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The morality of genetic engineering

By David Holcberg
web posted June 10, 2002

This week in Toronto, the annual meeting of the Biotechnology Industry Organization will take place, amid protests by environmentalists who want to prohibit genetic engineering. This is a conflict between the creators of a technology that has saved countless lives and improved countless more--and the movement that is opposed to this new technology on principle.

Consider one of the earliest genetically engineered inventions: bacteria with human genes that produce insulin that keeps millions of diabetic Americans alive.

Or consider "golden rice," genetically engineered to have an increased content of beta-carotene, which our bodies transform into vitamin A. More than a hundred million people around the world suffer from lack of this vitamin. Every year half a million children become blind and another million die from vitamin A deficiency. Golden rice may help prevent that.

Yet the Institute of Science in Society, a London-based environmentalist group, demands the prohibition of golden rice, calling it a "most heinous abomination."

Or consider potatoes, bananas and tomatoes genetically engineered to contain vaccines against a variety of diseases, including hepatitis B. These vaccines are easy to take, they have no need for refrigeration and they are as cheap as a penny a dose.

Yet a Greenpeace member declares: "We view genetically engineered foods as having the potential for the largest environmental disaster in human history."

And the director of the Organic Consumers Union says that the bio-engineered vaccines are "a very bad idea. You don't want biotech vaccines out in the environment . . . causing unknown problems . . . with unknown consequences."

But what about the known benefits that people get from immunization against disease or from vitamin-enhanced foods? Why should we assume that the unknown is real and ignore what we do know? The fact is that the opponents of genetic engineering are all too eager to raise arbitrary fears, which have no objective evidence behind them, while evading clear-cut evidence of the value of genetically engineered foods. Why? Because their standard is not man's well-being--but an unaltered state of nature.

By inserting human genes into animal embryos, scientists have enabled various farm animals to produce proteins for the treatment of deadly conditions such as cystic fibrosis, stroke, damaged tissues and infection.

Yet organizations such as Resistance Against Genetic Engineering campaign to ban these animals, which they call "hybrid genetic monsters." Monsters? By what standard? Surely not by the standard of human life.

Even more promising is the prospect of genetic improvements in human beings themselves. One possibility being pursued is germ-line research, aimed at removing bad genes and eliminating hereditary diseases before, or soon after, conception. Another is stem-cell research, which opens up the way to replace damaged tissues and organs with newly grown ones. Both lines of investigation may lead to an unprecedented improvement in human health and longevity.

To date, more than 130 biotech medicines and vaccines have been approved by the FDA, and approximately 350 additional products are in late-stage development. In 2001 alone, the FDA approved 16 new biotech products, including breakthrough medications for leukemia, congestive heart failure, HIV infection, pulmonary arterial hypertension and life-threatening sepsis.

Yet the hostility (from religionists as well as environmentalists) toward this research is astonishingly strong.

The organization Human Genetics Alert describes it as "immoral," and the Sierra Club's former national director condemns this entire field of research, claiming that its implementation would "destabilize human biological identity." Imagine telling the parents of a child who is dying of leukemia or diabetes that the disease could have been avoided through genetic modification, but that the law forbids any tampering with the child's "biological identity."

Opponents of biotechnology try to assure us that their purpose is to protect human life. But their consistent stand against a technology that saves millions of lives and that can potentially eradicate disease from the face of the earth demonstrates the opposite. It reveals that they have no concern for human life.

Environmentalists hold that man should not alter nature to serve his ends. Nature, they believe, must be "protected" against human intrusion, and we should learn to adapt ourselves to our environment rather than adapt the environment to our needs. From this philosophical perspective, genetic engineering is inherently evil, since it rests on the premise that man is morally entitled to reshape nature to serve his ends. This is why environmentalists oppose it in any form--and at any cost.

The targets of this vicious anti-biotech campaign need to grasp the nature of their opposition--and need to mount an unequivocal moral defense of their life-saving technology.

David Holcberg, a former civil engineer, is a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute in Marina del Rey, Calif. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Send comments to reaction@aynrand.org.

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