November 21, 2000

Workshop Grapples With Moral Problems

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By splicing together interdisciplinary perspectives from the social sciences, humanities and natural sciences, a workshop sponsored by the Ethical, Legal and Social Issues committee of the Cornell Genomics initiative investigated the social impact of genetic research and new biological technologies this past weekend.

The Cornell Genomics Initiative serves to oversee research pertaining to genetics.

“These new technologies create uncertainties in how to apply principles of moral thinking,” said Prof. Michelle Moody-Adams, philosophy. “There is ambivalence about the demands on biological technologies within our commodity culture. We don’t all agree on the legal status of human flesh, animal rights or even the limits of ownership of the human body.”

Many of the workshop speakers used Great Britain and Iceland as a springboard to discuss legal issues currently up for debate in the United States since both countries have already tried to address the ethical and legal contradictions surrounding genetic engineering.

More than 1000 patents — exclusive ownership rights — exist of genetic information derived from the human genome and 5000 derived from plants and animals, according to Prof. Jay Thomas, law.

“In creating the human genome project in Europe, they insisted that it be subjected to ethical constraints. The United States has been patenting ‘living inventions’ for more than a century and that practice goes on today unabated,” Thomas said.

Since being excluded from ownership rights to the knowledge gleaned from her son’s body tissues, which were used for developing a privately owned Canavan disease test, Prof. Judith Tsipis, biology, has been opposed to the patenting of genetic information.

“Gene patents can physically restrict one’s access to genetic testing, financial consideration or genetical counseling and education,” she said.

Iceland’s socialist government permitted a private company named Decode to computerize the entire population’s medical records during the late 1990’s. The project was designed to reveal each citizen’s genetic history through a genealogy dating back to 900 A.D., according to Prof. Pamela Sankar, bioethics, Univ. of Pennsylvania.

“This project may destroy the [Icelandic] public’s confidentiality. There are no limits to what Decode can sell,” Sankar said. Although their donators have revoked 20 percent of the submitted tissue samples, the information gleaned from the samples now belongs to the company.

Prof. Rita Calvo, molecular biology and genetics, described the potential benefits of genetic research that can pinpoint specific genes relating to specific behaviors in people. Sankar challenged these benefits, explaining that this information could be used as potential discrimination.

Humans are not the only living organisms in danger of being discriminated against for their genetic identity, explained Prof. Fred Quimby, veterinary medicine. Research animals that have been genetically modified but do not express the intended characteristic often continue living uncomfortably.

“There’s absolutely no question that there will be a number of unintended outcomes, a number of which have already been addressed. Since we humans are, arguably, the only agents of morality on the planet, we have to take the responsibility to treat animals with sympathy and compassion,” Quimby said.

The audience consisted primarily of professors and researchers from Cornell and abroad specifically interested in bioethics, though a number of Cornell students also showed up to listen to the variety of ethical arguments.

“Workshops like this one held today really show Cornell’s commitment to making the public aware of this issue. People need to reach out and read to become well-informed, but the science needs to bring it to the public level,” said Yonina Fishos ’03.

Archived article by Dan Webb