Leaders in the fledgling biotechnology industry have sharply criticized a call by religious leaders to ban research into aspects of human genetic enginering.
The resolution of the clergy, issued earlier this month, is an "attempt to legislate humility by legislating ignorance," said David Padwa, chairman and chief executive officer of Agrigenetics, a Boulder, Colo., company applying genetic engineering techniques to seed development. "In a world of crime, drugs, war and hunger, I find it a bit hard to take the self-appointed censors of developmental biology."
The controversial resolution, which had about 75 signers, most of them religious leaders ranging from the Rev. Jerry Falwell to Avery Post, president of the United Church of Christ, seeks to prohibit all human gene engineering.
It raises concerns about "the possibility of altering the human species . . . and irreversibly alter ing the composition of the gene pool for all future generations of human life . . . " And it argues that no individual or group can claim the right to make such decisions on behalf of the rest of the species.
While critical of the resolution, the businessmen and scientists meeting today at the Industrial Biotechnology Association's seminar on Social and Ethical Issues in Denver--which had been planned before the resolution was issued--were mildly receptive to the idea of a high-level commission to monitor such research.
"Our unofficial view is that such a commission is unnecessary," said Harvey S. Price, executive director of the IBA, a trade group that includes many of the nation's leading biotechnology and genetic engineering companies. "However, we are interested in the concept. We would want a commission that would monitor research, though, and not regulate it."
Rep. Albert Gore (D-Tenn.) has introduced a bill to create a special President's Commission on the Human Application of Genetic Engineering to track such research. A recent presidential commission on biotechnology recommended much the same thing. In a statement sent to the seminar, Gore said that the new genetic technologies created a complex set of ethical quesitons--which he called "genethics"--that requires the creation of such a panel.
Recombinant DNA techniques can be applied to everything from improving crop yields and creating hardier plants and livestock to reducing the risk of human hereditary disease.
But critics say that that same tehcnology has potential for serious abuse.
One critic, author Jeremy Rifkin, who organized the clergy's resolution, argues that scientific tampering with the gene pool could ultimately lead to the extinction of the human species.
"This field has been intensely debated for a long time," said John C. Fletcher, assistant for bioethics at the National Institutes of Health. He pointed to the 1975 Asilomar Conference in Californa where DNA scientists discussed the potential impact of their research. However, the fact that recombinant DNA technology is slowly moving from the laboratory to the marketplace has sparked renewed concerns over its ultimate employment and the way people perceive that deployment.
"If you scratch many Americans," said Fletcher, "you find fundamentalism. This belief that genes are directed by supernatural intervention is very strong."
Educating people to the science of genetics and inheritance will be critical for public acceptance of the new technologies, he said.
"We have to be able to deal with people who are sincere in their concerns without overreacting to them," said Ronald Cape, the chairman of CETUS Corp. of Berkeley, Calif., a major recombinant DNA company.
Though no specific recommendations are expected from the meeting, whose speakers included representatives from the public opinion and religious communities, IBA members say they will take a higher profile in the DNA debate.
"I think businessmen are always wary of getting too deeply involved in social issues," said J. Leslie Glick, president of Genex, a Rockville, Md.-based genetic engineering company, "But we think this examination is important for our industry."