Rights of gene-altered kids, clones spill from TV plot - to reality

A new television series on CBS, "Century City," portrays the challenges facing lawyers in the year 2030: criminal cases about human cloning, malpractice cases about genetic testing, and domestic disputes over uploading an ex-lover's personality into electronic appliances.

While the plots sound like outrageous flights of fancy, they resemble current legal controversies and highlight the need for action now to regulate our Brave New World.

I've seen firsthand the far-reaching impacts of new technologies. When Dolly the sheep was cloned, the government of Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, asked me to help create a legal framework for cloning men (and only men). When adult siblings publicly battled over one's decision to have their late father's head placed in cryogenic storage, I was called for a legal opinion on the rights of severed heads. When a fertility doctor refused to give back a woman's frozen embryo, I handled the case, obtaining the return of her potential child. When the federal government decided to finance the Human Genome Project, I headed the national advisory commission on ethical, legal, and social issues surrounding this scientific odyssey.

I'm hoping "Century City" will inspire people to demand appropriate legal policies about the genetic technologies, reproductive technologies, and nanotechnologies that are reshaping our lives. Congress is now considering whether insurance companies may deny coverage to healthy women who carry a gene believed linked to increased risk of breast cancer. Courts are determining whether a couple can sue a sperm bank because their healthy baby was not as attractive as they wished - and whether a girl born with a disability can sue her parents for not aborting her when prenatal tests revealed the problem.

These profound questions affect us all. When you interview for a job, the interviewer might offer you a cup of coffee. Should he be able test the saliva you leave on the cup - and deny you a job based on your genes? What if Bill Gates' barber took a hair follicle, cloned the Microsoft chairman (perhaps making Bill Gates version 5.0, 6.1, 8.0) - and sued him for child support? Current law provides little protection against such outrageous acts.

Although the cases in "Century City" are fictional, the disputes they portray are almost upon us. Science fiction is rapidly becoming science fact, and novels and TV shows can help us formulate policies.

When the United Nations was initiating its current debate on a potential treaty to ban human reproductive cloning, the delegate from Brazil described how his country stimulated a national discussion on the issue through a soap opera, "El Clon." The show asked such questions as, is it bigamy to marry your wife's clone?

Ours will be the generation that decides crucial issues about the human future. Should parents be able to buy height-enhancing genes for their embryos? Will that be viewed as the moral equivalent of cheating in sports, or more like signing your child up for private tennis lessons? And what about putting genes in human embryos for traits people have never had before, such as the speed of a cheetah? One scientist has proposed inserting the genes for photosynthesis into a human embryo to create children who get their energy from the sun and don't need to eat.

I asked my law students whether a person with plant or animal genes would still be protected by the US Constitution. One replied, "If it walks like a man, quacks like a man, and photosynthesizes like a man, it is a man."

The very boundaries of what is human are being changed by technology. Judgments about the legal rights and wrongs of new technologies shouldn't be left to lawyers in 2030. We need to puzzle out the legal issues now before we find that the technologies have created a world that we wouldn't want to inhabit.

Lori B. Andrews is a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law and chairs the board of the Institute on Biotechnology and the Human Future.

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