabbits and monkeys that glow in the dark because of a jellyfish gene in every one of their cells. These kinds of inheritable genetic modifications are still imprecise enough that trying to replicate them in human beings would violate international prohibitions on human experimentation. But it’s not too soon to address them in our thinking and in our laws.
The United States also remains an outlier on regulation of assisted reproduction. Progressives rightly support reproductive technologies to treat infertility and to give gays and lesbians options for forming families. But few have criticized the operation of a fertility industry that informed observers call a “wild West.” In a recent issue of Nature, for example, former chair of Britain’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) Ruth Deech asserted that in “the United States, assisted reproduction is nearly an unregulated black market, guided by toothless ‘rules’ from non-regulatory bodies.”
Deech made these comments well before two recent scandals that brought massive critical attention to the U.S. baby business: the birth of IVF octuplets–which bequeathed to our language the inelegant neologism “Octomom”–as well as the advertisement by a Los Angeles fertility clinic of a program to screen embryos, not just for sex, but also hair, eye, and skin color.
Many countries–but not the United States–already have policies that preclude the use of embryo screening for non-medical purposes, and prohibit reproductive cloning and inheritable genetic modification. Several countries have gone further and adopted comprehensive policy structures, informed by clearly stated social principles, to govern reproductive and genetic technologies. Typically, a government agency licenses fertility clinics and laboratories that conduct research on human embryos, and sets rules for permitted procedures. These arrangements allow for regulations to be modified as needed, but provide a mechanism for ensuring that clinics and laboratories are following them.
The United Kingdom, for example, initiated a process of public input and deliberation soon after the first in vitro birth in 1978. This led to a law creating the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (or HFEA), which oversees both assisted reproduction and research with human embryos. The statute requires that the majority of HFEA’s governing board be people other than scientists involved in the activities being considered. By requiring and issuing licenses, HFEA is able to maintain standards and prevent abuses. While a few decisions have been controversial, its principles and process are widely supported both by the public and practitioners of assisted reproduction and embryo research. Canada is following a similar track.
A number of studies have concluded that the UK’s HFEA can serve as a rough model for oversight of reproductive genetics in the United States. One was a multi-year project by 14 prominent scholars and bioethicists led by Erik Parens and Lori Knowles of the Hastings Center. Their analysis, published in 2003, called for evaluating the broad social consequences as well as the safety and efficacy of these biotechnologies.
The Abortion Divide
Another reason for progressive reluctance to regulate human biotechnologies is rooted in the enduring conflict over abortion rights. Despite long years of campaigning, the United States has yet to establish abortion as a human right grounded in support for women’s dignity and well-being, and in the considered belief that women’s freedom to decide whether to bear a child contributes to the kind of society we want to build. Instead, we have encouraged a public understanding of abortion rights as an issue of “choice,” which can too easily sound like a matter of utilitarian consumer preference. In the legal realm, we have relied on arguments for “privacy”–an all-too-fragile judicial reed that was, in fact, initially adopted by defenders of abortion rights as a tactical legal expedient.
During the Bush years, some reproductive-rights advocates became disturbingly libertarian in their assessments of even the most extreme reproductive technologies. A major national reproductive rights organization in fact came close to officially endorsing human reproductive cloning as an extension of women’s choice. The issue arrived on the formal agenda of Planned Parenthood Federation of America several years after the 1997 announcement of the birth of Dolly the cloned sheep had triggered speculation about the prospect of cloned human children. PPFA put in place a discussion process that was to result in adopting an organizational position on reproductive cloning.
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