Still, the topic is often discussed and the majority of parents in industrialized countries say they would eliminate cystic fibrosis, Alzheimers, and other genetic diseases from their children given the chance. Hair color, eye color, strength and longevity remain more controversial topics.
Gregory Stock, who speaks in Lotte Lehman today at 4 p.m., claims that the technology to engineer our children is close at hand, and imposing bans or moratoriums on the technology will simply drive research to foreign countries and covert laboratories making it accessible only to the very wealthy, thereby creating a genetic elite.
He claims that the benefits of genetic engineering will outweigh the risks and that the only way to ensure its proper use is to make it widely available to parents and safely regulated. In short, Stock says the technology will arrive regardless of our feelings about it and we would do best to consider its implications now.
The interview appears here, complete and unabridged, along with more information on reproductive technologies. Whether or not you agree with Stock, here he is – in his own words.
– Josh Braun, science and technology editor
For more information regarding reproductive bioethics, visitScience and Technology Primer: Eugenics and Modern Reproductive Technologies
What is your stance on positive eugenics and genetic engineering?
By and large the benefits greatly exceed the dangers in the use of the new genetic technologies that are emerging. As long as they remain in the hands of individuals, the dangers are really quite manageable because we’ll have a long time between any problems that begin to emerge and the time when they’re used very broadly. We’ll have a lot of time to adjust our regulation.
By and large, parents are going to be very conservative and cautious because they have to suffer the consequences if they cause an injury to their child in some way.
In most polls, parents have said that they would remove genetic diseases from their children if there were a safe, reliable method for doing so. Do you have any comments on the subject before I ask you other questions?
They can do that now, of course, mostly using amniocentesis where parents are doing that kind of test and aborting if there is a problem. In fact, I think around 90 percent of parents who find out that their child has Down Syndrome will abort.
How likely do you think it is that parents will make selections for other traits that are cosmetic or have to do with strength or longevity, etc.?
The earliest traits that are not particularly disease-related will be ones that improve the child’s health in some way, but there will be all sorts of other traits – trying to have a child that’s a little bit smarter or a little bit more athletic or taller or whatever that parents will want. The evidence for that is that parents are already asking for these kinds of selections when they’re doing in vitro fertilization and have a choice about which embryos to implant. Now, they’re not feasible at present, but there are nonetheless some parents who would be interested in doing them.
Another example is sex selection. If you want the simplest and most dramatic of trait selections that’s possible and has nothing to do with health, it’s choosing whether or not to have a boy or a girl. In polls somewhere around a quarter of parents say if there were very easy reliable ways of choosing the gender of their child then they would make that choice.
What about alleles or traits that people do not have themselves. Say a couple both have blue eyes (double recessive) and they want to have a child with brown eyes. How often do you think parents would select for traits that neither of them actually possesses?
There are a couple of ways that you can imagine shaping or influencing your children’s genetics. One of them is cloning, which I think is a sideshow. It’s a mere copying in any event, so it’s probably the most conservative sort of technology you can imagine, although it’s clearly not represented as such.
The other is to do selections on an embryo, to choose whether to implant one embryo rather than another. You can get results that can effectively be enhancement procedures by doing that.
You can also go in and alter the genes of the first cell in an embryo in order to go in and directly manufacture some sort of a change. One of the reasons people would seek to do that even though it’s obviously more dangerous and more complex an intervention than simply selecting an embryo is where it is impossible to have one of the embryos that has that particular characteristic.
There are some conditions where there would be a disease gene that you can’t avoid. There are some situations where you can imagine wanting to have one or several alleles that would confer extra abilities or extra health on the child because both parents are homozygous [have only the undesired gene], something of that sort. I see that as one of the realms where direct engineering is likely to occur.
An example of the kind of thing that can occur is there’s some preliminary evidence now that where there’s trisomy-21 – Down Syndrome, where you have an extra chromosome 21 – there is, correcting for age, a very much lower incidence of cancer in these children.
