Re: Op Ed--Genetics & Civil Liberties

Paul Arveson (
Sat, 26 Jul 1997 21:56:14 -0500

>Fm: Phil Bereano >
>Below is the text of my Op Ed "Don't Take Liberties with our Genes" which
>was published in the Seattle Times on Thursday July 17. (My apologies if
>you receive this on more than one list.)
>Don't Take Liberties with our Genes
> Bill Clinton's picture of a wonderful technofuture sounds like a
>threatening Brave New World to many Americans. The confluence of a number
>of technical and social trends has greatly enhanced the capacity for
>genetic surveillance and tracking:
>* The science of genetics is a flourishing new industry, nourished in
>large part by the federally funded Human Genome Project. The goal of this
>ambitious research endeavor is to identify every gene found in the human
>body, approximately 100,000 in all. Much of the research focuses on genetic
>diagnostics: tests designed to identify genes thought to be associated
>with various medical conditions. More than 50 new genetic tests have been
>identified in the past five years alone.

Thanks for uploading your op-ed piece on the listserv. This is an issue
on which much has been written, although I find it difficult to identify
how to evaluate the various opinions, and how to decide what is right.

As a scientist myself, I appreciate the enterprise that is modern
science, from its roots in the Christian philosophy of nature that
encouraged it (Kepler, Galileo, Pascal, Bacon etc.) up to the present
achievements in physics, astronomy and other sciences.

In biology, we have encountered the paradox that we are uncovering
a mechanical description of the genome -- that is, ourselves.
This mechanistic description of mankind that results from the Genome
Project is a limited kind of knowledge. Like any kind of knowledge,
it can be used for good or ill.

It may come as a surprise to some of you, but the Director of the
Human Genome Project, Dr. Francis Collins, is a Christian and
a member of the American Scientific Affiliation. I haven't had the
privilege of meeting him yet (he's a very busy man). Dr. Collins
was also responsible for discovery of the gene for cystic fibrosis.

On many of the ethical questions, I would welcome the views of experts
such as Francis Collins. Scientific knowledge helps to give us
boundaries as to what is possible or impossible, and how the possible
may be accomplished. So far, the medical model has been the primary
motivation for genetic research: to eliminate disease. But
the new knowldge will permit a vast expansion of the definition of

Gene sequencing, like all science, only describes what is. There
is a basic philosophical principle that one can never infer from what
is to what ought to be (from biology directly to ethics). Ethics
requires input from a source other than facts. Therefore, ethical
guidelines regarding how genetic knowledge is used go far beyond the
scope of the work of gene sequencers.

I sense that our society has been floundering in trying to come to grips
with bioethics. In biology, there are experts. But who can be an
'expert' in bioethics? What does that mean?

In the absence of such expertise, we are left with opinions, and this
is a very shaky place to be. I would suggest that we try to derive
bioethics from the Scriptures, but I think that there too, there is
too much room for bias in working out interpretations. I proffer no
solutions; in any case genomics is a new science and we will simply
have to proceed with caution.

Paul Arveson, Code 724, Signatures Directorate, NSWC
(301) 227-3831 (301) 227-4511 (FAX)