- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 20, 2006

BALTIMORE — Theologians and ethicists are warning scientists that a new age of genetics — including cloning, stem-cell research and genetic engineering — may not be as bright as they imagine.

“How seductive is the belief that we can improve human nature by eugenic will,” Eric Cohen of the D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center said. “We may make ourselves more miserable and more imperfect.”

About 300 scientists, physicians, hospice workers, ethicists and clergy attended a three-day conference at Johns Hopkins University last week titled “What Does It Mean to Be Human?” The conference was sponsored by the National Association of Bioethicists.

Dr. Curt Civin, a leader in embryonic stem-cell research at Johns Hopkins, told the audience to “unlink” concern over embryonic research with “the morality of abortion.”

But David Prentice, a bioethics specialist at the Family Research Council, argued that adult stem cells are a better solution to healing chronic and degenerative diseases.

Stem cells are unspecialized cells that hold promise for treating degenerative diseases and spinal cord injuries. Embryonic stem cells are harvested from aborted or discarded fetuses.

Several speakers urged caution in approaching new vistas of scientific knowledge.

“We are at the turning point of extraordinary developments in science and medicine, and if we do not have an underpinning of a moral framework, they will become the catastrophes in the world of humanity in the way that Enron and WorldCom and the others were in the business world,” said Ravi Zacharias, an internationally known Christian author and speaker.

“We produced the MBAs, with no ethical framework behind it, and now we are producing those who are tinkering with the human genome, and if we do not have the moral boundaries, that catastrophe will be infinitely worse,” he said.

“There have been a lot of policy- and decision-makers that we invited to this conference,” said the Rev. Paula J. Teague, director of Clinical Pastoral Education at Johns Hopkins. “There is a lot of genetic testing that happens these days, and there is a whole field of genetic counselors who have very little interaction with clergy or chaplains.”

Sean Tipton, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, said the conference would do little to change the course of public policy.

“It’s rare that these sort of things actually change people’s minds,” said Mr. Tipton, whose group lobbies federal lawmakers for embryonic stem-cell research and therapeutic cloning. “It’s an interesting dialogue, but conclusions are elusive.”

Some attendees were enthusiastic, despite the warnings.

“I really see this as the genomic century,” said Mark Horton, a professor of philosophy and the humanities at Western Connecticut State University.

“In the future, if you need a little genetic enhancement, no problem,” Mr. Horton said. “There’s the potential of IQ, of height, color, the whole idea of designer babies. That’s all out there, as well as the ability to heal all sorts of diseases that have plagued us for a long time.”

Dr. George H. Sack, an associate genetics professor at Johns Hopkins who spoke at the conference, scoffed at talk of designer babies, calling it “stuff that sells cheap novels.”

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