Gene therapy

Tue, 7 Mar 1995 10:33:09 -0600

(gene replacement). An important facet of that has to do with the
proneness of people to have their own (or their children's) genes
replaced. In thinking about that, it's important to distinguish between
positive and negative eugenics. Negative eugenics involves interventions
(one type of which would be gene therapy) to avoid traits that are
considered to be undesirable. Positive eugenics involves interventions
to encourage or introduce traits that are considered to be desirable.

People seem quite willing to use gene therapy for negative
eugenic purposes. Gene therapy has been used, for example, as a
treatment for combined immunodeficiency syndrome, and doubtless other
examples exist already or will soon.

On the other hand, people seem considerably less likely to use
gene therapy for positive eugenic purposes. There is, of course, the
possibility of unintended and unwelcome side-effects. But even if
that were no problem, I have some doubts that many people would turn to
gene therapy to ensure that their children possess desirable traits such
as stature or artistic or intellectual talents of various sorts (if and
when genetic knowledge and technology ever make it possible to influence
such matters by gene replacement). The reason for my doubt is that a
simple method to do just that has been available for decades--artificial
insemination by donor. (And now, with the possibility to extract eggs,
fertilize them *in vitro*, and implant them in another woman, a
counterpart to donor insemination using female germ material is
available.) And yet, although this method for "improving stock" has long
been available and has been used with much success in animal husbandry,
the research I have done indicates that humans have only rarely turned to
it in an effort to endow their offspring with qualities the parents
desire. This leads me to doubt the degree to which people will have
recourse to gene replacement for positive eugenic purposes if and when it
becomes technologically feasible.

I want to close, however, with two provisos. First, the
distinction between positive and negative eugenics is not all that
clear-cut. Diseases are social constructions; the gathering together of
a constellation of symptoms to represent a single condition and the
labeling of that condition as a "disease" is a social or cultural
process. It is therefore possible to label something *other* than the
desirable condition one wishes to attain as a "disease" and then attempt
to eradicate or prevent it. (Probably the possession of various kinds of
parasites--at one time not considered to be abnormal--is a case in
point.) Attempts to prevent or cure such diseases look like examples of
negative eugenics, but viewed more closely they look like a back door to
positive eugenics.

Second, for most of the time that the process has been available,
donor insemination has been used almost exclusively by husband-infertile
married couples. Further, the process was kept very confidential. In
these conditions, the primary criterion for sperm donor selection was
physical resemblance to the husband. Now there is a movement not to keep
donor insemination secret, and the process is being used by single women
and lesbian couples as well as heterosexual couples. I am currently
engaged in research on criteria for selecting sperm donors in these newer
conditions, and it appears as if the intellectual, artistic, athletic,
and other qualities of donors hold a somewhat higher priority in these
circumstances than they did in the traditional situation. If anyone has
any information on this question, I would be very glad to receive it.

Allan Hanson