NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

"Smarter Mice" Achievement Stokes Genetic Ethics Debate

September 8, 1999

Until recently, experiments in gene therapy concentrated on correcting genetic or acquired disorders. Now, scientists have succeeded in creating significantly smarter mice through a seemingly minor genetic alteration.

This suggests that genetic enhancement could increase the physical or mental capacities of humans -- touching off renewed debate over the ethics of making "designer humans."

  • Critics ask whether wealthy people, who could afford gene therapy, would leave the poor even further behind -- and whether such procedures should be performed before safety issues are clarified.
  • Defenders of biotechnology point out that people already employ standard medical technologies to improve their health or appearance -- ranging from cosmetic surgery to alleviation of baldness, or use of memory- and performance-enhancement drugs.
  • And they contend genetic enhancement is simply part of a continuum of therapies that introduce or modify DNA or modulate genes' activity -- such as vaccination, which changes blood cells' DNA, or administering drugs which activate dormant genes, a therapy used in treating sickle- cell anemia.
  • Gene therapy is already subject to regulation through a vast array of entities -- such as hospital-based Institutional Review Boards, company- or university-based bio-safety committees, the National Institute of Health's Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee, the NIH director and the Food and Drug Administration.

Supporters contend that gene therapy -- even when used for enhancement purposes -- shouldn't be treated differently from any other medical intervention.

Source: Henry I. Miller (Hoover Institution), "Better Genes for Better Living," Wall Street Journal, September 8, 1999.


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