Genentic Engineering. Scientists are growing more adept at shifting genes from one plant or animal to another. As their skill sharpens, so will its effect on people's lives -- from having children to getting a job. This is raising some basic ethical, religious, and legal questions.
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Robert A. Fildes, chief executive officer of the Cetus Corporation, a major independent biotechnology company, praised recently issued Reagan administration biotechnology guidelines, because they go ``one step further in defining what is the correct way and the right agency to go to for gaining regulatory approval of products.''Skip to next paragraph
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Gerry J. Elman, an industry lawyer who edits the bimonthly Biotechnology Law Review, also sees the need for caution in genetic development. But he stresses the long-range benefits of the new technology -- ``health, safety, convenience, comfort.''
He adds that this type of progress, which could potentially save millions of lives and feed the hungry around the world, should not be hampered by undue legislative and legal restrictions.
Some critics, however, insist that it is impossible to assess trade-offs, because no meaningful risk and liability assessments have been made for genetic experiments. Jeremy Rifkin of the Foundation on Economic Trends warns that a genetic accident could be far more disastrous than even a nuclear mishap. ``The future of civilization is at stake,'' he says.
David Baltimore, Nobel prize winner in physiology and medicine and director of the Massachusetts-based Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, has said that ``it's up to society to use science intelligently.''
``Scientists can play a major role in interpreting and explaining their results,'' Dr. Baltimore wrote in U.S. News & World Report, ``but in the end we have to live with the fact that we can create things that will have consequences that are very unpleasant to us. That's the chance we take.'' What are the social effects?
Those consequences aren't limited to physical changes in people or the environment. They also include consequences for society. For example, medical specialists' growing ability to predict a person's health and life expectancy through genetic analysis is raising serious questions as to how this information should be used.
Labor unions point out that pre-hiring biological tests of prospective employees could lead to job discrimination. For example, a person may be passed over for a position if his genes suggest the likelihood of a future illness which, although not job-related, might be deemed potentially expensive for the company in terms of health benefits and sick time.
Michael Baram of the Boston University School of Medicine, who has been studying the effects of biological testing in the workplace, says that company physicians in the US face an ethical dilemma: Are they advocates for the patient, for the company that employs them, or both? In Europe, occupational physicians have a clear, primary responsibility to the patient.
The American Bar Association's Human Rights Journal suggests that employee privacy might be assured by guaranteeing patients access to their own medical records and by adopting a doctor-patient role closer to the European model.
Such issues, says Sheldon Krimsky, professor of urban and enivornmental policy at Tufts University, in Medford, Mass., are worth a thorough public airing. A national conference is in the works for November that will focus on how genetic research can best be used to benefit the public.
Professor Krimsky, a member of a professorial watchdog Committee for Responsible Genetics, points out that too often business and professional scholars ``submerge values in technological jargon.''
He raises these ethical questions, among others: Should society be increasing its dependence on chemicals in agriculture? Such may be the case if crop strains can be genetically tailored to resist the effects of some pesticides and herbicides. And, he asks, what limits should be placed on human genetic engineering?