What Human Genetic Modification Means for Women: Supporters of the New Eugenics Want It Framed as an Issue of "Choice." but Feminists Know We Can Support Abortion Rights and Still Oppose Eugenics. (the Risks of the Rush)

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Supporters of the new eugenics want it trained as an issue of "choice." But feminists know we can support abortion rights and still oppose eugenics.

Seduced by the medical promises of genetic science or fearful of losing reproductive autonomy, many feminists have been slow to oppose human genetic engineering. But GE is a threat to women, and in the broadest sense a feminist issue. Here's why.

If anyone should be wary of medical techniques to "improve" ordinary reproduction--as GE purports to do--it's women. History is full of such "progress," and its grave results. When limbless babies were born to mothers who took thalidomide, the drug was recalled. But the deadly results of another "pregnancy-enhancing" drug, DES, showed up only years later, as cancer in the daughters of DES mothers. The high-estrogen Pill was tested first on uninformed Puerto Rican mothers, some of whom may have died from it.

Today's fertility industry takes in $4 billion a year, even though in-vitro fertilization (IVF) succeeds in only 3 of 10 cases. Virtually unregulated and highly competitive, these fertility doctors often undertake experimental treatments. Recently, the Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Science at New Jersey's St. Barnabas Medical Center announced the success of a new fertility "therapy" called cytoplasmic transfer, in which some of the cellular material outside the nucleus of one woman's egg is transferred into the egg of another woman who is having difficulty sustaining embryo survival. The transferred cytoplasm contains mitochondria (organelles that produce energy for the cell), which have a small number of their own genes. So the embryo produced with cytoplasmic transfer can end up with two genetic mothers. This mixing, called "mitochondrial hetroplasmy," can cause life-threatening symptoms that don't show up until later in life. When the Public Broadcasting Service's Nova enthusiastically reported o n the procedure, complete with footage of its cute outcome, Katy, it mentioned no risks.

Didn't these patients give informed consent? Yes and no. Most read warnings and signed their names. But with genetic therapies there's no such thing as "informed," says Judy Norsigian of the Boston Women's Health Collective, "because the risks can't be known." Adds biologist Ruth Hubbard, the deadliness of DES was discovered "only because it showed itself in an otherwise very rare condition. If the effects [of human genetic engineering] are delayed, and if they are not associated with a particularly unusual pathology, it could take quite a long time to find out." Or indeed, "we might never know."


Scottish biologist Ian Wilmut, the "father" of the famously first-cloned sheep Dolly, provided these statistics in 2001: Of the 31,007 sheep, mice, pig, and other mammal eggs that had undergone somatic cell nuclear transfer (cloning), 9,391 viable embryos resulted. From those embryos came 267 live-born offspring. In these animals, The New York Times reported, "random errors" were ubiquitous--including fatal heart and lung defects, malfunctioning immune systems, and grotesque obesity. In all, "fewer than 3 percent of all cloning efforts succeed." Dolly may be a victim of accelerated aging, another problem in cloned animals. In January, it was reported that she has arthritis, at the unusually early age of five and a half. Mothers of clones are endangered too, since their bodies have trouble supporting the abnormally large fetuses that cloning often produces.

It's likely that scientists will get better at cloning animals, and at the more complex procedures required to produce inheritable genetic alterations. Then, as health activists quip, if it works on a mouse, they will try it on a woman. The problem, warns Stuart Newman, a cell biologist at New York Medical College in Valhalla, is that if it works on a mouse, it is likely not to work on a woman: "Every species presents a new set of problems. …