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To: Multiple recipients of list HUM-MOLGEN <HUM-MOLGEN@NIC.SURFNET.NL>
Subject: ETHI: Religion and Gene Patents
From: Hans Goerl <GENETHICS@delphi.com>
Date: Mon, 15 May 1995 15:23:37 -0400

  The New York Times reported on Saturday that a letter signed by several
hundred religious leaders "representing virtually every major faith in the
United States" will be sent to Congress urging the end of the current
practice of patenting human DNA segments and/or genes.Among the signatories
to the letter are 100 Roman Catholic bishops as well as "numerous Protestant
and Jewish leaders, and groups of American Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists.
     The coalition behind the letter was put together by Jeremy Rifkin, a
well known opponent of genetic research.

   In the opinion of this writer, this campaign represents a serious attack
on the financial foundation of the genetic industry in the United States.

   Seventy years ago, Freud wrote that the one true enemy of science is
religion (though I think it may have occurred to Galileo or even Ptolemy
sometime earlier). Despite the truth of the statement, it also seems that
for the most part, religion has rarely impeded scientific progress over the
long haul.

    Nevertheless, in this case I think there is a substantial likelihood
that religious objections (most legitimate, others questionable) can
successfully be used to slow down, or even stop some lines of genetic
scientifc inquiry. There are a couple of reasons for this.

    First, human genetic information is particularly intimate and powerful.
In the eyes of many it controls or at least strongly influences many aspects
of our personalities, characteristics and even character. It therefore can
be seen or depicted as a direct challenge to one's view of of the role of
God, Jehovah or any other Higher Power in one's life. This is fundamentally
upsetting both to the individual and to many religious leaders.

    Second a large number of universities and researchers have, for
financial reasons, forfeited their credibility as effective evaluators of
the scientific accuracy and usefulness to humanity of this new knowledge and
technology. As holders of extremely valuable patent rights or as active
financial partners in biotechnology firms, these individuals and
institutions can not be relied upon, as they have in the past, to tell the
whole truth about their discoveries. In addition,  economic competition
provides a strong incentive against sharing of knowledge and further impairs
the credibility of their role in this debate.

   Third, for an extended period of time, the most common uses of genetic
information will be to deny individuals rights and privileges. Because of
their genes, they will be subject to loss of insurance, jobs, credit, and
educational opportunities. They will also be socially stigmatized, their
rights to reproduce will be jeopardized and they may be regarded as having
personality or other characteristics that they, in truth, do not have. While
true cures and preventive startegies may eventually come out of genetic
research, in the meantime the side effects of this technology will adversely
affect many more people than it helps. These people will provide fertile
ground for the message that genetic research is in some way immoral
untrustworthy or sacreligious.

   Fourth, at least in this country there seems to be a growing search for
faith and belief in some kind of core values. Because of this trend, the
"religious right" has a strong foothold in American politics and on this
kind of issue,they can be expected to exercise considerable pressure on
Congress to eliminate some of the financial incentives for genetic research.

   Finally, access to instantaneous multi-band communications media, such as
e-mail, faxes and the like, has the effect of leveling the playing field in
the public opinion contest between the essentially monolithic bio-tech/ drug
industry and the less homogeneous, previously isolated opponents of this
technology.

   Despite the wishes of many in the academic, biotech and government
communities this public debate is going to happen: it is going to be loud
and emotional and its outcome is by no means certain.

   It seems to me that responsible researchers and technology companies have
both a moral duty and significant long term financial incentives to actively
oppose some of the less ethical patenting practices and misuses of genetic
information that provide support to the arguments of those who seek to
oppose genetic research.  It also seems to me that religious opponents of
these practices should remain cognizant of the origins and potential
beneficial uses of genetics, lest they throw out the baby with the
bathwater.

Hans S. Goerl
The Genethics Center
Hagerstwon, Md.


   
 
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