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Friday, December 13, 2002

Welcome and Opening Remarks

CHAIRMAN KASS: Good morning. Welcome to members of Council. Welcome to our guests. Welcome to members of the public who are here for this, the second session of — what number is this, the eighth? — the eighth meeting of the President's Council on Bioethics.

This morning we will complete with the aid of these two presentations our survey of areas of biotechnology that promise the opportunity to go beyond the therapy of individuals with existing diseases or disability to do things that some call enhancement, others call social control, various other kinds of extra medical uses.

And few topics in relation to this prospect have excited as much interest, excitement, and concern as the possibilities made available through genetic and genomic knowledge.

This is not surprising. If as we have been told for half a century that DNA is the secret of life, then the ability to do something to DNA is certainly of massive importance and significance.

Hovering over the public's interests and concern about these matters is, of course, the sordid history of eugenics as practiced by the Nazis in the last century, a shadow that hangs over these discussions in Europe, I think, much more than it does here and accounts, I think, for example, especially in Germany for their own sensitivities on this question.

But in our own country and while the concerns in this matter have been fanned by journalists and technophobes and various other critics, it's also been stimulated by remarks by members of the scientific community itself.

When I was still a working scientist and when I made the transition into this field, and well before one knew a great deal about what could be done, there was a wonderful enthusiasm and of a grandiose sort. This is in the late '60s and early '70s.

I have a passage from Robert Sinsheimer, who was a sober, careful, distinguished scientist, and this was at a presentation, I believe, at a AAAS meeting in which he says, "For the first time in all time a living creature understands its origin and can undertake to design its future. Even in the ancient myths, man was constrained by his essence. He could not rise above his nature to chart his destiny. Today we can envision that chance and its dark companion of awesome choice and responsibility. We are an historic innovation. We can be the agent of transition to a wholly new path of evolution. This is a cosmic event," said very soberly, with a sense of promise, opportunity, but also of weighty responsibility.

There are other remarks about that time which talk in much more global terms. As the geneticists became more molecular — oh, and by the way, in the background one had even before that going back into the '30s, one had the proposal of the eminent geneticist H.J. Muller for germinal choice with a view of simply by directed mating without any kind of careful genetic knowledge, the prospect of improving the human race.

When the geneticists became more molecular, the grandiosity of such pronouncements faded, and one doesn't hear very much about that, and yet in the last several years, we've had two major works at least from working scientists, Lee Silver's "Remaking Eden" and Gregory Stock's "Redesigning Humans," that talk in rather grand terms about what is going to be possible in the terms of genetic redesigning of future generations.

To have a responsible discussion about this, it's important that one separate fact from fiction and fiction from science fiction, and there is really no better person to help this Council understand where this is and where this is going and what this might mean than our first speaker, Francis Collins, who is the Director and has been since 1993 at the beginning of the Human Genome Project that the National Institute of Human — National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health.

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