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SBC ethicists: Society ‘ill-equipped’ for issues raised by genetic mapping

WASHINGTON (BP)–The world is “ill-equipped to handle the thorny ethical issues” raised by the completion of the first sequencing of the human genetic code, two Southern Baptist ethicists say.

At a White House ceremony June 26, it was announced two competing groups, the Human Genome Project and Celera Genomics Corp., had both finished an initial map of the human genome. President Clinton hailed the identification of nearly all of the more than three billion “letters” in the genetic blueprint as “the most important, most wondrous map ever produced by humankind.” It means doctors in the future will be able to cure such diseases as Alzheimer’s and cancer “by attacking their genetic roots,” he said.

While acknowledging the announcement signals the “dawn of a new age” and provides hope for curing genetically linked diseases, it also could produce a “dark sojourn into a nightmarish future,” said ethicists affiliated with the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“The bad news is this science is being conducted in a moral dark age,” said Richard Land and Ben Mitchell in a written statement. Land is ERLC president, and Mitchell is biomedical and life issues consultant for the agency.

“Those who make public policy about such matters cannot agree that unborn babies are human persons who deserve at least a right not to be unnecessarily harmed. They cannot agree that human beings and their body parts should not be owned through the patent process. They cannot agree that the disabled, infirm and aged should be cared for in a dignified and humane matter rather than being discarded via euthanasia.”

In a separate commentary for the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, Mitchell said society is “dominated by technological giants and ethical pygmies.” Mitchell is a senior fellow at the center and assistant professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill.

With this new, intimate information, Land and Mitchell said, “genetic discrimination is a real and potentially devastating possibility.”

Employment and health insurance coverage are two of the areas where concerns about discrimination have been expressed.

“Until public scrutiny of the biosciences is enhanced radically and ethical vigilance is applied rigorously, this moment of unprecedented potential for human good will be remembered by our descendants as the dawn of a new dark age of barbarism creating nightmares for humanity never before imagined,” Land and Mitchell said.

Others also voiced fears about what the future holds.

“The further science goes, the further the worst case scenario goes,” said Steve Jenkins, a spokesman for the Church of England, in a Reuters news report.

“The idea of designing humans from scratch along with the prospect of an enormous increase in abortion is not the world we want.”

According to Reuters, Richard Nicholson, editor of the Bulletin of Medical Ethics in England, said, “Like climbing Mount Everest, [mapping the human genome] will benefit few people, leaving most untouched. But unlike climbing Mount Everest, it has the potential to damage large numbers of people.”

Clinton acknowledged the ethical challenges, saying “we must also not retreat from our oldest and most cherished human values.” He called for protection of privacy and prevention of discrimination.

A final draft of the genetic code will be completed in less than three years, Clinton said. In the meantime, the public and private research teams are to publish their information simultaneously later this year and then to hold a sequence analysis conference, he said.

The Human Genome Project is an international effort involving more than 1,000 scientists. Celera is a private company located in suburban Washington that used a different technique in its sequencing.