So it seems that some of the genes on chromosome 21 when they are at the higher dose, they protect against cancer. If you can decipher that and figure out exactly which genes those are, then you might be able to put those on an artificial chromosome and protect against cancer without having the problems of retardation that occur when the entire chromosome is duplicated.
Hospitals have been criticized for ending counseling programs for organ transplant recipients, even though transplants are now routine. It seems that even non-superstitious people have feelings of unrepayable debt towards their donors and often feel as though they have received part of the personality of their donor –
It’s a little bit like an adopted child wanting to know about their adopted parents, but at a smaller level because the contribution is smaller.
If people go through this much trauma over having someone else’s organ, do you think parents will be able to accept the fact that their child has someone else’s genes? There is this idea of the child being part of yourself.
I would look at it as one of the reasons that parents would not be interested in cloning somebody else’s genes – in cloning somebody else’s child, because they want their own child.
But the question is, given that you have 30,000 genes, changing a few genes it seems to me is not going to alter identity and that there will still be the feeling that that’s your child. I think that feeling certainly occurs when parents adopt children. They don’t feel that’s not their child in a sense, even though at an abstract level it’s not biologically their child.
If I have a tendency towards heart disease, for instance, and I could get some sort of a biological alteration or genetic alteration that would diminish or ameliorate that danger, then I wouldn’t feel that it was attacking my identity in some way, that it was a diminution or a threat to who I am. I think there are aspects that people don’t view as central to their view of themselves.
It’s the same thing as if you take antibiotics that eliminate an illness. Say someone takes hormone therapy. How is that different than getting a genetic intervention, which would bump up or regulate some sort of hormone production. It’s in the abstract. It will have a big impact on some people who are philosophically or religiously quite ideological and dogmatic, but I think generally small numbers of genes will not make people feel that a child is not theirs in some sense.
I know it wouldn’t affect me in that way at all. I don’t know about you.
But if parents see something as being important enough to change, it seems to me they might also feel it’s important enough to care about in these types of ways. I’m bringing up a potential flashpoint, basically.
Yeah, I can see it because it’s often commented on by people who imagine someone going out and getting a clone of someone else. I think that wouldn’t be very appealing at all for exactly the reasons you’re talking about.
When it comes to, for instance – well I don’t know. I guess it just depends what the trait is. If people took a few genes and changed some visible trait, for instance if they changed their skin color, that would have a huge impact. Let’s take the example of adding an extra chromosome.
I mean, let’s take something that’s really dramatic, not just pulling out some allele that gives you heart disease. APOE-4, you’re familiar with that, right? It’s the gene that predisposes people to Alzheimer’s.
Yes, I’m familiar with it.
If you took another allele so that you weren’t predisposed to Alzheimer’s, I don’t think there’s a parent in the world that would say, “Well, he’s not really our child. He’s not going to have Alzheimer’s like the rest of the family.”
But, let’s take an artificial chromosome. All humans have 46 chromosomes, so instead you put in an extra pair of chromosomes to enhance health, bump up the immune system, or something of that sort. You could add resistance to cancer or whatever you want. Then you’re essentially not just not in the same family. You don’t even have the same number of chromosomes that all humans have.
Would you feel that was some alien? Some other? I think that there are lot’s of people who wouldn’t – and some who would probably be very upset by the notion. So, I don’t know.
Let’s put it this way. In polls that are mentioned in the book, it says people would enhance the physical or mental qualities of their children if they could. There is a significant minority in virtually every country and sometimes a large majority who would. It seems to me that part of the equation of answering that poll is that your child would somehow have elements that were not directly from you.
You talked about genetic predispositions for different personality types and said different parents would engineer children with different personalities. Did you want to comment on this before I ask you any questions on it?
No, I stand by that. When we select a mate or our friends, there are certain types of personalities that we just get along with better and I think that would happen between parents and children as well.
Well, let’s say there is some personality trait that does turn out to be genetic and let’s say that it’s something that most people would want in their children. Say there is a gene for natural leadership. It’s nearly universally desirable, but it’s the kind of trait that would be difficult to have universally.
