GENTECH archive


Urgent comments needed on WHO guidelines

The World Health Organisation's General Assembly will vote this month on guidelines on bioethics.  These are non-binding guidelines, but will be highly influential, if accepted.  They endorse the WHO's existing position against reproductive cloning of human beings and have a number of other good points.  They are on the web, with an article from Nature reporting them, at  A key weakness is the following sentence:
'At present germ line therapy is not acceptable, but this should be reviewed with advancing knowledge'. 
'Germ line therapy' refers to inheritable genetic engineering of humans (HGE), as opposed to existing techniques of 'gene therapy' which do not involve changes which are inherited by offspring. 
Human genetic engineering is completely unacceptable and should be subject to an unconditional permanent ban, like cloning.  However, the current view of the scientific community, as reflected in the WHO draft, is that the main reason for not doing HGE is that the technique itself might lead to harmful mutations, which could cause genetic diseases.  Whilst true, this does not address any ethical or social issues, and if techniques improve, it will not prevent some scientists from going ahead.
It is vital that people lobby the WHO calling for a permanent ban on human genetic engineering.  Here are some arguments you might use:
1. It is a basic aspect of human dignity that human beings are what they are, and must be accepted as such.  They must not become objects of design by others, however well meaning, otherwise the key distinction between humans as subjects and objects to be manipulated at will, will disappear, with dire consequences for human dignity.
2. The social consequences of this change would be profound: it would be a new era of human history in which the genetic constitution of the human race as a whole would become subject to market forces.  One likely consequence, given the expense of the technique, would be that the rich would be able gain extra advantages for their children, leading to a genetically-enhanced ruling elite.  Lee Silver,a biologist at Princeton University has said that this elite would eventually become a separate species.  Given the power of the technique, in some instances it is certain that states would assume control over its use, for eugenic purposes. 
3. Once it was permitted for 'medical' reasons it would be impossible to control its use for purposes of 'enhancement', as has been the case with surgery and many drugs. 
4. Although advocates of germline engineering argue for its medical benefits, in fact there are extremely few instances where the avoidance of the birth of genetically disabled children could not be accomplished by other means, such as gamete donation, preimplantation diagnosis, adoption, termination of pregnancy or non-parenthood.  It cannot be acceptable for the the above-mentioned ethical and social consequences to be risked for the sake of the desires of a vanishingly small number of people. 
In short HGE is a new form of techno-eugenics which cannot be accepted, whatever slight benefits it may have.  It cannot be justified interms of 'reproductive freedom'.
Please use your own arguments and words and do not simply cut and paste these.  A simple expression of revulsion at the prospect of HGE will do.
Please send your comments to the WHO report's author, Abdullah Daar, (
David King