GENETICS COULD BREED NEW FORMS OF DISCRIMINATION
By Farah Khan
DURBAN, South Africa, Sep. 3 [shortened]
Inter Press Service September 3, 2001
Genetic research and experimentation have raised the specter of new forms of discrimination, the World Conference Against Racism heard today. The present has caught up with the future and now threatens to become the "brave new world" envisioned by novelist Aldous Huxley, said participants at a panel organized by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
"Does modern genetics not threaten to lead one day to that brave new world, with a new species of supermen who have been genetically engineered dominating the masses of sub-humans who will either be excluded from the new genetic paradise or themselves be genetically manipulated for the purposes of social control or more complete exploitation?" asked Jerome Binde of UNESCO.
Furthermore, said panel participants, breakthroughs in mapping genetic make- up, such as those announced by the Human Genome Project, demand new measures to ensure against new forms of discrimination. Parents could seize the opportunity to create so-called designer children.
Employers and health insurance providers could discriminate against people found to have a genetic predisposition to certain diseases. Novelist and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer said the research was in danger of being used only by the wealthy and noted that the science has yet to be explained in terms that lay people can understand.
"Will it be the haves, the light-skinned, and not the have-nots, the dark- skinned, who will benefit? This is the question to ask of the medical community," she said. "Genetic engineering is the new face of globalization," added Gordimer, who painted a globalized world as one in which "powerful groups express and protect their own interests." Given increasing disparities in power and wealth, she said, genetic science risks becoming part of a "new overlordship."
George Annas, a Boston University academic and co-founder of Global Lawyers and Physicians, which promotes human rights and health, said the latest advances in genetics show that "we are all Africans under the skin," since Africa is the archeological site of the oldest forms of humanity. However, he emphasized, while the Human Genome Project has found that similarities dominate "99.9 percent" of the human composition, there remains a widespread focus on the slight differences.
Annas proposed an additional treaty to UNESCO's 1997 Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights. He said it was essential to outlaw cloning and techniques to manipulate the physical characteristics of the human species.
The UNESCO declaration was the first international instrument to ban human cloning. France, Germany, and the United States have banned human cloning but some countries are reluctant to do so, stating their determination to open up new forms of eugenics. The UNESCO declaration states that the human genome is part of the heritage of humanity; reaffirms the universality of human rights and dignity; and rejects genetic determinism.
Annas, who has held a number of government regulatory posts in the United States and whose views were well received here, suggested that the new treaty outline precautionary principles designed to prevent the misuse of new genetic technologies and thus strengthen the existing convention, which the U.N. General Assembly endorsed in 1998. Quoting Vaclav Havel, the Czech president and author, he said it was time to develop a "species consciousness" to protect the human race against the dystopia described in Huxley's "Brave New World."