TCS Daily


Threats or Opportunities?

By Waldemar Ingdahl - January 23, 2003 12:00 AM

The Raelian cloning project looks increasingly like a hoax (because of the group's failure to produce proof) and we still are waiting for Severino Antinori and Panos Zavos to produce results for their projects, but the advent of human cloning has nevertheless spurred a new intensity in the bioethics debate.

The great progress in genetics and biotechnology in recent years has shown that we are getting closer to being able to change the human body in manners previously unimaginable.

Last November, the Danish Council on Ethics arranged the "Bioforum" conference in Copenhagen, where scientists and bioethicists from Denmark, Norway and Sweden discussed and confirmed the increased urgency of these issues. Most of the speakers acknowledged that the developments have to be discussed in terms not just of technology but also of culture and philosophy. The debate cannot be separated from any of these elements.

The whole issue arouses controversy since it touches on our innermost views on human nature, how humans should live, and their relation to society. Many perceive the possibility of bio-modifications of the human condition as a threat. But the debate also offers good opportunities: to question previously self-evident assumptions, as well as a new freedom to give alternative answers to questions on human nature, individuality, and society.

Some of the criticism that is directed against genetic modification and cloning is based on a seeming contradiction: on the one hand, that these technologies are unlikely or unfeasible, and, on the other, that they undesirable and must be regulated. If it was the case that human cloning were impossible the whole debate would be of only theoretical value, and demands for regulation would be irrelevant. Other critics call for strict regulations or bans precisely because they believe in the power and potential of genetics and biotechnology.

At the "Bioforum" event the criticism was often combined with demands for harsh regulations. This either means that the potential for these emerging technologies is very real indeed, or that even the possibility they could be realized creates such social disruptions that regulation is necessary.

But in the latter case, regulations can hardly prevent the perceived negative social consequences stemming from, for instance, the knowledge that certain human attributes are genetically foreordained and that an individual's genetic code can be copied. It is more fruitful to the debate to assume that some enhancing technologies (if not cloning) will be developed, and then study their positive and negative effects.

A possible description of human nature that was advanced at "Bioforum" - one that harmonizes both with today's scientific opinions and a humanist outlook - is one that acknowledges its ability to change. If we have the right to our own bodies, we have the right to modify ourselves if we so choose.

This acknowledgment offers the opportunity to build institutions in order to make genetics and cloning safer. This could take many forms besides just direct control: genetic insurance; regulation of specific malpractices (instead of generally banning it, with the present race between the US and the EU on who can apply the harshest ban); genetic counselling, organisations for quality control.

Instead of demanding a global ban on cloning or genetic modification in humans - and thus imposing strong regulations long before we really understand the potential problems - we need more flexibility.

The advent of human cloning certainly kicked the genetics debate into gear at the "Bioforum" in Copenhagen. Recent events accentuate the possibilities for human development that seem within reach: longer, healthier lives over which we have more influence.
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