No to "Genethics"

Journal: Nature 365 (1993), 102.
Author: Darryl R. J. Macer
SIR -- The provocatively titled "New genetics means no new ethics (Nature 364, 97; 1993) makes the important point that society does not need new ethics to cope with the impact of genetic technology. There is no inherent clash between genetics and human values as some books, including one under the title "Genethics" (1), would like to have us believe. This concept should be stopped before it grows further because almost all the issues raised by application of genetics are not novel.

What is needed is a revival and renewed discussion of ethical values as society interacts with technology, and reassurance that scientists are responsible, as we have seen in recent pages of Nature (Nature 359, 770; 1992; 362, 491-2; 363, 203-4; 1993). Applications of genetics has been a useful catalyst for this process (2). Sequencing of the human genome may not create new ethical dilemmas, or necessarily make them worse, as the leading article above says, but the sheer number of disease-related genes identified will make the number of such dilemmas greater. The number of known "early-death" related genes will increase so that it may even be impractical for insurance companies to identify individual risk, let alone the ethical arguments (Nature 354, 347; 1991). Life will be more complex, even the supposedly simple case of imposing higher insurance fees on smokers will become more cloudy should we find strong genetic determinants for drug addiction, to add to the environmental determinants we already know.

In the final paragraph of the article, Maddox concludes that it is unwise for geneticists to say "never touch the germline". Although geneticists may like to say this, perhaps to naively reassure the public that they have nothing to worry about, over the last two or three years "ethicists" have been seriously revisiting the issue of human germline genetic manipulation (3). There are some who want a ban on germline manipulation, but the somatic cell/germline division is less important than the therapy/cosmetic border. In the easy cases of severe disease, safe and nonexpensive germline gene therapy can make sense. We should encourage discussion of these complex issues, and in the real world, never say never.


1. Suzuki, D. & Knudtson, P. Genethics: The Clash Between the New Genetics and Human Values (Harvard University Press, Boston, 1989).
2. Macer, D. Shaping Genes: Ethics, Law and Science of Using Genetic Technology in Medicine and Agriculture (Eubios Ethics Institute, Christchurch, 1990).
3. Juengst, E.T., et al. Human germ-line engineering. Special issue. J. Med. Phil. 16, 587-694.

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