TCS Daily

Biotechnology and the State

By Lene Johansen - July 21, 2004 12:00 AM

Back in 1992, when Norway first adopted its current biotechnology law, nobody cared much about the issue except the Christian Democrats. They pushed through legislation that bans donation of human eggs, research on human embryos and pre-implant diagnostics of eggs and embryos with a few exceptions. The exceptions are restrictive and a dispensation has to be given by the Secretary of Health after a deliberation in the Bioethics council. Until recent reorganizations of the Norwegian cabinet, the Secretary of Health was a Christian Democrat with few inclinations to provide dispensations.

The law has been amended almost annually since that time to keep up with technological development. Although traditional pro-life arguments motivated the Christian Democrats to initiate this restrictive practice, the broad consensus supporting their policy was built on the argument, "We do not want a selection society. Everybody should have room in our society." Nobody questioned this philosophy; it is thoroughly rooted in Norwegian culture through a mix of altruist ethics, liberal individualism and middle class homogeneity.

That was until this past March. TV2 broke a story about a 6-year-old boy with thalassemia that could be cured by getting gene therapy with stem cells from a close relative. The doctors want to use the blood from the umbilical cord of a yet un-conceived sibling, but the parents do not want to risk having another child with the same disease. The problem is that the pre-implant diagnostics to sort out the eggs that are carrying the thalassemia genes are prohibited in Norway.

Suddenly people started caring about biotechnology. Petitions were circulated both online and offline. Enraged bloggers called the secretary a murderer. The Labor party and the Progress party started measures to get changes to the law passed with a guarantee that this was going to be done in a week. And the secretary started arguing for a course of treatment that the child's doctor says is irresponsible and the appropriate specialist advisory boards have rejected repeatedly.

The verdict became embroiled in political play. The secretary sent the decision on granting exceptions to his council; the Socialist party, which was the swing vote on the issue, wanted to wait for the council's decision; and the boy's parents were despairing. The paradoxical thing here is that they can get pregnant the natural way, and because they are carriers of a serious genetic disease they can receive fetus diagnostics and abort the fetus as late as 21 weeks into the pregnancy if it carries the disease. So what lesson can we learn from the way Norwegian politicians played the game of life and death with this little boy?

We must decide who should be the final arbiter when it comes to use of biotechnology. Is it the government or is it the individual? Most western societies will default to the government, as Norway has. But this is a decision that should not be made by default.

The US is one of the few countries in the Western world where parents have mounted a counter attack on the progressive doctrine of community raised children through the home-schooling movement. If we recognize an individual's right to make decisions about his or her own life and property, there is no reason the government should be involved in decisions on personal use of biotechnology.

It is imperative that we shift our society back to emphasizing individual responsibility and individual choice. We lost this basic premise on our ride through totalitarianism in the 20th century. A society that leaves use of biotechnology up to the individual will not lead to a community of "ubermenchen" as the opponents claim. Our history has shown us that a society that leaves it to the government will.

The proponents of government regulation have already mounted their battle stations. They have even made their first decisive strikes, like the Christian Democrats in Norway, and the unceremonious replacement of non-faithful members in the President's Council on Bioethics only two years into their term. The big question is if the community of individual rights advocates will get the point before the battle is lost.

The author is director of US operations for the Swedish think tank, Eudoxa.


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