The U.S. Constitution may not provide direct answers to policy questions about the genetic engineering of human beings, but it does offer shared values that can help frame the debate about this developing technology, according to a Georgia Institute of Technology professor.
"One of the chief difficulties in understanding and addressing the policy and ethical issues surrounding genetic engineering of humans is the novelty of this technology," said Roberta Berry, an associate professor of public policy. "We've never before had the opportunity to revise our biological constitution in this way. So it's difficult to find a framework for addressing this."
But the U.S. Constitution provides a set of values, or foundational norms -- such as the promotion of welfare, science and the useful arts, the protection of liberty and equal protection -- that are part of Americans' shared political heritage, Berry noted. Disagreement often arises about how to understand and apply these norms in certain cases (e.g, embryonic stem cell research), and debate ensues.
"We have this store of policy discussion and working things out around certain issues," Berry said. "We can look to these discussions because they all draw upon these constitutional norms, which will be evoked by the genetic engineering debate. Then we can start to chip away at the novelty challenge, making it a more familiar problem."
Berry will discuss her ideas in a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Feb. 18 in Washington, D.C., in a session titled "Beginning and End-of-Life Technologies and Core Constitutional Values."
Though genetic engineering of human beings may seem the stuff of science fiction, researchers have already created human artificial chromosomes to produce transgenic animals and to administer gene therapy to living humans. Some observers believe gene modules copied from known natural genes that seem to predispose humans to certain desirable features could be inserted on these synthetic chromosomes and introduced into a human ovum or zygote, Berry said. These observers believe research toward accomplishing safe genetic engineering of human beings in this way could get under way in the near future, while others maintain that such a step is still many decades away, if it ever could be feasible, she added.
Nevertheless, the public policy debate about genetic engineering of humans is likely to intensify over the next 10 years, Berry predicted, expanding from familiar public policy questions of medical risk and benefit to enter the realm of novelty.
"We will face the fact that defining the benefits of this technology is value-laden," Berry said. "It won't be a simple matter to say, ‘It's better to be taller rather than shorter, or it's better to have a strong memory than to be forgetful.' People will disagree about the relative importance of features and the deeper questions on human relationships -- how we treat each other.
"Should we devote ourselves to conscious efforts to design people according to a superior set of criteria? What is a superior human being? We'll draw upon all sorts of past experience with eugenics, people with disabilities and various affiliations," she added.
It is then she hopes the public policy debate will center on constitutional norms.
"Genetic engineering of humans raises questions about general welfare, procreative liberty, the advancement of science and the useful arts, and when it's for our benefit and when it's no longer a benefit because it violates other values we hold dear," Berry explained. "We will figure it out over time and over our shared history together. Then we'll have a shared framework for a policy debate. It will shine light on this novel and complex problem and tell us what we should be debating."
Policymakers are likely to debate the question of whether genetic engineering promotes or harms the welfare of future children and the public at large, Berry said.
"Genetic engineering will be the focal point of disagreement about whether parents, if they are permitted to engineer their children, will be exercising their rights to raise their children as they see fit, or will be engaged in child abuse or inappropriate efforts to control rather than educate their children -- thus requiring the intervention of the government to protect and promote the welfare of these future children," she explained.
The Constitution also calls for the advancement of science, technology and the "useful" arts, and such activities are generally supported by governmental and non-governmental programs, Berry noted.
"But controversy has arisen about whether other values -- in particular, the safety of human subjects and the sanctity of human life -- have been given short shrift in the push to make scientific and technological breakthroughs," she added. "Genetic engineering will be one focal point of debate about this interface between science, technology and society because it will force consideration of the value and meaning of human life itself."
Questions regarding the protection of liberty -- in particular freedom of individual choice in procreation -- and the equal protection of the law are other issues that may be debated within the framework of constitutional norms, Berry said. Some people will argue that genetic engineering falls within the realm of protected reproductive liberties, while others will claim that future children have the right to not be subjected to the risks of genetic engineering procedures gone wrong, or be subject to parental control over their features. Still others are likely to argue that society will be divided by biological endowment if genetic engineering is only available to those who can afford it, she added.
Debate over genetic engineering of humans will be ongoing for future generations. "This issue won't go away," Berry said. "We'll have to deal with whether or how it's used and refined. We need to make a first tentative step now toward coping with this issue because the prospect of this technology is so imminent."
She is hopeful the debate will be open and reflective. "I'd like to see a wide variety of people thinking about this to arrive at a resolution," Berry said. "I don't want this debate to evolve into isolated encampments in which people hold their own views and won't listen to others."
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