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DNA pioneer’s stance debated over altering pre-borns’ genes

LONDON (BP)–An American Nobel laureate who helped discover the structure of DNA has called for changes in the law that would allow the manipulation of genes in human eggs, sperm and embryos to lessen the chances of future generations contracting serious diseases, CNSNews.com reported April 19.

A British ethicist described the views, published in a national British newspaper, as “really quite shocking,” while a pro-life group noted that the scientist has in the past advocated eugenic abortion and infanticide.

Writing in the Independent, James Watson, president of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, said the potential benefits of altering the genes that predispose people to disease far outweigh risks that may never materialize.

Changing the genes of sperm, eggs and embryos is known as “germ-line gene therapy.” It is illegal in Britain, the United States and elsewhere.

But Watson argued that scientists “should never put off doing something useful for fear of evil that may never arrive.”

While he acknowledged that many people for religious or political reasons oppose interference in the “genetic destinies” of children, Watson said he strongly favored the action.

“Working intelligently and wisely to see that good genes dominate as many lives as possible is the truly moral way for us to proceed,” Watson wrote.

He dismissed fears that gene therapy would lead to the creation of “superpersons” who would make genetically unmodified people feel unwanted or inferior.

“Such creations will remain denizens of science fiction, not the real world, far into the future,” Watson wrote. When germ-line gene therapy experiments are eventually attempted, the aim would likely be, for example, “to create children who are resistant to a deadly virus,” he wrote.

In an accompanying editorial, the Independent broadly supported Watson’s arguments, asking: “If it is possible to identify and alter the genes that predispose people to childhood cancers or to adult Alzheimer’s disease, why not do it?”

“We should not be ruled by the fear of the unknown or, worse, the fear of having to make difficult moral decisions,” the newspaper said, and called for British law to be amended, to enable scientists “to try to minimize the chances of people being born with pain or an early death written into their chromosomes.”

But Donald Bruce of the Society, Religion and Technology Project of the Church of Scotland expressed concern about Watson’s viewpoint.

Watson in his article appeared to deny the “precautionary principle” — that scientists should not interfere with human genetic code for fear of unforeseeable, possibly grave consequences, Bruce said.

“As a former risk assessor in the nuclear industry, this attitude is highly irresponsible,” Bruce said. “Coming from so eminent a scientist this is really quite shocking.”

Watson presented himself as a “libertarian” who wanted no regulation of scientific experimentation at all, to which Bruce responded: “This is utterly out of touch with the human social responsibility of scientists to the wider society [which] honored him so many years ago.

“Whatever the rights and wrongs of germ-line intervention, this article will mislead more than it will shed light.

“We in Europe have not forgotten what happened in Germany 50 years ago. There are good reasons to fear someone who would apparently cull out of the population those he deems genetically unfit,” Bruce said.

In further reaction to Watson’s comments, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children pointed out that Watson, in a 1973 book, advocated killing babies born with “defects.”

In his “Children from the Laboratory,” Watson had written: ” … most defects are not discovered until birth. If a child were not declared alive until three days after birth, then all parents could be allowed the choice … the doctor could allow the child to die, if the parents so choose, and save a lot of misery and suffering.”

Watson shared the 1962 Nobel physiology/medicine prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA with two British colleagues, Maurice Wilkins and Francis Crick.
Goodenough is the London bureau chief for CNSNews.com. Used by permission.

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  • Patrick Goodenough