The University Record, February 18, 1998
By Jane R. Elgass
A panel of U-M faculty members, chaired by Gilbert S. Omenn, executive vice president for medical affairs, responded to Harold Shapiro's presentation on the work of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission at last week's conference on "Managing Integrity in Research."
Diane L. Baker, director of the Genetic Counseling Program, noted that speculation about possible misuse of genetic testing that is widely reported and discussed and the reality are not the same.
For instance, she explained, a gene responsible for short stature recently was discovered. Some feared that if a genetic test were available, parents who both have the gene and want a short child would reject one that would be of average height. A survey of 1,500 genetics counselors has shown that so far this has not been done.
As a geneticist, Thomas D. Gelehrter's reaction to the creation of Dolly the sheep, unlike that described by Shapiro, was one of "tremendous excitement. It was absolutely cool."
He called for more education about science, noting that many of the public's fears, particularly about genetic issues, have been driven by science fiction. He cautioned, however, that we should not wait for education to take effect before continuing research. "We would be ill-served if we prevent advances at the expense of education."
Gelehrter also expressed concern about legislative efforts to ban cloning experiments, saying they "represent a significant danger" and could possibly slow legitimate areas of research.
Economist and public policy specialist Paul Courant noted that the economic implications of livestock cloning are obvious and enormous, and that the same could hold true for human cloning.
For instance, if a child needs a bone marrow transplant, a second child could be cloned to provide an identical match. If we have the techniques to do the cloning, Courant said, there will be tremendous economic pressure to do so.
Philosopher J. David Velleman noted that while the commission based its recommendations on the "narrowest grounds," the report does contain a point of view.
He argued that the assumption that fears and worries mainly are due to ignorance and could be assuaged by education is only partly true. "I don't think that once you dispel the ignorance you will dispel the legitimate worries."
Janet A. Weiss, the Mary C. Bromage Collegiate Professor of Organizational Behavior and Public Policy, commented on the politics of presidential commissions and the results of their work.
She noted that they are, indeed, political entities whose membership often represents polar opposite views. A standard result of these commissions is that compromise is the only way to get anywhere.
The success of these commissions can be evaluated in several ways: adoption of the recommendations by the president; adoption of the recommendations by others, such as state and local governments, professional associations and international organizations; the ability of the groups' reports to convey a sense of urgency about the topic and put it on the public agenda for discussion; and whether the reports mobilize key constituencies.