I find it hard to think of a sensible reason why anybody should be against curing those with genetic diseases like muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis. Genetic engineering - though the research has a long way to go - offers the hope that this will be possible by introducing a sound copy of the affected gene into the patient's tissues. As with any new medical treatment there are risks. But there is no question of such a treatment altering the germ cells and so being passed on to future generations. The introduction of new genetic material into a patient is a common and inescapable aspect of all organ and bone marrow transplants.
Genetic pornography is, unfortunately, widespread - pictures and stories that titillate and play upon people's anxieties and fantasies, and so pervert the science. The current view propagated by the media is that the application of genetics is intrinsically horrific. The recent widely publicised picture of a human ear on the back of the mouse is a nice, or rather a nasty, example. This was just ear shaped cartilage stuck under the skin for no obvious scientific reason - not an ear at all. Images of the phoney ear, which many find distasteful, are linked to an effluvium of headlines like "Monsters or Miracles?" and phrases like "moral nightmare". This genetic pornography attracts audiences by exploiting peoples' anxieties.
Poor Morag and Megan, the recently cloned sheep, must look with despair on the notoriety they have achieved. For example, an editorial in the Daily Telegraph proclaimed that such biological work is like that of the Nazi's experiments on humans and "dehumanises humanity." How does it dehumanise humanity? There is the explicit fear that mad scientists will try to create a human master race by cloning. No-one seems to give much attention to who the mothers will be and where they will go to school. Once the idea receives even a superficial examination the absurdity is obvious. But what about designer babies? Is there not the danger that mothers will abort any other than "perfect" babies? This, I believe is a male fantasy since very few women who want a child will terminate a pregnancy for essentially trivial reasons. Indeed it is striking how all genetic pornography and moralising is done by men, not women.
Recent work on human embryonic cells makes it possible, in principle, to alter the genetic nature of humans. But here the risks are extremely high. What mother would wish to undertake such procedures, since there is a very real risk of both failure and major abnormalities? However if it were safe to replace defective genes in the egg, would it really be unethical to eliminate the risk of a genetic disease in future generations? Ironically, the major ethical issue that parents will be faced with is whether to have a child with a genetic abnormality knowing that it could have been prevented by prenatal screening. The child's interests are always paramount.
Are there, then, any areas of genetics or biology where researchers should not enter? Areas like human development , the alleged racial differences in intelligence, and genes which may predispose men to homosexuality? My answer is no. Any censorship on knowledge seriously undermines democracy and human dignity. It presumes that ignorance and false knowledge is better than truth. We might not like what we find when we investigate human nature but we need to have the courage and dignity to deal with any understanding of the world.
It is also essential that we draw a distinction between knowledge and how it is applied. Moral issues arise not from scientific knowledge but from its application. Scientific knowledge is in itself free of any moral values. There is a fundamental difference between knowing how to do genetic engineering and carrying it out on a patient. How scientific knowledge is to be applied is a subject for wide public debate.
There is nevertheless a set of restrictions that scientists must accept, that relate not to the areas of investigation but how the investigations are to be done. Many experiments are not permissible because of the risks they involve. More important, others are ethically unacceptable, like implanting a primate's embryo into a woman's womb. Indeed we already have strict regulations as to what animal experiments are permissible and what can be done with human embryos.
What responsibility do the scientists have? Only one. Of course they have responsibilities as citizens. But as scientists their only responsibility is to explain to the public the possible implications of their work. It is not for scientists to take, on their own, ethical decisions regarding the applications of their work. Presenting genetics as pornography makes the necessary rational public debate almost impossible.
! Lewis Wolpert, of University College London, is chairman of Copus (the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science). His book, 'The Unnatural Nature of Science', is published by Faber.Reuse content