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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Thursday, February 15, 2007

What's so dystopian about the Biotech Age?

The bioconservative handbook, Rights and Liberties in the Biotech Age: Why We Need a Genetic Bill of Rights, is an uneven read. Some of the short articles collected here make good points - about the importance of universal health care, for one example, and, for another, the policy justification for a limited exception to the finality of criminal justice if there is a prospect that DNA testing could provide belated exculpatory evidence. However, many pieces contained here rely on irrational assumptions, such as the idea that it is meaningful to talk about the "rights" of zygotes and embryos (Stuart Newman tries to avoid this, while getting the same conclusions, but the attempt is unconvincing).

One article strikes me as so lacking in any intellectual substance that I hesitate to comment on it, but it is worth notice just to illustrate the mentality and rhetoric that so often accompany opposition to genetic technology. This is the piece by Marcy Darnovsky, entitled "Human Rights in a Post-Human Future".

Darnovsky begins with the usual pathetic attempt to suggest guilt by association, by referring to the evils committed by the Nazis. Having made that smear, she makes a reference to the bioconservatives' proposed "Genetic Bill of Rights", then moves to this remarkable paragraph:

Even twenty-five years ago - before the development of genetic manipulation at the molecular level, legal doctrines that allow governments to grant patents on life, and DNA databases; before the advent and commercialization of in vitro fertilization and the screening of in vitro embryos; before the appearance of advertisements for social sex selection in mainstream U.S. publications - the document [i.e. the Genetic Bill of Rights] would have been widely considered an unwarranted over-reaction based on a dystopian fantasy.

Now there are probably more and less charitable ways to read this. Darnovksy does not literally say that we currently live in a world that resembles a dystopian fantasy. Perhaps the paragraph could be interpreted as merely pointing out some of the powerful (but not necessarily bad) changes arising from genetic technology, all of which make it plausible that other, more dystopian, applications could arise in the future. I doubt, however, that that is how it is meant. In context, the implication seems to be that it would take a dystopian setting to make the Genetic Bill of Rights a realistic proposal ... which it now is. So I can only take it, on consideration, that the picture she is attempting to paint of present-day reality is a dystopian one, not merely one that involves powerful technologies that might have some other, unidentified, applications which we ought to fear.

A careful reading suggests that the para would have been worded differently if its author had wanted to make a more moderate point, but perhaps Darnovsky will clarify her subjective intention some time.

Meanwhile, the paragraph is sitting there, on the first page of her article, with the implication (at least on one obvious reading) that it is sketching a dystopian situation. However she actually meant it, it's worth considering whether what she describes really is so dystopian. Let's take the points one by one:

* "genetic manipulation at the molecular level" - nothing dystopian about that that I can see. This is a new power that we have gained, which could doubtless be used for evil. Like any other power, it has been sought in order to advance what we are capable of doing. On the face of it, this is a gain. However, I'll not score it either way.

* "patents on life" - this one is a mixed bag. I don't see why patents on novel and useful life forms are, in principle, any different from patents on anything else. That said, there really are problems with allowing contrived patents on DNA sequences or on scarcely-modified organisms. The situation is not obviously dystopian, but I would support some reform of patent legislation to restrict the excessive range of DNA patents. Score one to Darnovsky.

* "DNA databases" - hardly dystopian, these have great potential for medical research and many other useful applications. That's not to say that no abuses are possible; of course they are. This makes it necessary to respond with strong privacy protections, but there's nothing necessarily dystopian about it. Score half a point to Darnovsky. Then again, think of all the good that DNA databases can do. Score a point against her as well. That's a net half point against her on this one.

* "advent and commercialization of in vitro fertilization" - I don't see the problem here. There is an argument for providing for IVF entirely from public funds, but until all forms of health care, however expensive, are provided for in that way a degree of commercialization is inevitable and necessary. IVF itself gives new options to infertile couples, which is a welcome development. It gives some people something that they, quite rationally, value. Score a point against Darnovsky.

* "screening of in vitro embryos" - this is a way to help people have healthy children, something that many people want, again quite rationally. Another point against Darnovsky.

* Advertisements for "social sex selection" - the ability of some would-be parents to decide not just "I want a baby" but "I want a boy" or "I want a girl" is another example of people being able to get something they desire, and may desire quite rationally (someone may have two boys already and wish she could now have a girl, or she may simply think that she would be able to be a better mother to a boy than to a girl, for whatever reason). If we are able to use technology to help people satisfy their rational desires, surely that is a good thing. Score yet another point against Darnovsky.

In conclusion, it's true that genetic technology has become more powerful, and will continue to do so. It will bring benefits - a greater ability of people to have healthy children, more certainty in the system of criminal justice (exculpating innocent people and blocking off the defences of guilty ones), new therapies, more individually-tailored drugs, and the prospect of expanding our capacities in ways that meet our rational desires.

That's not to deny that there are, and will be, problems to be addressed, e.g. problems relating to safety, privacy, and our ability to run an economically beneficial patents scheme. But we are by no means living in a dystopian reality or on the path to one. On balance, genetic technology still appears to be a source of benefits, and we should pay no regard to people who want to link it to dystopian visions in pursuit of a conservative agenda to rein in the technology's legitimate uses.

Let's have rational legislative initiatives to ensure such things as safety, privacy, and access - but stop all the irrational fearmongering.

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