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Flesh and Spirit - August 2010

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ENGINEERING LIFE
FEATURING EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH DISTINGUISHED
PROFESSOR GEORGE J. ANNAS

(William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor, Health Law, Bioethics & Human Rights - Boston University School of Public Health) 

Human, animal life and nature as our ancestors knew it, and as we know them, surely will have significantly changed by the time when the children of our children’s children start giving their first steps on this planet. And unless we begin to be truly aware of the decisions are taken, why they are taken, who are behind them and with what ultimate purposes, these changes may be far more terrifying than the plots that our science fiction can possibly imagine.
We are on a highway of genetic manipulation, cloning and molecular biotechnology, to the final destination of the engineering of life virtually from scratch.

Today, not at your local cinema but in real life, genetically engineered seeds are being promoted to farmers, we have already cloned animals and are, rapidly approaching, the manipulation of human embryos in order to design our progeny.

It would be profoundly unfair to say that all our medical, scientific and technical advancements in this area are being pursued for the sake of power, notoriety and economical gain. The fact is that most of our doctors, scientists and engineers choose their specialties and pour their lives into their research because they genuinely want to prevent and end with human suffering such as disease, physical pain, thirst, hunger, devastation, impediments, desolation and etc, etc.

Still, there are a few who love turning these advancements into profit-making schemes, and those few are, precisely, those who already work or don’t mind to work for those who are wealthy and powerful, thus tilting the balance dangerously toward destructive tendencies that ultimately affect us all.
We are all witnesses everyday of how easy and how rapidly these destructive tendencies spread.

Imagine if the agriculture of entire countries belonged to a handful of corporations.

Imagine if racism, classism, discrimination are multiplied instead of being finally eradicated.

Imagine if diversity was wiped out, instead.

Imagine if compassion, understanding, tolerance, surprise, discovery, exploration, learning, thrill, they all stopped making sense, disappeared of our dictionaries because they no longer applied.

Crossing a threshold that would forever change life as we know it, that would change many emotions as we know them, that would radically alter the human in us…this requires study by all experts, it requires in-depth information made available globally and ultimately, a consensus by a vast majority, worldwide.

We have the privilege and the honour to interview today a very reputed expert in the field of genetic engineering and its health, social and human rights implications.

Cofounder of Global Lawyers and Physicians, a transnational professional association of lawyers and physicians working together to promote human rights and health, Professor George J. Annas has degrees from Harvard College, Harvard Law School and Harvard School of Public Health, where he was a Joseph P. Kennedy Fellow in Medical Ethics. 

He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a member of the Institute of Medicine, co chair of the American Bar Association's Committee on Health Rights and Bioethics and a member of the Committee on Human Rights of the National Academies.

He is also author or editor of sixteen books on health law and bioethics, which include  American Bioethics: Crossing Human Rights and Health Law Boundaries (2005) and The Rights of Patients (3d ed. 2004). His most recent book is Worst Case Bioethics:  Death, Disaster, and Public Health (Oxford U. Press, 2010).

MDM:  Professor, thank you very much for taking the time to respond to our questions, we are honored. Would you please share with our readers what are your general views on genetic manipulation and biotechnology with regards to their application in Health?

PROFESSOR ANNAS:  Biotechnology is a worthwhile endeavour to the extent that it can improve the quality of human life and increase healthy lifespan.  This should be all of our expectation of the biotechnology project itself. And it should necessarily also be the goal of the major on-going biotechnology projects. Some that merit specific public attention and oversight include the current iteration of the human genome project – the dream of personalized medicine, organ and tissue transplantation, the development of artificial organs and tissues,  stem cell research for regenerative medicine, and perhaps most importantly, the development of effective vaccines to prevent disease, especially epidemic diseases like the annual flu and HIV/AIDS, as well as new diseases created in the laboratory for use as bio-weapons.

It has also become well-recognized that as a matter of equity and social justice, it is predictably de-stabilizing for society to foster the creation of new biotechnologies that are only affordable and available to a small percentage of the population. That is because this will inevitably deepen the gap between the rich and the poor in ways that are ultimately unsustainable and are inherently unjust.

MDM: What about with regards to their application in Agriculture and Food Supply?

PROFESSOR ANNAS: My own work has been focused on humans, including what kind of a world we are building for ourselves and our children.  This includes most relevantly for our discussion what experiments on humans (including, of course, children) are reasonable, and what level of social discussion and approval we should require before human experiments, including genetic experiments, are permitted.  Humans have rights and interests, plants and animals don’t. Nonetheless, to the extent that we try out our ideas about what we think might be appropriate to do to humans on animals, anyone concerned with the future of the human species should be concerned with the types of manipulations we permit and even encourage on animals.  For example, cloning (asexual reproduction) has not been (thankfully I think) performed in humans.  Nor did anyone seriously propose a human experiment until after Ian Wilmut successfully cloned a mammal,  creating Dolly the sheep.  Since then we have witnessed the cloning of a variety of animal species, and this has led at least some fringe groups to endorse the cloning of humans.  Perhaps we have simply been lucky that there is no real gain in cloning humans (because it can’t create anything better than what already exists, only a genetic duplicate), so that even the biotechnology industry came out strongly against human cloning shortly after Dolly was announced (as did Ian Wilmut himself)

MDM:  From your knowledge, how far are we into human genetic engineering?

