ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

5 May 2002


1. Did eugenics foreshadow genetic engineering?
2. Watchdog would halt 'cruel' bid to create GM pets
3. No grounds for GM coffee
[to support ActionAid's GM coffee campaign: ]


1. Did eugenics foreshadow genetic engineering?

By Tony Mauro
USA Today,1 May 2002

A curious roadside marker will go up today in Charlottesville, Va., to commemorate one of the worst moments in the history of the Supreme Court - and the nation.

The sign will memorialize the 75th anniversary of the court's decision in Buck vs. Bell, which, incredibly, upheld a Virginia law that allowed the forced sterilization of "mental defectives." Erecting the sign is part of an admirable effort by Virginia to apologize for its leading role in the eugenics movement of the early 20th century. Through such practices as forced sterilization, the movement sought to "improve" the human species by weeding out "undesirables."

We usually commemorate prouder moments, but pausing to note Buck vs. Bell is important because of the lessons it offers for today about our attitudes toward disability and genetic engineering. As we tinker with our genetic future, we must avoid the moral blindness represented by the case.

Her body, their law

The 1927 decision bears the name of Carrie Buck of Charlottesville, the first person slated to be sterilized under the state law. She had been raped at age 17 and was sent by her foster parents to a state institution to hide her out-of-wedlock pregnancy. The state determined that she was "feebleminded," but before it could use the law to sterilize her, she challenged the program in court. She lost. Buck died in 1983, an avid reader, married and not at all feebleminded. Her mother and daughter were also deemed feebleminded, though recent research suggests they, too, were mislabeled.

But the Supreme Court bought Virginia's contention that removing Buck's fallopian tubes was necessary. The court and the nation were in the grips of the eugenics movement. Many Americans embraced its belief that people with suspect heredity - the disabled, the unintelligent, the morally deficient and the "socially inadequate," as one law put it - should be kept from producing offspring for the good of mankind. The same flawed impulse spawned laws barring interracial marriages.

Three generations

In the case of forced sterilization, it appears that often, as with Carrie Buck, those sterilized were guilty of social misbehavior rather than any mental deficiency. University of Virginia law professor Paul Lombardo, who met Buck and is writing a book on the case, says Buck was selected mainly because she was young, unmarried and pregnant, and her mother had also borne illegitimate children.

At the time, of course, the Supreme Court did not know the truth about Carrie Buck, but it still seems astonishing that the court signed on to the eugenics movement so enthusiastically.

Eugenics even captivated one of the most celebrated Supreme Court justices of all and one of the best-known figures of that period: Oliver Wendell Holmes, the "magnificent Yankee" from Boston, revered in books and plays. Holmes wrote more than 2,000 opinions in his long life; Buck vs. Bell was surely his most ignominious.

"Three generations of imbeciles are enough," Holmes wrote in the decision by way of justifying Buck's sterilization - a terse sentence that has spoiled his legacy in the eyes of many scholars today.

The Supreme Court's decision gave official blessing to eugenics, and ultimately 30 states adopted sterilization laws. Nearly 8,000 women and men were sterilized in Virginia, and more than 60,000 nationwide.

Buck vs. Bell was also cited by Hitler's Nazi apologists in Germany as justification for their own eugenics program of mass sterilizations in Europe.

The Supreme Court never explicitly overturned its decision, and sterilization laws lingered on into the 1970s until, finally, modern sensibilities ended the practice altogether. Society's attitudes, and the court's, toward disabilities have changed. Until recently, Buck vs. Bell and the eugenics movement comprised a forgotten chapter in American history.

But Lombardo's work and a series in the Richmond Times-Dispatch have revived interest - and embarrassment - about eugenics. Last year, the Virginia legislature approved a resolution expressing "profound regret" over the "incalculable human damage done" by the commonwealth's participation in the eugenics movement.

Edict vs. choice

This renewed attention comes as, once again, society looks to science to weed out genetic defects for the benefit of future generations.

It is safe to say that few people advocate a return to the forced sterilization of those with disfavored conditions. But individual choice, not government edict, may get us to the same place.

Testing that reveals the potential for disorders ranging from cystic fibrosis to Down syndrome is prompting couples to terminate or prevent pregnancies. As we learn more about the role and location of specific genes that are found to cause certain conditions, it is inevitable that some will want to use that information to keep those conditions from being passed on from parent to child.