So you’d have a whole bunch of people running around that were all natural leaders and you can only have a certain number. Well that’s certainly a criticism that is directed by a number of people who are hostile to these possibilities. They say there are certain kinds of things and I think leadership is a particularly good one – or say everybody is beautiful then is beauty really beauty in some sense – and that the differences between us are what create elite performance essentially. I think that would happen. In some realms, it would occur.
Let’s take health. If we screen out most major genetic diseases, you certainly diminish diversity in some sense. Maybe one’s vision of health would change a bit in that people would be more sensitive to small infirmities of one sort or another. I don’t see that as being a problem.
Let’s take one’s simple intelligence. If everybody wants to have a more intelligent child, then it becomes more competitive and the average intelligence would increase. So there would still be the same distribution because everybody can’t be at the top of the class. There are some benefits that would come from raising the average intelligence of the population, just in terms of being able to navigate some of the complexities of modern life. I don’t think that would be a negative.
In areas where there is a sort of relative positioning that occurs, it won’t really change the game. Everybody can’t be above average. You can’t have that, but I suspect that there would still be a significant diversity in the selections parent s would make about their children.
The use of these technologies is going to be governed by people’s philosophies and the way people view technology in general. If you say, “Will everyone pick natural leaders?” well I don’t think it would be by any means everyone, but lots of people who were natural leaders would come from a realm that was enhanced in one way or another. But there would still be lots of people who either wouldn’t use these technologies or would make other choices.
You also talked about the potential division of humans into different species. I think that’s probably one of the points in your book that people will consider to be least palatable. Is there any comment you would like to make about it?
The notion of species becomes less meaningful when it’s possible to move genes around and when you don’t have reproductive isolation. We’ll have to look for new aspects that really tie humanity together in some sense. I sort of view that in an abstract way of being sort of a common participation in this larger process that is underway, which is an evolutionary process.
It will be something that is very challenging for us to deal with in the long term. There is a question of how you preserve feelings of commonality in the human species and among humanity. I’m not sure how that will occur.
You say in your book that Europeans are much more conservative than Americans when it comes to these technologies, but is this really true? We’re discussing the same bans and moratoriums. We’re just taking longer to enact them.
There are certainly some of the same ones that are being discussed. There is no question that when it comes to reproductive technologies, Germany in particular – Britain has been quite moderate about these things – but Germany is very, very uncomfortable with these technologies. You just do not have conversations come up there that are not colored by the Nazi past there. For instance you can’t even mention the word “selection.” Genetic selection has such cultural echoes from the Nazi era in Germany that you just don’t use that word there.
In Europe at least, I think it’s seen that America has a very different approach to these technologies in general. In Europe, there’s much more of an emphasis on a precautionary principle where technology has to prove itself before you can use it because it’s more likely to upset the social order in some way. In the United States there is a tendency to be comfortable with trying to use new technologies and a confidence that you can ameliorate the negative consequences of it. Although, clearly, given the debate in the Senate and in the House, there are attempts to hold back the technologies here as well.
So what do you think the United States’ policy should be on reproductive technologies should be and what do you think people’s personal responsibilities are?
The government should be making every effort it can to put in place policies that inform people of the dangers involved in these technologies, to ensure that that there are not false claims being made either about the potential secondary consequences of them and the dangers that are involved or about what they can and can’t do.
They should be thinking primarily about safety and efficacy, and efforts should be in place to monitor and track those who use these technologies to see if there are any more subtle secondary effects that arise. This kind of information can be fed back to parents who want to know what they’re getting into with the technology.
Basically, we should not be regulating in advance and trying to anticipate all sorts of possibilities that are troubling. They are really projections of our own fears and hopes about the technology. We really don’t want to pass legislation that is quite rigid and difficult to change at a time when there is very little information about these technologies and what is possible with them, what is feasible with them, and what is dangerous about them.
In particular, taking the cloning legislation, it is very misguided policy to try and control basic research in nuclear transfer for embryonic stem cell research – the policies that have been proposed for the Brownback bill and were supported by President Bush just a few days ago.
