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Pacific Ecologist

Will New Zealand Be The Liberia Of Human Modification?

While other countries are banning inheritable genetic modification of humans, the New Zealand government is considering its options. DENYS TRUSSELL reports.

20th century eugenic horrors

Eugenics as a social practice was not limited to the Third Reich in Germany between 1933-45. It was a widespread, aggressively pursued series of social goals in several developed countries. Possibly it was pursued most in the United States, ostensibly a democracy. The odious race and eugenics laws of the Third Reich - for example - the 1933 "Law on Preventing Hereditarily Ill Progeny" - were not just the inventions of Nazi jurisprudence. They were the outcome of a eugenics culture that was international and focussed particularly in the US and Nazi Germany. Co-operation and mutual admiration between the scientific/eugenic establishments of these states did not cease, officially until World War Two began. In the post-war period, American eugenics continued to exist in the US, discreetly and often on a racial basis.

It functions still with the additional powers of intrusion into human life conferred by the crude techniques we now have of genetic transfer and insertion into the human genome. A careful study of the highly questionable ethics of eugenics in the USA up to the 1990s, and of the survival within it of racist and super-race concepts, is provided by the concise work of Stefan Kuhl - The Nazi Connection. Eugenics, American Racism and German National Socialism, New York, Oxford Press, 1994. The continuity of racist eugenics in the US during the last half of the 20th century, is reviewed in Kuhl's chapter, The New Scientific Racism (pp3-11). He describes a culture in some US academic institutions. "The late 1980s witnessed a revival of public interest in scientific racism in North American campuses." (p3) This is a culture in which there has emerged a techno-eugenic grouping who deny having the ambitions of Nazi eugenics, but who have nonetheless promoted the essentially Nazi ideas of a genetic under-class and a genetic elite. The Untermenschen and Ubermenschen of Nazi race theory emerge in the late nineties and the beginnings of the 21st century as the Gen-Rich and the Naturals in Dr Lee Silver's crackpot but dangerous essay, Remaking Eden. How Cloning and Beyond will Change the Human Family.

Silver's eugenic ramblings are corroborated in other publications that have appeared in the United States in the past decade and a half. Gregory Stock's absurd Metaman. The Merging of Humans and Machines into a Global Super-organism, New York: Simon and Shuster, 1993 and Professor Joseph Fletcher's The Ethics of Human Genetic Control: Ending Reproductive Roulette, New York: Prometheus Books, 1988, are cases in point. And in 1991, Dr Roger Pearson's Race, Intelligence and Bias in Academe revisited the old song sung by eugenics: that innate intelligence may be racially based.

These highly questionable texts are not marginalized publications. They have had a credible life as books and some are in our public and medical school libraries. Nor are their authors obscure cranks in provincial universities. They are senior academics at prestigious American academies and institutions. Pearson has been the director of the Council for Social and Economic Studies in Washington. Gregory Stock is a biologist at UCLA and Lee Silver is a professor of molecular biology at Princeton.

On May 20th 1998, some members of this loose, techno-eugenic fraternity participated in a symposium at UCLA called Engineering the Human Genome. Here, the pros and cons of germ-line engineering were discussed in a series of papers. The assumption that such engineering might be an option in the human future and might be scientifically plausible underlay the views of many participants. Such views have been enthusiastically endorsed by James Watson, who won the Nobel Prize for his part in developing the hypothesis about the double helical structure of DNA. He asks in the book Engineering the Human Germline: An exploration of the Science and Ethics of Altering the Genes We pass Onto our Children:2

"If we could make better human beings by knowing how to add genes, why shouldn't we? What's wrong with it?"

The moral oblivion in which Watson appears to live is shared by the medical ethicist, Fletcher (see above) when he wonders on page 173 of his book whether it might not be useful to create a hybrid species by the mating of apes and humans - a species that could form an underclass in society, prepared to carry out the menial tasks that he believes human beings deeply resent doing.

The New Zealand legislation

What have these puerile and dangerous fantasies got to do with New Zealand? The April 2003 proposed amendment to the Human Assisted Reproductive Technology Bill,1 as far as I can see, has not a single mention of the word "eugenics." Yet it provides a framework in which research and experiments that I would describe as eugenic can take place. This may seem paradoxical, since the impression created during the long wait for this legislation to come before a select committee is that it would expressly forbid eugenic practices and gratuitous experimentation with the living materials of human beings. That impression appears now to be false.

The Bill is essentially about regulating, cloning, genetic engineering and hybridisations involving human materials in the context of human reproduction. It is not about forbidding these things.

