Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Genetics in the Market-Place

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Genetics in the Market-Place

Article excerpt

The prospect of shopping for "spare part" organs and tissue confronts modern societies with acute ethical dilemmas

There have always been but few certainties in the world, and the most fundamental of them--life and death--are now being questioned by the scientific engineering of the last decade. As Andrew Kimbrell observed in his recent book, The Human Body Shop, "the engineering and marketing of life ... raises some of the most profound questions our society has ever had to answer: What is life? What does it mean to be human? Should we allow our scientists to become the genetic co-authors of evolution? How do we define death? Who determines what life is worth living? Do we want a 'free market' in human organs, tissues, genes--or children?"(1)

Genetic engineering not only raises fundamental questions about the meaning of life and death, it also challenges our notions of the life process. It spawns whole industries that seek to exploit every scientific advance made by this process. It challenges our notion of human rights.(2) It raises ethical and moral questions about using foetuses for "spare parts" for, as Andrew Kimbrell has written, "many experts feel that the current disapproval of 'growing foetuses' for medical use will be short-lived."

While philosophers and ethicists must, and will, continue to debate the morality of some aspects of genetic engineering, the fact is that the issues raised by biotechnology cry out for policies that establish the contours within which these scientific advances can legitimately occur.

We now know that the implications for the scientific community and for society of the discovery of the genome are nothing less than revolutionary. That this discovery is the culmination of many years of research does not lessen its impact or alter its unprecedented character. When scientific research advanced to the point of giving us the atomic and hydrogen bombs, the world marvelled, but only realized the full implications of these scientific discoveries after their dangers had become a fact of life. Should the development of the weapons of mass destruction--remarkable scientific discoveries in their own right--not be seen as a warning signal for us today where genetic engineering is concerned? Should we not react now, for the process is already well advanced? To ask these questions is to ask what role the state should take in orienting research and in regulating the diffusion of the discoveries of genetic engineering.

The role of the state

This is a matter of concern to the entire international community. It can no longer be regarded as a matter best left to scientists. Just as war is too important to be left to the generals, so life and death are too important to be left to the hazards of scientific discoveries.

Underlying the issue of the role of the state in scientific research are the questions of the responsibility of the scientific community and the "ownership" of scientific results. These are fundamentally ethical issues, and as such must be debated by society.

There are essentially two views regarding the role that the state should play in encouraging and regulating scientific research. The first holds that the state should in no way interfere in scientific research because science can only advance unfettered. Following from this premise, it is believed that:

* The state should remain a bystander where scientific research in general is concerned.

* The state should not seek to dictate the diffusion of scientific results. Scientists are the best judges of what results should be made available to the public. They are the owners of these results and discoveries.

* The state should not determine the direction of scientific research. By the same token, it should not seek to control the outcome of scientific discoveries. …

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