President Bush said in his speech, “Do the ends justify the means for using embryos for this kind of research?” I would turn that around and say, do the ends justify the means; the end being that there is this great fear that some child somewhere is going to be cloned by some rogue doctor somewhere. – which is going to happen anyway. Because of an inflated fear of that possibility, are we willing to sacrifice potential therapies for millions and millions of real people with real diseases and real suffering and real families? To me, that is not respect for human life whatsoever.
We need to put in balance that there are risks of there being errors and mistakes and individuals being injured, but there are even bigger risks that we will insert politics and religion into basic research and will greatly slow the whole process of biomedical discovery that is underway in this country. That has very, very serious consequences to people who don’t have time to wait – people with various kinds of disabilities and diseases for whom a ten year delay can be the difference between life and death.
Many people will turn down the argument that such therapies are beneficial if they see the means as being unethical. Are there other arguments for the technologies?
Well it’s one thing to say we shouldn’t fund some treatment or that we should discourage it. It is another to essentially want to criminalize basic biomedical research. To me that is a very, very big step. That injection of religion and politics into basic research will be very detrimental to biotechnology research and development in this country as a whole.
The consequences are going to be twofold. One will be that it will drive these technologies underground. It will reserve them for the wealthy. It will move them into the hands of less responsible people or at least people who do not share the values of those who are trying to restrict these technologies. That’s one effect that it will have.
The second is over a larger timeframe, if we are actually able to institute these sorts of bans and shackle basic research in such a way, gradually the cutting edge of biomedical research is going to move overseas to other regions. There is no question in anybody’s mind that this technology is going to be central to the human future. Either we’re going to lead it or somebody else is going to lead it. I think it really threatens our global competitiveness and the vibrancy and vitality of our society – our ability to be leading and shaping new technologies.
I think the Chinese for example would see it as a great opportunity to become a more dominant power. I think that would be so troubling to many in this country that it is likely any broad bans or restrictions on our technology would not be able to long stand.
If you think about it, the selection of cloning is kind of interesting because the sights of the ban are so low. Here you take a technology that does not exist yet, has almost no appeal to anyone in our country and we ban that technology. Even in attempting to ban that technology there is an attempt to infuse it into basic research in ways that will be quite destructive. It really risks polarizing our society and creating a struggle that will tear at our society increasingly as these technologies become closer than they are now.
What do you see as the general advantages to society if this technology were made widely available worldwide?
As we begin to decipher the workings of biology and gain the power to make adjustments – to alter it, to modify it in a variety of ways – there is the very obvious benefit of being able to treat or avoid a variety of very, very awful diseases as well as other conditions that are not as disastrous, but are things people would like to avoid. That’s one particular realm.
Another is you may be able to get at various conditions like aging itself where you can extend people’s health spans give people longer years of health and vitality or give them capacities and talents. It’s not something that is going to create some sort of a Utopia, but most people would like to be a little healthier, live a little longer, maybe be a little more talented, a little bit smarter, have certain temperaments that are reinforced a little bit. These are the kinds of things that will be feasible. It seems to me that that is in general, beneficial.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Just that it’s very relevant that this area is the next frontier: our own biology. It’s not space. It’s going to be one of the most challenging endeavors humanity has ever embarked upon.
Within generations, it’s going to change not only great swathes of our economy, medicine and healthcare, but it’s going to really bring into question a lot of aspects of our understanding of what it is to be a human being.
It’s a privilege to be here to witness such an extraordinary occurrence and to help shape it. At the same time, we’re the objects of these changes as well, which is why they’re so difficult. But we’re also their interpreters and that’s really why I wrote this book, to give people a feel for where these technologies are going to carry us, what it will feel like when they begin to emerge in full force, and the larger ways in which they will shape our future and our own lives.
I think this is really the first attempt to do that without a great deal of ideology involved; to see where these technologies will take us and go where the technologies seem to lead us. I think it’s very important to be able to see that in this larger context in order to be able to make decisions about public policies today and about our lives both today and tomorrow.