The recent announcement of breakthrough progress in mapping the human genome reminded me of a lecture on bioethics at Rice University I attended several years ago. It became clear to me then that our 27-year old war over abortion and the Roe v. Wade decision is just the tip of the iceberg compared to the ethical/moral dilemma we will certainly face as the genetic map reveals itself. In the May/June 1996 issue of Society magazine, Toby Huff describes genetic engineering as the fourth great scientific revolution, after the Copernican, the Darwinian, and the Freudian. In fact, the previous three upheavals in self understanding now seem to pale in comparison to the genetic possibilities that were formerly not only impossible but unimaginable. Man is now poised to alter the human genetic endowment—once thought to be irrevocably the purview of God. That means that increasingly what is “natural” is in doubt.
Peter Singer, who holds the chair in bioethics at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values, says we need a newly defined ethic, because the old one of the sanctity of human life based upon man created in God’s image has collapsed. This brand of opinion leadership in the bioethics community is fairly widespread. In order to have influence in this community, one must subscribe to the paradigm—those whose advocacy is rooted in religion and the Judeo-Christian ethic are usually ignored. According to Wesley J. Smith in his The Culture of Death, mainstream bioethics reached a consensus long ago that religious values are divisive in a pluralistic society and thus have little place in the formulation of public policy. As we grapple with the bioethical issues that unfold, we should be mindful that an era of genetic manipulation is upon us and many agendas will be at work. We should pay careful attention to those who would make public policy and remember that, as Horace Busby cautioned me many years ago, government is never a benign institution, that the purposes of those close to power and authority are never, innocently, to be trusted.
The belief that human behavior could be shaped by social engineering has had terrible consequences, particularly during the past century. The institutions of our liberal democratic order are based on the realities of human nature. As George Will has so eloquently put it, “If we treat moral scruples impatiently, as inherently retrograde in a scientifically advancing civilization, we will not be in moral trim when, soon, our very humanity will depend on it.”
A final point: It has been suggested by some, including Jeremy Rifkin, that the human gene pool and related intellectual property be held in trust as a “commons” for all mankind. I disagree in two respects—one, my genes are mine, they don’t belong to the state or the United Nations, and two, excluding the genes and the sequence itself, we must allow incentives and protection for private property rights for the proper future development of the spin-off intellectual property.