The "breathtaking" potential of genetic technology presents both ethical and public policy challenges in the wake of the mapping of the human genome, a Southern Baptist ethicist said on Capitol Hill.
Speaking to a group of congressional staff members April 6, C. Ben Mitchell called for the rejection of eugenics and the adoption of privacy legislation as some of the responses to a genetics revolution. Mitchell is a biomedical consultant to the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, as well as associate professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in suburban Chicago.
The mapping of the human genome, which was announced earlier this year, provides the "potential for understanding the genetic linkage" to 4,000 to 5,000 disease conditions, Mitchell said. It is "hard to overestimate" the benefits that could come from this development, but he is "not under any illusion that we will usher in a genetic utopia," Mitchell said.
The potential benefits include the prevention of diseases and drug therapies that target specific conditions in a person, he said.
The ethical challenges that come with this technology include, Mitchell said:
• The gap between diagnosis of a disease condition or a gene that causes a disease and developing a therapy for the disease may be years.
• There will be socio-economic costs for investing overwhelming resources in genetic technology.
• The potential for discrimination and the loss of genetic privacy is great.
• The distinction between therapy and enhancement will be debated, as well as the question of who makes this determination.
• There is the danger of a new eugenics movement taking advantage of the technology.
The ability to identify genes that cause diseases can have various ramifications, Mitchell said, including: The creation of a new class, which he labeled "the presymptomatic ill;" potential psychological problems for children and the parents of newborns; and the encouragement for parents to abort their unborn child when tests show he has such a gene.
A March of Dimes poll in 1993 showed 11 percent of parents would abort their child if his genome is predisposed to obesity, Mitchell said.
In some cases, the presence of a disease gene only means the potential for an illness exists, he said. Some conditions can be avoided or controlled by "lifestyle choices," he told the congressional staffers.
The technology also may result in insurance companies and employers seeking to know about any genetic propensities for diseases before insuring or hiring people, Mitchell said. In 1997, 6 to 10 percent of companies used genetic tests for employment purposes, he said. Only about 40 percent of states have laws protecting employees from genetic discrimination, he said.
Given these ethical dilemmas, Mitchell called for the following actions in the United States:
• Adoption of federal legislation protecting genetic privacy.
• Resistance to the "idea we are only the sum of our parts."
• Repudiation of eugenics.
• Correction of laws that permit the patenting of genes and cell lines.
• Education of the public on genetics.
In response to Mitchell's Power Point presentation, Thomas Beam, director of the Borden Institute, acknowledged Americans have "a lot of catching up to do" on genetic technology.
Handling the genetic revolution will be difficult because American society lacks a "moral compass" and has a "love affair with autonomy," Beam said.
"We've made an idol of technology," Beam said. "Clearly, we have the same ability" to sink to where the Nazis were in the 1930s, he said.
The seminar was part of a series sponsored by two Washington-area organizations, The Ethics and Public Policy Center and The Wilberforce Forum, the research arm of Prison Fellowship.
Stem Cells From Human Fat
New research showing the potential for human fat to produce tissues of different kinds again demonstrates why experimentation on human embryos is unnecessary, a Southern Baptist bioethicist said.
An April 10 report in the journal Tissue Engineering reveals scientists have been successful in growing cartilage, muscle, and bone cells in the laboratory from cells found in human fat, according to The Washington Post. The researchers used fat taken by liposuction from patients' hips and thighs to produce the cells, The Post reported.
The results suggest the availability of another source for stem cells that does not have ethical drawbacks. Stems cells are primitive cells that hold the potential of producing cells and tissues to use as replacements in treating a variety of conditions, including Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, heart disease, and diabetes.
Many advocates of stem cell research have contended human embryos are the only truly beneficial sources of therapeutic cells. Pro-life advocates overwhelmingly have opposed such experimentation on human embryos, because it requires their destruction. Pro-lifers have supported the use of stem cells from such sources as placentas, umbilical cord blood, and adult bone marrow, because the killing of a human being is not required. Recent studies have shown stem cells from such sources can be effective, and the report on human-fat experimentation is another example of the hope provided by ethical means.
C. Ben Mitchell called the report "encouraging news."
"This study demonstrates again that human embryos are not needed for significant research," Mitchell said. "The health and safety risks of using fetal tissue are too high, and the moral costs of doing so are even higher. The destruction of human embryos in research is horrifically grotesque when human fat cells hold so much promise."
Baptist Press, April 11, 2001