Bioethics: Toughest Policy Calls of Era

By Francine Kiefer writer of the Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, August 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

Bioethics: Toughest Policy Calls of Era


Francine Kiefer writer of the Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Today, it's stem-cell research. But wait until tomorrow.

Scientists and lawmakers say a host of difficult biomedical issues are heading in the direction of Washington, toward a government ill-equipped to deal with them. The issues revolve primarily around genetic research, and raise challenging questions about equal access, patient privacy, and, most importantly - and ominously - human identity.

Just as former President Truman had to grapple with the implications of splitting the atom more than 50 years ago, so President Bush has had to weigh the promise and danger of unlocking the human cell. Stem-cell research, however, is just one small piece of what lies ahead, and Congress, too, will play a key role in the decisions.

Sen. Bill Frist (R) of Tennessee calls biomedical ethics "the" issue for lawmakers in this age. But "we are ill-equipped in Congress to make these decisions," says the senator, a former surgeon who is influential on health issues.

At a recent breakfast with reporters, the senator named several areas in need of government oversight, all having to do with genetic research. They include tests to find out whether people are predisposed to certain diseases, which raises some of the most fundamental privacy concerns.

Senate majority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota says he wants to make legislation regulating the dissemination of a person's genetic makeup "one of my highest priorities."

Mr. Bush recently came out in favor of laws that would prevent employers or insurance companies from discriminating against people because of their genetic makeup, but the issue has been stuck in the House for five years.

Perhaps more futuristic sounding, but in fact not so distant, are genetic treatments that would prevent and possibly cure disease, in part by permanently altering a person's genetic code.

That gets into tricky issues of cost and who could afford access to such treatments, as well as basic questions of identity, says Laurie Zoloth, a bioethicist at San Francisco State University and president of the American Society of Bioethics and Humanities.

Just to make things more complicated, Ms. Zoloth says, genetics is converging with two other technologies: artificial intelligence and so-called nanotechnology. Potentially, she says, minute chips could be inserted in the human body that could monitor biochemical reactions in the blood and send warnings back to a monitoring station.

That could work for something as innocent as cholesterol. But it could also be used to monitor human behavior, which raises questions of the "whole conceptualization of the self," she says. …

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