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TRENDSPOTTER: Far Right Gets It Wrong on Genomics

IN PAST columns I have taken congressional Democrats to task for being enemies of medical progress because they want to impose price controls and patent limits on prescription drugs and genomics firms that might have had some support from NIH. The genomics industry may fare better under a Republican-controlled Congress and under President George W. Bush because they believe that price controls will kill medical progress. (In fairness, many Republicans signed on to a silly bill that would have encouraged the importation of biotech drugs into America at Third World prices, thereby killing the only free market left for medical innovation.) 

But now that the Republicans control both the executive and legislative branches of government, it’s time for a GOP gut-check on genomics. In particular, it’s time to take a look at the socially conservative wing of the Party and its resistance to certain scientific techniques as well as its willingness to use the heavy hand of government to ban and dictate what individual researchers do.  

Ironically, the Republican revolt against genetic research comes at a time when President Bush seeks to burnish his image as the Science President by pledging to double the NIH budget by 2003 from 1998 levels. Bush’s NIH budget completes a political makeover of the GOP, which was skeptical of the need for increased NIH funding when it took control of Congress in 1995. Many members of Congress believe private biotechnology companies could finance more research themselves. University researchers and executives from biotechnology companies met with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich who then convinced Republicans of the importance of the NIH, which received budget increases even when other programs saw spending slowdowns.  

But the NIH, as well as partners in the private sector funding genetic research are anathema to other factions of the Party who believe that genomic enterprises could lead to immoral or monstrous efforts.   

In 1999 for example, Republican legislators introduced legislation banning somatic cell cloning. In the technique, the nucleus of a somatic cell is transferred into an egg from which the nucleus has been removed. Major anti-abortion groups such as the Christian Coalition and the National Right to Life Committee supported the GOP bill. A Democratic alternative would have allowed the creation of the embryo but banned the use of the egg for cloning. Douglas Johnson of National Right to Life said the Democrats' bill "would codify a policy that creation of cloned humans is permitted so long as those human beings are killed."   

The Biotechnology Industry Organization said the Republicans' bill would make it a crime to create an embryo through the new technology even if this was essential to create stem cells to treat disease. BIO, which has worked closely with the GOP to stop price controls and other limits on the commercialization of gene-based research, asserted,  "The Senate should be extremely cautious before it starts sending scientists to jail when the purpose of their research meets the highest moral and ethical standards and holds such promise for relieving human suffering."

GOP allies also have religious qualms against genetic patents that would have as crippling an effect on medical progress as any limits the Democrats might impose. In 1994 several conservative religious organizations joined a coalition formed by anti-genetic engineering kook Jeremy Rifkin opposing the patenting of genes. The leader of the Southern Baptist Convention said at that time, "This issue is going to dwarf the pro-life debate within a few years. I think we are on the threshold of mind-bending debates about the nature of human life and animal life. We see altering life forms, creating new life forms, as a revolt against the sovereignty of God and an attempt to be God." 

Genetic engineering does raise important moral concerns. But are they any more important than those raised by the failure of nations to address the HIV epidemic with the resources at hand? And frankly, we don’t need genetic engineering to make people revolt against God. The complicity of silence that greeted the actions of the Nazis during World War II proves that. It’s not the technology that’s evil – it’s people. If you stop good people from using it, it will simply fall into evil hands. 

And as for the issue of whether genes belong to God, no one religion has a monopoly on what constitutes God’s view on the matter. Jewish law, for example, is quite clear on the fact that both an embryo and genetic information are human property that must be used to advance life. In this respect, other religious organizations that care about medical progress must alert the GOP to their differing position on the importance of somatic cell techniques, stem cell research, and other cloning processes that can capitalize on the genomics revolution. 

If Republicans don't engage the conservative wing of the party on genetic engineering, this oversight will amount to an abdication of leadership on the issue. Politically, it will allow Democrats to gain the upper hand on the issue of medical innovation. The time to educate these factions about what’s at stake – and stand up to them if necessary – is now.    

Robert Goldberg is a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis and a senior research fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.   You can e-mail him at [email protected]

TrendSpotter is a weekly column that focuses on how trends in politics, patent law, and the US and European markets affect the genomics industry. The column appears every Friday. For access to previous columns, enter “Trendspotter” in the archive search at the top right of the home page.  

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