As to whether any of these actions would be forbidden - that is left to decisions made on a case-by-case basis by ethics committees, an advisory committee and the Minister of Health. Dr Frankenstein would have found in the regulatory regime posed in this Bill, ample opportunity to argue for the creation of his monster. No option is prevented because of its being intrinsically obnoxious or, from a scientific perspective, intrinsically dangerous. All that appears to have happened is that the state has stepped in and insisted on having the role of regulator. It is therefore not a fully accurate description of the Bill to say under its "Purposes" that one of its aims is: "to prohibit unacceptable assisted reproductive procedures and unacceptable human reproductive research."

The Bill makes all procedures and research negotiable and explicitly withdraws earlier prohibitions on: "germ-line genetic modification, sex selection, mandatory genetic screening, the use of eggs from foetuses and non-reproductive cloning.

It allows applications for these activities to be reviewed only by specialist committees and the Minister. No opportunity for comment by a wider public exists. In other words, an experiment that might for all time change the human genome by a transgenesis carried out in New Zealand would be subject to less public criticism, than transgenic experiments on plants and animals. These at least have to be reviewed by the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA), a process that allows some opportunity for public comment. It seems bizarre that, in this country, the integrity of human genetic structure should be subject to less public comment than the genetic structure of plant and animal species.

Crime against humanity - altering human genome

This is totally unacceptable. The legislation must restore the prohibitions it removed. Heritable modification of the human germline, mandatory genetic screening, the use of eggs from foetuses etc - are morally odious in almost all circumstances and uses one could possibly imagine. Transgenic manipulation of the human genome, involving the placement in it of genetic constructs of other species which allows the heredity transmission of the novel genomic construct, must be defined as a criminal act in this legislation and carry severe penalties.

The reproductive cloning of human beings and the transgenic alteration of the human germ-line must be defined as crimes against humanity under international law. The New Zealand Bill now under consideration presents an opportunity for such acts to be defined as criminal acts at least in the limits of our own jurisdiction. Aotearoa should join the growing community of nations moving in the direction of establishing a body of international law criminalizing human germ-line modification, for example, the Council of Europe's Convention on Human Rights and Dignity with Regard to Biomedicine (1998) Article 13 of this Convention states:

"An intervention seeking to modify the human genome may only be undertaken for preventive, diagnostic or therapeutic purposes and only if its aim is not to introduce any modification in the genome of any descendants."
This convention, by October 2002, had been signed by 31 states in the Council of Europe. Many other countries, including two that are culturally and linguistically close to ourselves - Australia and the United Kingdom, have passed laws that directly or indirectly forbid inheritable genetic modification of humans.

Notable also is the action of United Nations agencies. In 1999, the World Health Organisation held a Consultation on Ethical Issues in Genetics, Cloning and Biotechnology. Its ensuing report, Medical Genetics and Bio-technology, Implications for Public Health, was explicit in calling for a global ban on inheritable modifications to human beings.

Ethical problems

An underlying assumption of the legislation is that a human being has an inalienable right to reproduction, even if that involves reducing the biological processes involved to virtually industrialised artefacts. While biological reproduction should be a widely protected right in human societies, with all appropriate care given to ensure the welfare of mothers and offspring - should reproduction be at virtually any cost?

Three factors have emerged during the 20th century that make such a right no longer an ethical universal. One is the population explosion of homo sapiens; the second is the development of techniques of intrusion into the human genome, which expose that genome to the malfunctions associated with the discredited theory of genetic determinism. The third is the ulterior motives involved in obtaining access to biological entities such as human eggs and embryos. These motivations include openly eugenic ones to "improve" the human species and venal, commercial ones to gain exclusive rights over procedures and biological materials by patent.

The right of anyone who discovers themselves infertile, to have by some grotesque manipulation of their germ cells and/or nucleic acids, a "biological" child, should not be seen as an inalienable one in this era, when the world is full of unwanted children desperately needing good adoptive parents and when the population of homo sapiens is far in excess of the earth's long-term carrying capacity. The right to reproduction is not so absolute as to allow in some instances procedures involving cloning and germ-line genetic engineering.

At stake, species integrity

There is a higher ethic at issue: the integrity of species identity and the order of nature, whether designed by divine intent, evolutionary processes, or a combination of both. Evolution, the array of secondary causes (so described by Darwin) that brought about human beings and other species, depends on the stability of species identity. Changes to that identity proceed slowly by processes such as natural selection and auto-poiesis, whose ultimate workings are far from being understood. Given the size of the biological stakes: namely the intra-specific stability of the planet's ecosystems, an individual's right to have a child by processes that are inherently dangerous to species identity is massively outweighed by the need to maintain the critical order of nature.

