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Mitchell: Genetics potential also poses ethical, policy challenges

WASHINGTON (BP)–The “breathtaking” potential of genetic technology presents both ethical and public policy challenges in the wake of the mapping of the human genome, a Southern Baptist ethicist said on Capitol Hill.

Speaking to a group of congressional staff members April 6, C. Ben Mitchell called for the rejection of eugenics and the adoption of privacy legislation as some of the responses to a genetics revolution. Mitchell is a biomedical consultant to the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, as well as associate professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in suburban Chicago.

The mapping of the human genome, which was announced earlier this year, provides the “potential for understanding the genetic linkage” to 4,000 to 5,000 disease conditions, Mitchell said. It is “hard to overestimate” the benefits that could come from this development, but he is “not under any illusion that we will usher in a genetic utopia,” Mitchell said.

The potential benefits include the prevention of diseases and drug therapies that target specific conditions in a person, he said.

The ethical challenges that come with this technology include, Mitchell said:

— The gap between diagnosis of a disease condition or a gene that causes a disease and developing a therapy for the disease may be years.

— There will be socio-economic costs for investing overwhelming resources in genetic technology.

— The potential for discrimination and the loss of genetic privacy is great.

— The distinction between therapy and enhancement will be debated, as well as the question of who makes this determination.

— There is the danger of a new eugenics movement taking advantage of the technology.

The ability to identify genes that cause diseases can have various ramifications, Mitchell said, including: The creation of a new class, which he labeled “the presymptomatic ill;” potential psychological problems for children and the parents of newborns; and the encouragement for parents to abort their unborn child when tests show he has such a gene.

A March of Dimes poll in 1993 showed 11 percent of parents would abort their child if his genome is predisposed to obesity, Mitchell said.

In some cases, the presence of a disease gene only means the potential for an illness exists, he said. Some conditions can be avoided or controlled by “lifestyle choices,” he told the congressional staffers.

The technology also may result in insurance companies and employers seeking to know about any genetic propensities for diseases before insuring or hiring people, Mitchell said. In 1997, 6 to 10 percent of companies used genetic tests for employment purposes, he said. Only about 40 percent of states have laws protecting employees from genetic discrimination, he said.

Given these ethical dilemmas, Mitchell called for the following actions in the United States:

— Adoption of federal legislation protecting genetic privacy.

— Resistance to the “idea we are only the sum of our parts.”

— Repudiation of eugenics.

— Correction of laws that permit the patenting of genes and cell lines.

— Education of the public on genetics.

In response to Mitchell’s power-point presentation, Thomas Beam, director of the Borden Institute, acknowledged Americans have “a lot of catching up to do” on genetic technology.

Handling the genetic revolution will be difficult because American society lacks a “moral compass” and has a “love affair with autonomy,” Beam said.

“We’ve made an idol of technology,” Beam said. “Clearly, we have the same ability” to sink to where the Nazis were in the 1930s, he said.

The seminar was part of a series sponsored by two Washington-area organizations, The Ethics and Public Policy Center and The Wilberforce Forum, the research arm of Prison Fellowship.