Reproductive Technology

Critics of the scientific establishment, especially religious ones, are frequently dismissed as "Luddites" or "technophobes." What’s the implication? That religious skeptics are woefully ignorant, or, even worse, downright superstitious when it comes to scientific research, and that the religious-based moral critique must not impede scientific advancement. Scientists, according to this fervent faith, know what’s best.

Lori B. Andrews’ The Clone Age: Adventures in the New World of Reproductive Technology demonstrates, however, that skeptics of science’s innate beneficence have good reasons to sound the alarm when it comes to genetic research. And if the skepticism extends to corporate involvement in biotech research and reproductive technology, then let the alarm bell ring until it breaks. Andrews is a law professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law and the director of the Institute for Science, Law, and Technology. She has advised state, federal, and international agencies, and she sat on a committee that reviewed the ethical implications of the government’s Human Genome Project. Few have walked this minefield as carefully, or as thoroughly.

Why is the area of reproductive technology a minefield? In Andrews’ eyes, it is not so much because of the problems that may occur if we proceed down this road. That journey has already begun, she explains, since at least the birth of Louise Brown, the first "test-tube" baby, born through in vitro fertilization (IVF) in England in July 1978. Months before an English doctor had fertilized—in a petri dish—an egg of Lesley Brown with sperm from her husband.

The Clone Age is an enlightening, if sometimes horrifying, tour of the path upon which we have already embarked: IVF; parental surrogacy; embryo research; freezing embryos as a possible source of replacement for human tissue or organs; human cloning; marketing of egg and sperm donations; the use of amniocentesis testing to determine, screen, and sometimes abort potential offspring that may have genetic diseases or even children of unpreferred gender (usually girls); and discrimination and privacy issues involving people’s genetic histories and health care insurance.

Some of Andrews’ tales are stupefying. For example, doctors, at the request of relatives, "collected" the semen of a dead man to produce offspring he never desired. Andrews points out that male pregnancy may even be possible, since it is theoretically possible for an embryo to be attached in the abdominal cavity to an especially blood-rich area near the intestines. Delivery would be via cesarean section, of course.

THE LEGAL AND ETHICAL dilemmas that follow scenarios such as these are baffling, not to mention scary.

In the case of collecting the semen of dead men, should that material be considered one’s property? If an unmarried man dies, for example, would his living parents then inherit his semen along with the rest of his estate? With whom does ownership of bodily tissue reside? And should tissue such as stored frozen embryos be considered property or human life deserving of society’s protection?

Legal precedents are not promising. Cell lines, genes, and even research procedures all appear to be patentable. Andrews describes a case in which the California Supreme Court ruled that a patient’s cell line, which he claimed was developed without his consent after being treated for leukemia, was not his property. He has no claim on the profits a pharmaceutical company may reap. "The court was concerned," writes Andrews, "that giving [the patient] a property right to his tissue would destroy the economic incentive for biotech companies [to pursue research]."

That brings to light the crucial issue of profit in genetic research. While genetic research certainly holds the promise of intervening in the disease processes of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, the size of the biomedical and biotechnology economy in the coming century, a massive market opportunity, can only be estimated. Needless to say, it should be an extremely lucrative business for corporations. And that market, as Andrew points out, is largely unregulated by anything but the ability to pay. A biotech entrepreneur’s paradise.

No wonder, then, that religious and moral voices are disparaged for criticizing the lack of public regulation in biotechnology. But the truth is that many scientists, including geneticists, biologists, and historians of science, have joined in the alarm. Science divorced from the scrutiny of society is no scientific advance at all.

JOSEPH WAKELEE-LYNCH is a writer and editor living in Claremont, California.

The Clone Age: Adventures in the New World of Reproductive Technology. Andrews, Lori B.. Hanry Holt, 01/01/1999.

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