Ethics of Applied Genetics Is Society's Call, Not Science's

IN the late 1980s and now the '90s, nuclear power's place in discussions of ethics and science has been taken by human biology, particularly genetics. The debate has grown quite vigorous and is likely to get more so in the coming decade.

This is as it should be. The science of molecular biology and the clinical technology that it engenders go to the heart of what it means to be a human being. As a result, it is the science-and-society paradigm for the '90s and perhaps beyond. Much of what we feel about science as a whole will be determined by how we feel about the new science of human biology.

It is therefore important to set the ground rules for the debate. One of them should be to separate the science from the social issues, to recognize that scientific questions will be determined by data, theoretical argument, and experimentation, and that the social ones must be decided by active public debate that ultimately will achieve a social consensus.

This is not an argument for any and all experimentation at all costs. Far from it. Society may decide to ban many experiments, either because the experiment itself is morally objectionable - such as unrestrained research on human subjects - or because its results hardly seem worth the effort and at the same time raise serious moral and political issues, such as research to discover the ``violence gene.'' (The same aggressiveness that we decry in a criminal we consider an asset in a football player.)

A great deal of discussion is under way about the influence of genetic structure on human behavior, disease, and life span, to name a few examples. And although everyone seems to be discussing it (and indeed, everyone should), it should be clear that the answers are going to come from science, not politics.

There is also a great deal of discussion about the desirability of certain kinds of research or the clinical applications of that research. The ethical implications of some of this work are profound and should be discussed by scientists and lay people alike. But it should be clear that these issues are not scientific, and cannot be decided by more experimentation.

No amount of scientific data can tell us whether it is ethically right to clone a human embryo or to intervene in the genome to cure a genetic disease. Science cannot tell us whether transgenic babies are morally acceptable; it can and should tell us about the risks of inadvertent harm.

We can and should demand much of science. However, we cannot absolve ourselves of the twin responsibilities of knowing what science can tell us about an issue and then taking upon ourselves the task of making the ethical and political decisions that this knowledge demands. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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