When a member of the audience asked, “Will there ever be a perfect genome?” all 30 heads in the audience turned toward the dais, where Glen McGee stood.
McGee, professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, addressed a rapt audience for over an hour at the Yale Law School last night on “Being Genomic: Genomics in Public and Private Life,” a talk organized by the Yale Law and Technology Society. McGee is a world-renowned bioethicist, the author of “The Perfect Baby” and the founding editor of the American Journal of Bioethics.
McGee said because genetics technology is so integrated into modern life, members of today’s society are evolving from mere students of classical genetics to actually “becoming genomic.” Just as information technology has become second nature to many humans over the past 10 years, five years from now genetic technology advances like gene therapy and cloning will seem commonplace.
McGee pointed out that while many people are very interested in genomics and concerned about its implications, a vast quantity of books and information on this subject go unread. He went on to describe how society’s focus has transited from genetics, the study of biological heredity and variation, to genomics, the study of genes and their function.
“Earlier a genetic disease meant an inherited disease,” he said. “Now it is assumed that all disease are linked to the genome.”
To drive home the point of just how genomic society is becoming, McGee narrated stories of infertile couples finding sperm and egg donors over the Internet, of how infertility is acquiring a new meaning and how gene sequence information is trading on NASDAQ.
“The birds and the bees is an old story,” he said. Many surrogate parents will have to come up with new tales to tell their 21st century children, he added.
McGee went on to give the audience a rundown of the fascinating controversies that lie in wait in genomics, some real and many the product of media hype, he said. He said he did not expect insurance companies ever to require policy holders to undergo genetic testing, for this would go against the pooling of risks, which is the fundamental working principle of actuarial science. He also talked about couples who, while they would never touch genetically-modified food, order sperm and eggs online from people who they perceive as having good traits.
The informative lecture, interspersed with wit and humorous anecdotes, ended with a barrage of questions from the audience.
Derek Lomas ’03, who attended McGee’s lecture, said he is not averse to cloning humans.
“No, I don’t think cloning is wrong,” Lomas said. “Of course, I am worried about the ways in which it might be used. I don’t think there’ll ever be a time when babies will come off conveyor belts. People have a more ‘Star Wars’ image of cloning than there actually is.”
Lomas added that he was worried about the possible reaction people might have to a cloned person.
Many of the audience’s questions seemed to reflect a deep concern and understanding of the issues, only adding strength to McGee’s claim that “the genomic revolution is personal, not optional.”