PROFESSOR ANNAS: We are not terribly far along at all with humans, but as I have already suggested, work is continuing on animals that, if successful, will tempt at least some scientists to try it on humans. We have seen some stunning developments in primates announced just in the past year.  Japanese investigators reported on the world’s first successful germline modification of a primate, a New World marmoset. They inserted a foreign gene into the marmoset embryo (the gene coding for green florescent protein, or GFP) and produced marmosets that incorporated this gene into some of their tissues. This part had been done before.  What was novel is that sperm taken from one of the resulting marmosets was used to create a new embryo, which was gestated by a “surrogate mother” who gave birth to a transgenic marmoset—the first time a transgenically altered primate had been able to produce  an offspring that also exhibited an added gene. 

A second experiment involved  the transfer of the nuclear genetic material from an egg with defective mitochrondrial DNA into an egg with healthy mitochrondrial DNA, and the subsequent birth of healthy rhesus macaque monkeyswith three genetic parents (having  genes from the sperm, nucleus of one egg, and mithchrondrial DNA from another egg).  Predictably perhaps, an accompanying editorial in the issue of Nature in which this research was published suggested serious consideration to applying the technique to humans because “it has the potential to give more couples the chance of having healthy babies.”  The editorial also concluded that complete categorical bans on such technologies might simply “impede programs and encourage unethical practices.”  These experiments, although not as dramatic as Dolly the sheep in the public’s imagination, afford us an opportunity to re-open the public debate about what limits we should place on human genetic engineering.

MDM: What major implications do you think that human genetic engineering would have for the majority of people?

PROFESSOR ANNAS: That’s a great question, and of course there is some degree of speculation in the answer.  First, we need to be specific about what we mean by “human genetic engineering.”  Mostly we are discussing genetic engineering on existing human beings with medical problems and trying to solve them with genetic engineering involved in, for example, using embryonic stem cells to create new nerve tissue or new heart tissue.  Much more problematic  are the issues raised by germline genetic modifications (such as the novel gene introduced into the marmoset embryo) that can be inherited by offspring.  Almost every legitimate genetic researcher is categorically opposed to attempting this type of manipulation in a human. This is primarily because it would be an inherently dangerous experiment on the resulting child, and there is nothing we know at this point that could make it a safe experiment that a parent could legitimately consent to on behalf of the planned child. 

But there are other reasons to be concerned about inheritable genetic experiments as well. Either such genetic manipulation will produce “better” or even “super” babies, or it will not.  If it won’t work, it’s certainly not worth doing.  If, on the other hand, there is at least a remote possibility that it will produce what we could term “super babies” that in turn have their own similarly-endowed super-babies, then we are on the road to what I have termed “genetic genocide.”  This is because these new super humans—sometimes termed “trans-humans”—will ultimately see themselves (or we “normals” will see them) as a new species (or subspecies) of humans who have the moral right (or just the ability) to treat us normals as less than human.  And even if they do not, the normals may come to see the “supers” as such a threat to their own future as to justify killing them in self-defense.  One may, of course, find this scenario fanciful, and more science fiction (like H.G. Wells’ Time Machine) than science fact or possibility.  Nonetheless, the overall concern that creating a modified human could negatively impact on our concept of human rights remains. This is because  to the extent that our current concept of human rights is grounded in our current views of what it is to be human—and to be a member of the human species—changing the definition of human by changing fundamental human characteristics (such as the necessity of sexual reproduction, which would no longer be necessary, for example, with the introduction of human cloning), could provide new excuses for discrimination at best, and put the survival of the species itself at risk of extinction at worst.In a debate on this proposition a few years ago at Yale, my opponent stated in frustration, “I don’t care about the human species.”   I think we should.

MDM:  Can you foresee any involvement from human rights organizations in order to inform the general public and bring some control into current proceedings?

PROFESSOR ANNAS: The organizations most involved in attempting to inform the general public about biotechnology and the need for public input and oversight have not generally been the human rights organizations, but rather organizations more specialized in genetic education.  One reason I have used the genetic genocide scenario is to encourage human rights organizations—which are extremely concerned with preventing genocide—to broaden their horizons to future threats.  Of course, with real genocides continuing in the world, this is not an easy sell.  More direct education work is being done by NGOs such as the Council for Responsible Genetics (which I have worked with) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, whose name very well expresses its mission.  We need more such entities, as well as organizations that work specifically on influencing biotechnology corporations to take human rights seriously in their work.

MDM_ Would this be a political or health issue?

PROFESSOR ANNAS: It’s not really either/or.  Protecting the health of the citizenry, both nationally and globally, is a political obligation of governments.  Likewise, a healthy population is a pre-requisite to a healthy democracy.  On the other hand, an over-identification of the government or “body politic” with the health of the population can have devastating and deadly effects on individual lives, as National Socialism’s obsession with the superiority of Aryan blood lines and the biopolitics of the body so devastatingly demonstrated.  Governments are obligated to provide the conditions under which people can be healthy (one definition of “public health”), but should not have the power to require people to live up to some ideal of health imposed by government fiat.

MDM:  Professor Annas, which of your available publications would you recommend to our readers so they can access further information?

PROFESSOR ANNAS: Thanks for asking.  Most accessible, I think, is my latest book, Worst Case Bioethics:  Death, Disaster, and Public Health (Oxford, 2010), especially chapters 1 (“American Healthcare”), 13 (“Global Health”) and 17 (“Genetic Genocide”); and American Bioethics:  Crossing Human Rightsand Health Law Boundaries (Oxford, 2005), especially chapters 3 and 4 (“Man on the Moon” and “The Endangered Human”).

MDM: Thank you again for your time, your invaluable knowledge and expertise Professor. It’s been a pleasure and a privilege.

GET YOUR COPY OF "WORST CASE BIOETHICS" >>


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