AbeBooks.com. Thousands of booksellers - millions of books.
Feed on

I am a great fan of The Economist out of London. It not only reports on issues without the censorship to which we are subject in Canada, it does some fascinating special features.

The Issue of June 19-25 2010 has a long feature on Genomes and the history behind the great scientific discoveries of the past couple of decades.

I must admit up front that I draw a blank when it comes to science. I was very lucky to have as a radio guest the late Nobel laureate Michael Smith from UBC whose specialty was genomes. He was able to explain this complex subject to listeners in terms they could understand. I understood too, but I have the rotten habit of forgetting complicated stuff within an hour (at most) of the explanation. Having said that, the Economist article entitled Biology 2.0 got my riveted attention.

I found myself worrying about the ethical and legal problems that genetic science has provided. The article starts out by saying “The race was to sequence the human genome, all 3 billion genetic letters and thus … read the book of life.”

We’ve already reached the point where we’re under camera surveillance most of the time and the UK has reached the point that “Big Brother” will be able to access 80% of all emails. Now maps of our generic makeup!

Here is the troubling part. Commercial ventures have sprung up to provide genetic evidence of citizen’s genetic makeup and provide evidence of not only where you came from – a fascinating story – but what diseases or genetic ailments you might be subject to. So far the information is fairly rudimentary by today’s standards but the time is not far off when you can get close to a complete view of what you are and what’s going to happen.

At my age (39 Celsius) I’m not interested in seeing these things since bad knees, bad memory and fear of death occupy quite enough of my time thank you very much.

The medical implications of these discoveries can be very valuable if you want to know what likely is ahead for you or your children. And it must be emphasized that genome mapping can only talk in terms of what is likely to happen.

St Francis of Assisi, so the story goes, was hoeing his garden when a passer by asked him what he would do if he knew he was to die that evening. “I’d go right on hoeing my garden”, the saint replied. Most of us, I daresay, are not made of such stern stuff and would rather that passersby, and others, keep their questions about our health to themselves.

My concern is that as the cost falls – it now ranges from $599-65,000 depending on how thorough you want the search to be) people will be genomely (a words I just invented!) spied upon by someone who has access to a bit of their genetic material, perhaps from sneezing into a tissue that was discarded. Being the entrepreneurs Americans are, no doubt hustlers will be sending you gene maps offering for sale products that will help you avoid what the map predicts.

Would this technique become a standard police tool? Would testing become like that for alcohol – a routine test at a road block?

Perhaps even more frightening would be a new hiring practice where an applicant would be forced, as a condition of employment, to have a test done.

Our society has already restricted, and then some, the right to privacy predicted by George Orwell in 1984. Have we moved to the point that what used to be horrendous invasions of privacy are now routine?

The standard scary question is “if you’ve nothing to hide, what are you afraid of?”

My answer is simple – what I have to hide is my privacy.

One Response to “Ethical concerns about genome mapping”

  1. Tige Gibson says:

    What you have to hide from is from hunters: people who have no qualms about doing you in for their own ends.

    Reading the genome is only the first step. At this point they are copying and pasting/mixing and matching existing sequences, but at some point in the future we are going to be able to write whole new sequences from scratch, to create functions that have never existed before. Such things are no different than proprietary products on the market today.

    The presumption of an ethical problem is based on the fact that a person can’t change their genetic code at any point in their life even to cure a disease, but is stuck forever with what they were born with, and so we can use this to identify people. At some point this problem will be resolved and create a whole new set of problems, but not the ones opponents to genetic engineering worry about.

Leave a Reply