Free market values meet biotech in a sanity- and ethics-free zone!
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Cloning looms as economic reality
Sydney Morning Herald 03/03/2001, Australia (Online)
Contrived humans are starting to look like market forces, writes Alan B. Krueger.
The field of genetics is moving at mach speed. In January, doctors announced plans to clone a human within 18 months.
In February, two teams of researchers published a map of the human genome. While Wall Street frets over whether the discovery that the genome consists of "only around 30,000 genes" will limit the market value of genomics companies, the potential impact of genomics on the economy and society runs deeper. Most fundamentally, cloning and genetic engineering could change the distribution of characteristics in the population.
If the experience of earlier reproductive technologies like in vitro fertilisation is a guide, the marketplace, not government regulation or ethical norms, will determine who uses cloning services. At an estimated cost of $US250,000 ($475,000) a clone, market forces loom large.
The Princeton molecular biologist Lee M. Silver argues in his book Remaking Eden (Hearst Books, 1997) that there is a real possibility that genetic engineering left to the marketplace will lead to a two-class society, populated by well-off, genetically engineered "GenRich" individuals whose parents could afford genetic engineering, and impoverished "Naturals", conceived the old-fashioned way.
To many economists, Professor Silver's dismal forecast is, well, too dismal. Gilles Saint-Paul of Toulouse University has written a provocative paper, The Economics of Human Cloning, that explores people seeking cloning for a selfish reason: to capture part of the income earned by their clone. He predicts the most talented people will be cloned and the least talented women will be hired as surrogate mothers. After several generations, distribution of income would become more nearly equal because fewer women would be willing to be surrogates at the market price. The forecast is optimistic because economists tend to think prices eventually respond to changes in supply or demand.
It is clear, however, that environmental factors like education matter for economic outcomes. To address the imbalance between the state of knowledge in genetics and the behavioral sciences, Dr Jack Stenner, chief executive of MetaMetrics Inc. proposes a Human Phenome Project a national effort to map the ways in which genetic and environmental factors interact to produce life's outcomes.
After having financed much of the research that enabled scientists to map the human genome, maybe the National Institutes of Health could use some of its proposed $US2.8 billion budget increase to begin this effort.
The New York Times Copyright (c) 2001.