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MEDIA REPORT OF DISCOVERIES and developments in genetics have become, if not yet uninteresting, at least routine. Among the many in recent months, three stand out. In October 1993, Robert Stillman and Jerry L. Hall at George Washington University Medical Center announced that they had cloned human embryos. In December, the Chicago Tribune presented a four-article series on the discovery of the genetic basis for violence. In January 1994, researchers reported that they had located the "single gene" for osteoporosis (Chicago Tribune, 20 January 1994, 7).
Yet despite their ubiquity, such reports evoke an array of bewildered reactions. Reports of the identification of a gene for a particular trait may merit little more than an article buried in the middle of a newspaper or a brief mention in an evening newscast, unless the trait carries a social stigma. Announcements of therapeutic protocols generally receive one or two days of front-page accolades, while reproductive manipulations provoke near-hysterical and quickly polarized continuing debate.
But is it clear that the latter are outrageous while the former are innocuous? What accounts for the variations in public response? What actually is at stake in gene mapping and genetic technologies? Although the politics and rhetoric of the abortion debate partly account for the frenzy surrounding reproductive interventions, three other factors play a role in the dynamics of the discourse: the marketing of the Human Genome Project, the esoteric nature of genetics, and our increasing lack of practice in the habits of sustained moral reflection.
The marketing of the Human Genome Project drew in large part upon the warrants of advancing scientific knowledge for the benefit of the health of individuals. These warrants seem universally acceptable, and scientific progress and therapeutic possibility remain the dominant public framework for understanding the purposes of genetics, that is, "better health through genetics." When a particular genetic development falls outside this scheme, however, it becomes clear that other interests and agendas are operative, less benign agendas like establishing U.S. leadership in the area of biotechnology, securing national security through increased gross domestic product, increasing corporate profitability, or abetting eugenically cast societal improvement.
While the problem of shifting warrants partly accounts for the dynamics of the debate, a second factor is the esoteric nature of genetics itself. Molecular biology is a highly specialized field, with its own history, language, practices, and interests. (I find it amusing that some people exclude theological language from public discourse on the basis of its being understandable only to those schooled in the language and practices of a particular tradition). For most people, even well-educated people, even some bioethicists who write about genetics, the particulars of genetic processes and technologies are difficult to understand. In this way, genetics differs from issues like euthanasia: Kevorkian's actions, captured in images of his thanatologically rigged van, while open to different interpretations, are relatively comprehensible, while for most people, chromosome maps communicate very little.
Finally, not only do we naively adopt the "better health through genetics" ideology, and not only do the obstacles to understanding genetics make it difficult to understand its social and ethical implications, but increasingly individuals shaped by our culture are ethically out of shape: it is difficult to locate places where individuals are trained in the habits of substantive, rigorous, coherent moral reflection. In our solipsistic culture, we more readily engage in rigorous routines for exercising and developing our bodies than in developing our moral facilities. In addition, insofar as moral reflection is largely a communal activity, our rampant individualism does not allow the necessary conditions.
To redress this current situation would thus require a more thorough ananlysis of the project of genetics, a more thorough general understanding of the processes of genetics, and formal activities that seek to model the practices of public discourse on the ethical dimensions of genetics. While each of the three texts at hand makes some headway toward the first two requirements, they take quite different approaches to the third. First, as demonstrated in Annas and Elias's Gene Mapping, one might convene a panel of experts to gather information, delineate the issues, suggest policy guidelines, and identify areas for further investigation. Second, an approach advanced by Hubbard and Wald in Exploding the Gene Myth, one might go directly "to the people," empowering those who will be affected by genetic research by educating them about genetics and challenging them to engage in an ongoing dialogue. Finally, one might, with Cole-Turner in The New Genesis, look to religious traditions, which have historically provided substantive and normative frameworks for reflecting on questions of identity, illness, healing, power, and other issues raised by genetics. Annas and Elias and Hubbard and Wald illustrate well the strengths of their particular approaches; Cole_Turner's attempt is, unfortunately, disappointing.
GENE MAPPING IS THE …