How green was my bunny?
The Ottawa Citizen
Let all the world learn to give mortal men no greater power than they are content they shall use -- for
use it they shall.
Science is up to some strange stuff lately, like the University of Texas researchers who turned a rat's
skin transparent so you can see four or five millimetres into a living rat. Not that you would
necessarily want to. But it sounds mostly harmless, and may have uses.
But after a transparent rat, what next? How about a glowing bunny? No, not Marlen Cowpland's
shocking pink alleged dog "Bunny"; one named "Alba," created by researchers directed by artist
Eduardo Kac, which emits a green glow under blue light. The Chicago Tribune said it threatens "the
tenuous, tacit contract between researchers and the public that allows DNA research to continue. A
pillar of that trust is the principle that such work should benefit people É or at least add to the vault
of human knowledge." Dream on. If it can be done, it will be. (Find a photo of Alba and Mr. Kac's
explanation at www.ekac.org/gfpbunny.html).
Other work is stranger still. The proposal to produce a caffeine-free coffee plant is evil but trivial.
I'm more nervous about cloning a calf from the world-champion, but inconveniently dead, Canadian
Holstein bull Starbuck, because I worry about declining genetic diversity in our food supply. (And
couldn't science clone a cow from "Starbuck" that makes latte, not some dumb old coffee plant with
no caffeine?) I'm repelled by giant lobsters and four-legged chickens. And won't radiation-resistent
bugs engineered to clean up toxic spills get loose and eat all the uranium or something?
But, of course, genetic engineering brings benefits hard to reject. Slow-growing grass that needs less
mowing we could do without, but I understand that couple's decision to generate 15 embryos, then
select one free of Franconi's anemia to bring to term so he could give his older sister transplants.
They wanted another child anyway. (If not, could they do it, then put him up for adoption?)
Other human modifications are weirder and less compelling, but if they're possible people will do
them, like eradicating menstruation, splicing monogamy into men, letting women in their 70s have
children, or generating blond-haired, blue-eyed (or green-glowing) superpersons.
I've weighed in on us, Dr. Frankenstein and the monkey's paw. But with the glowing,
non-caffeinated half-man half-cigarette all but upon us, may I suggest we need rules and fast? And
where will we get them?
I'm not so sure about relying on "ethicists." I'd prefer virtuous people, partly because I don't know
where one becomes a qualified ethicist. Certainly a modern university seems an unpromising spot.
And I note that Margaret Somerville, a plain old "ethicist" ever since she set up shop, became a
"controversial Canadian ethicist" in yesterday's Citizen because her new book opposes gays having
children through gene splicing.
She says kids do best with one parent of each flavour, which may well be true. But the Citizen
quotes her on gay reproduction that "I personally don't think that's right" which you'll agree lacks
the persuasive kick even of a consistent defence of self-ownership, let alone Jehovah writing in stone
using fire as ink.
An alternative is to say people have property rights, starting with self-ownership, so you can't stop
them from doing things you don't like, only things that violate someone else's self-ownership. How
does that affect genetic engineering?
Well, if a fetus is a person, it can no more be distorted for laughs than killed for convenience.
Indeed, you can not put forward any claim about a child because it's your right to have this or that,
only because it's theirs. We could still fix things that were clearly fallings-away from the norm, like
a missing arm. But we couldn't reinvent humans to be eight feet tall or permanently tanned.
It's not perfect, but it's a simple rule and a complex world needs those. It may not allow gay
reproduction, since in the normal course of human events two sperm or two eggs don't combine. But
if you grant self-ownership to everyone including the unborn, we can argue gay reproduction and
every other issue on the basis of principle, not "I personally feel" and "I personally disagree," which
can easily end in throwing rocks at each other. Or you could consistently grant ownership of at least
an unborn fetus to someone else, provided you don't mind being chased by a man with nine legs, or
meeting Edward Scissorhands or the Boys from Brazil.
What we can't do, or at least shouldn't, is assume that whatever would be really troubling won't
happen. What men can do, they will, and soon.
It's time we cottoned on to that, and made principled rules, quick like glowing bunnies.
John Robson is Senior Writer and Deputy Editorial Pages Editor.