The Moral Meaning of Genetic Technology

Commentary, September 1999. Reprinted in The American Journal of Jurisprudence 45:1-16, 2000.


As one contemplates the current and projected state of genetic knowledge and technology, one is astonished by how far we have come in the less than 50 years since Watson and Crick first announced the structure of DNA. True, soon after that discovery, scientists began seriously to discuss the futuristic prospects of gene therapy for genetic disease and of genetic engineering more generally. But no one then imagined how rapidly genetic technology would emerge, as the direct consequence of new, utterly unforeseen techniques for DNA recombination. Within a few years, we will see the completion of the Human Genome Project, disclosing the DNA sequences of all the 100,000 human genes. Today, genetic technology companies are thriving, even on incomplete genomic knowledge; the research director for SmithKline Beecham reported at a recent meeting that his company already has enough genetic sequencing data to keep his researchers busy for the next 20 years, developing early detection screening techniques; rationally designed vaccines; genetically engineered changes in malignant tumors leading to enhanced immune response; and, ultimately, precise gene therapy for specific genetic diseases. The age of genetic technology has arrived—and with it, much public anxiety and a growing attention to the some of the attendant ethical issues.