Gene splicing: not how but whether

''We are rapidly moving into a new era of fundamental danger triggered by the rapid growth of genetic engineering. Albeit, there may be opportunity for doing good; the very term suggests the danger. Who shall determine how human good is best served when new life forms are being engineered? Who shall control genetic experimentation and its results which could have untold implications for human survival? Who will benefit and who will bear any adverse consequences, directly or indirectly?

''These are not ordinary questions. These are moral, ethical, and religious questions. They deal with the fundamental nature of human life and the dignity and worth of the individual human being.''m

This statement was sent to the White House two years ago by the National Council of Churches, the Synagogue Council of America, and the US Catholic Conference.

In response to their grave concern President Carter created a commission in 1980 to study the potential consequences of this revolutionary and burgeoning field of scientific research and technology which makes possible the manipulation of the genetic material of all living things, including humans. The commission's report was released in November 1982 and served as a basis for recent hearings held by the House Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight of the Committee on Science and Technology.

Testimony was primarily concerned with the moral and ethical implications of human genetic engineering, but the emphasis, which I found disturbing, seemed to be not on whetherm but on howm we should proceed. The usual enthusiasm for potential benefits tended to mask the far-flung consequences of manipulating the very stuff of human life, and the comforting thought was frequently expressed that cautious application of the technology will avoid any untoward results.

But caution is a concept that means different things to different people. The way we are currently handling other technological problems does not inspire confidence in dealing with such a scientifically and socially complex issue as human engineering.

Late in the 20th century we face a series of threatening conditions: water and air pollution by industrial products and wastes, accelerating soil erosion and desertification, exhaustion of renewable resources such as water and forests faster than they can be replenished, the ''greenhouse'' effect, acid rain, ozone depletion, species extinction, depletion of mineral resources, excessive population growth, malnutrition - not to mention the nuclear arms race. These are not separate problems; all are interrelated, and in the long run they are exacerbated by the fact that solutions are sought on an individual basis, with no regard for the conequences that any given ''solution'' might have for the other members of the set. Without a full appreciation of the interdependence of living things and their interactions with nonliving components of the environment we are bound to continue to take two steps backward for every step forward.

The complexity of the environmental relationships is rivaled by the complexity of the human body, with its 10,000 billion cells in which reside about 100,000 genes that interact in numerous and largely unknown ways. Scientists have only just begun to decode the maze, yet they are about to embark on the manipulation of human genes before knowing how the pieces work and fit together. One might ask whether, even if human genetics and ecological relationships were fully understood, human beings who are themselves the product of the present order of nature could generate the fullness of vision needed to redesign a better system.

The first promise of human gene therapy - that of curing genetic diseases - has yet to be realized, but the report of the presidential commission shows that this aim has already been superseded in scientific circles by the more intrusive goal of curing the defect in the germ line (reproductive cells) so that the offspring as well as the individual will not carry the defect. The development of techniques for altering the germ line paves the way for all types of genetic intervention in humans.

With this power at our disposal the Faustian bargain will have been struck. Who will decide in the future the difference between ''defect correction'' and ''enhancement''? With the concept of aid for victims of genetic disease in our minds we may soon find ourselves on the doorstep of eugenics, heading for the development of a more ''desirable'' human race.

''Desirable'' to whom? Not only is there a moral question here but there is also a logical flaw. Can we present humans decide now on the needs and desires of future humans who may be living in a different physical and cultural environment? May not our notion of ''desirable'' be irrelevant for future generations?

What's to be done? Recent animal experiments, coupled with the success of human fertilization in the test tube, demonstrate that we already have the capability for the genetic engineering of human embryos. Since present and future generations have a vital stake in what becomes of this technology, the public must take part in the decisionmaking process. The House subcommitee hearings and the report of the presidential commission have helped to publicize the issues. It is encouraging that congressman Albert Gore plans to introduce legislation creating a national commission to continue the study of the ethical and social implications of genetic engineering.

But public oversight is bound to be ineffectual in the absence of an overt change in public values. In the technologically oriented culture of today it is difficult if not impossible to exercise caution once a technology has been developed. We need to create an intelligent and informed polity with a clear awareness of what science and technology can and cannot do for human needs. Perhaps then we will recognize the relatedness of the pressing environmental and health problems that now face us and will reorder our priorities toward treating the underlying causes and not the symptoms. Not every technology can help us to do this; we must choose the right ones. Rearranging our genes is not likely to provide the solutions we so desperately need.

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