- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 11, 2001

Biotechnology companies are turning to theologians and ethicists to find how the public will respond to their brave new world of genetic medicine and designer foods.

"They want to avoid a clash of culture between the biotech industry, its supporters and investors, and a substantial segment of the religious population," said the Rev. Ronald Cole Turner, who teaches theology and ethics at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

"It is a sincere effort," he said. "It's not a matter of gathering intelligence on the enemy. They hope to develop public strategies in accord with public support."

The Washington office of Biotechnology Industry Organizations (BIO), which represents 950 companies, schools and state biotech centers, recently hosted a group of religious thinkers such as Mr. Turner to discuss such issues.

The worst thing this scientific industry can do is complain that the public doesn't understand its science, Mr. Turner said. "When they dismiss our worries, we worry more."

Iowa State University religion professor Gary Comstock, whose recent book "Vexing Nature?" looks at the controversy, said agricultural biotechnology was most taken by surprise when protests arose against "Frankenfood," or genetically-engineered crops.

"The biomedical industry is not too concerned," he said. But case by case, companies in the industry "are consulting theologians or ethicists as a way to anticipate" public reactions.

Those reactions, rising in many cases from religious groups, have stirred the debate over stem cell research on human embryos, patents on genetic products, cloning, genetic changes passed to children or talk of "designer babies."

Though the term "biotechnology" was coined in 1919 and "genetic engineering" in 1941, the moral debate seemed first to explode in 1995 when 200 religious leaders urged Congress to ban human gene patenting, which they called an industry attempt to own human DNA.

The protest signaled to the industry that it must watch for "warning signs" of conflicts with religious values, whether over the definition of human life or social justice, Mr. Turner said.

Earlier, in 1990, the U.S. Human Genome Project recognized these public concerns by mandating that 3 percent to 5 percent of its annual budget go to a division for Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications (ELSI).

While ELSI is not aimed at the public or industry, the ethical interest rubs off "by example," ELSI Program Director Jean McEwen said. "We are more of a research program. Our highest priority has been education of public health professionals."

A 2000 federal report evaluating ELSI, which spent $76.8 million over its first decade, urged more research on "the ways in which new genetic knowledge may interact with a variety of philosophical, theological, and ethical perspectives."

Issues on the horizon, it said, are how "behavioral genetics" will effect "traditional notions" or personal responsibility and how "genetic enhancement technologies conceptions of humanity."

Mr. Turner, the theologian, said the primary moral debate is not on the start of research, but "how far are we going to go" with a new technology or its commercial marketing?

He tells industry leaders that depending on how well they communicated with the public, churches will say, "You are going to get our support, or our condemnation."

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