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Medical ethicists speak today at Given

David K. Gibson

Eugenics, the science of improving the human species through science, hasn’t been held in very high esteem ever since the Nazis tried to create a master race.

Yet, as scientists work their way through the intricacies of unlocking and manipulating the human genome, we find ourselves as a species on the brink of being able to determine our genetic future.

Today at 6 p.m., the Given Institute will address that very subject to close out its summer lecture series. A 5:30 p.m. reception at the Given Institute will precede the talk. All interested parties are invited to attend.

Speakers will include Dr. Marilyn Coors and Dr. Mark Yarborough, both ethicists with the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, and Dr. Ken Krauter, a geneticist from the University of Colorado at Boulder. The title of the evening will be “Genetics: What Do We Owe Future Generations?”

The three doctors will present their views and offer an interactive discussion on where this technology may take us.

“Right now, we have the technology to screen for certain genetic diseases,” said Dr. Coors, “and that’s a pretty clear-cut case of using the technology for good.” But as scientific knowledge advances, she said, “We progress from mere therapy to enhancement, and then to some Utopian or distopian vision.”

To illustrate their point, the doctors will examine three case studies: two drawn from real life and one from the not-so-distant future.

First, the doctors will examine a simple case of genetic screening. In a purely therapeutic case, these doctors encountered a couple with a predisposition to a genetic ailment who were concerned about their child inheriting this disease. The ethics here seem rather straightforward: the scientists used technology to avoid suffering.

The second case, also drawn from real life, is more problematic. In this case, a deaf couple wanted a doctor to genetically select for a child that would also be deaf. “They thought it important that the child grow up in the same culture as its parents, even if outsiders would interpret deafness as a disability,” said Dr. Coors. The ethical dilemma is obvious: Where do society’s rules overrule the wishes of the parents?

In this case, the parents were unsuccessful finding a practitioner to select for deafness, but for the simple reason that the science of the matter was not suitably advanced.

“There are guidelines for these types of procedures, but no regulations,” notes Dr. Coors. “As a rule, most doctors would participate in avoidance of disease, but not in enhancement of selection for appearance.”

The third case the doctors will examine is that of pushing the human species beyond its current capacity. “We are only a few decades away from being able to select for improved memory in humans,” said Dr. Coors. “What sort of decisions will be made then?”

There are many possibilities to consider. Will humanity as a whole benefit from such experiments? Some scientists believe that we may be able to artificially accelerate human evolution through the use of genetics. Smarter human beings may be able to find the answers to problems that have been challenging us for decades, perhaps giving us a cure for cancer, a pollution-free energy source, or even a peaceful planet.

But some ethicists wonder if such manipulation might not just widen the chasm between the haves and have-nots. As it is unlikely that an HMO will pay to genetically enhance its customers’ progeny, such procedures will dwell only in the domain of the wealthy, some fear.

“All of this is worth contemplating now, before we’re facing the possibilities directly” said Dr. Coors. She and her colleagues are looking forward to their lecture as “a rare opportunity to really interact with an audience.” Audience members are encouraged to bring their most thought-provoking questions.

The Given Institute is located at 100 E. Francis St. in Aspen. For more information, call 925-1057; fax to 544-9758; or visit its Web site at http://www.giveninstitutute.org


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