The President's Commission on Bioethics yesterday recommended that the government establish a permanent agency to oversee future work in genetic engineering.
Alex Capron, executive director of the commission, told a House subcommittee that after two years of study, the panel found no gene-splicing work, either in the planning stages or under way, that is of any "fundamental danger to human values, social norms or ethical principles."
He said religious groups that had asked for the study were wrong in their perception of a danger to ethics in gene engineering, but right in saying that there is a lack of government oversight of the problem.
While no ethical problems have developed thus far in nine years of gene engineering work, Capron told the House Science and Technology oversight subcommittee that important ethical crossroads will be reached in the future -- especially if science achieves the ability to transplant genes from animal to man or vice versa.
If things are to be added and subtracted from human genes, he said, "it may . . . be fruitful to clarify what it is about human beings that is unique--whether it is the sum of their characteristics or the possession of particular characteristics.
"There is a certain irony here," he testified, "since a person approaching the subject from a religious or philosophical perspective is likely to deny that human beings are simply a reflection of the particular chemicals that make them up," but those same people object to altering human chemicals because it may alter "human nature."
Capron said that one thing a watchdog agency might consider is a prohibition on the cross-breeding, or hybridizing, of humans and animals.
Another area of concern is that genetic engineering might lead man to favor the use of some genes over others, thus depleting the "gene pool."
Another serious question is what changes may be made in the name of correcting defects. Correcting a gene that causes a fatal disease is clearly an ethical act, but will minor or cosmetic changes be sought by parents in the future?
Scientists agreed that such a possibility as manipulating human genes is something that, if it is ever to become a problem, is years away.
Scientists do not thoroughly understand how to transplant genes in any but a few cases in single-celled animals, and the highest organism in which a gene has been successfully transplanted is the fruit fly.