In this legislation, ethics committees are given considerable powers. This should be reassuring, but it is not. Firstly, these committees must work within guidelines imposed by an "advisory" committee. We may guess that such guidelines would be pragmatic and unlikely to provide much room for decisions based on fundamental questions of morality and ecosystem stability.

Secondly, the integrity of ethics committees is compromised in this legislation by the Minister of Health being given powers arbitrarily to designate any committee as an ethics committee. It is conceivable that a committee indifferent to the moral, ecological and scientific questions posed by medical bio-technology could find itself required to rule on these questions as a result of a ministerial whim. If we do have ethics committees, the legislation should provide for their being properly constituted as such with provision for significant public input into who sits on them. They should be largely elective.

Even with safeguards such as these, real problems remain with ethics committees. Our culture is so overwhelmingly pragmatic, so steeped in the traditions of philosophical empiricism, that it would be a bold ethics committee to stand in the way of "progress" by voting consistently against morally repugnant experiments and procedures. We are steeped in "can-do" ethics. If it can be done, the belief goes, it almost certainly should be done. The current review of ERMA notes a reluctance on the part of that organisation to consider the option of not doing something that has been proposed.

The "can-do" ethic has ruled our history, our industrial development and our consumer aspirations. There will be overwhelming pressure from such an ethic in regard to allowing a wide range of reproductive experiments and procedures. Needless to say, "can-do" ethics are not ethics at all. They involve no fundamental moral principles and are neutral in regard to consequence. It is worrying that ethics committees - working in the hermetically sealed, regulatory environment provided by this Bill, where the Minister plays the role of God and has no need even to refer to colleagues in caucus or cabinet - will be dominated by a "can-do" culture of pseudo-scientific pragmatism.

Scientific problems

In withdrawing the prohibition on germ-line genetic engineering, this Bill supports the underlying assumption that such a technology actually works and is based on accurate and up-to-date science. A second assumption is implicit also: that organisms are genetically determined - that is - the information required for their reproduction and development is carried and controlled by nucleotide sequences called "genes." This is now discredited science. It is known that phenotypic and cytoplasmic elements play a significant controlling role in determining what "genes" do with their information and when that information is used in the heredity and development processes. It is further known that the multi-functionality of "genes" in homo sapiens is far greater than was originally believed. The so-called pleiotropic behaviour of "genes" ensures that no single nucleotide sequence can be placed in a genome of another species with the confidence that such a placement will have only one discrete outcome.

The problem became clear with the publication of the human genome project in February 2001. This event put paid to the theory that there might generally be a one-to-one correspondence between a "gene" and the trait it is meant to determine. Homo sapiens, it was revealed, had about 30,000 nucleotide sequences that might be designated in any active sense as "genes." Yet estimates of the number of proteins in homo sapiens are between 100,000 and 220,000. Thus it would not be generally true that any one nucleotide sequence would orchestrate or be involved in the folding of just one protein. Multi-functionality of the sequence would be far more common.

With uncertainties of this magnitude, the very suggestion that it might be a scientifically legitimate exercise to introduce foreign nucleic acid sequences into the genome of homo sapiens, becomes criminally irresponsible. For this reason alone, germ-line engineering of our species should be forbidden.

Allows huge, hidden biological experiment

The Bill sets up an approval and amendment process that is effectively sealed off from review by the general public, by the caucus of the governing party, or by parliament. Further, it allows existing research on cloning and germ-line engineering to continue as if new legislation does not exist. This could mean that some of the better disciplines introduced by the Bill, such as those proscribing the trafficking of human biological material, will not apply to experiments and researchers already involved in projects in the field of human reproduction. The Bill also has a control Clause, which provides for midstream changes in the conduct of research and procedures in the field of human assisted reproduction. These changes may be carried out by order-in-council and would not be subject to parliamentary scrutiny.

These arrangements are obnoxious. They effectively allow the most dangerous intrusion into the biological functioning and biological identity of the human species, ever contemplated, to remain out of sight of most citizens in this particular population of homo sapiens. We must have wide public scrutiny of applications for such experiments and research and full dissemination of information regarding these activities.

Dr Denys Trussell, poet, enviromentalist and classical pianist lives in Auckland. He is a founding member of Friends of the Earth, NZ.


[1] Supplementary Order Paper, 29 April 2003, amendment of The Human Assisted Reproductive Technology Bill.

[2] Engineering the Human Germline: An exploration of the Science and Ethics of Altering the Genes We pass Onto our Children (Stock and Campbell eds, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000)

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