Frightening echoes

For some disorders, we might be able to reach a consensus that screening is a good idea, preventing heartache to individuals and cost to society. But it will be hard to go down that path without hearing echoes of Buck vs. Bell. What conditions are we, as a society, going to decide we can do without? At what point will we cross into the perilous terrain of Buck-style eugenics, arrogantly screening out characteristics that society, at a given moment, disapproves? If the best American minds supported eugenics 75 years ago, what well-intentioned but flawed policies will they adopt now?

Paraphrasing Holmes' notorious declaration, Lombardo asks: "Three generations of what else are enough?" Seventy-five years after Buck vs. Bell, the question is troubling and the answer unclear.
Tony Mauro, Supreme Court correspondent for Legal Times and American Lawyer Media, wrote Illustrated Great Decisions of the Supreme Court. He is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.


2. Watchdog would halt 'cruel' bid to create GM pets

Gaby Hinsliff, Chief Political Correspondent
The Observer, Sunday May 5, 2002,6903,710132,00.html

Scientists working on plans to breed farm animals immune to stress and cats that refuse to catch mice are risking a public backlash against genetic modification, according to top government advisers.

They will call for a new independent watchdog to block cruel techniques and resolve dilemmas created by the new science in a report to be published later this month.

Tampering with animals' DNA could bring huge health benefits for humans - such as creating mosquitoes that cannot breed to stop the spread of malaria, the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission is expected to argue.

But it will warn that the public remains nervous about genetic engineering of animals for human convenience. Recent experiments have already included attempts to breed non-allergenic pets whose fur does not irritate sensitive owners.

The commission is expected to stop short of recommending an outright ban on genetic modification of animals, since the public believes some could have medical benefits.

But a draft report argues that while the technology is still in its infancy, public opinion would be 'strongly   opposed as a matter of principle' to any changes interfering with the fundamental nature of a living creature, such as 'the creation of farm animals with reduced sentience, cats that have no hunting instinct, or fast-growing animals that suffer serious pain as a result'.

Focus groups carried out for the commission would regard any such experiments as 'scary', 'wrong' and 'interfering' with nature.

There was 'considerable concern about the speed and pace of such developments' and the risk of mistakes - or of mutant animals escaping and breeding, concludes the research by Phil McNaughten at the University of Lancaster - to be published with the commission's report.

However, people were less hostile to GM animals than to GM crops partly because they had suspected the Government of being in league with scientists over crops.

The findings come as Tony Blair plans a keynote speech this summer to tackle public concerns over GM science.

His enthusiasm for GM crops in the last parliament helped fuel consumers' suspicions that they were being railroaded into eating 'unnatural' food.

Ministers now want to start a more open national debate, with suggestions including special TV debates and 'roadshows'.


3. No grounds for GM coffee, Swiss retailers agree
No GMO coffee for the Swiss

Swiss Info, Sunday 05.05.2002

Non-governmental organisations have welcomed a widespread consensus among Swiss retailers not to import a new genetically modified coffee.

Swissaid and the Bern Declaration, presenting the results of a seven-month campaign, said some of Switzerland’s biggest coffee importers - Coop, Migros, Mövenpick, Merkur and Starbucks - shared their concerns about the GM coffee and would not stock it.

But this is no storm in a coffee cup. The two Swiss NGOs say the livelihoods of millions of poor farmers in the developing world are at stake.

Big threat

"Genetically modified crops don't only have environmental implications. They can also have an impact on the daily lives of thousands of coffee farmers," says François Meienberg of the Bern Declaration. "This GM coffee represents a big threat to poor coffee-producing countries like Colombia and Ethiopia."

Their action, which followed a similar campaign by the British development organisation ActionAid, targeted one product in particular, developed by Integrated Coffee Technologies Inc. (ICTI), a Hawaii-based biotechnology firm.

This plant has been engineered so that its natural ripening process has effectively been switched off. The berries only ripen when "reactivated" by a chemical spray. This would make large-scale mechanical harvesting possible.

Labour intensive

Currently, harvesting coffee is a labour intensive exercise. Each berry ripens at a different time and has to be picked by hand. Because of this 70 per cent of all coffee is grown on small farms.

The ICTI innovation threatens to force millions of poor farmers in the developing world out of business and even further into poverty, as they see their only source of income taken away by market forces, the NGOs say.

"We already have a terrible crisis in the coffee market. The price has collapsed and most small farmers can’t meet their costs any more," says Bruno Riesen, Swissaid’s executive secretary and president of the May Havelaar Foundation.

"The aim of this GM coffee is to cut the costs, increase production and reduce the price even more. Many producers may have no choice but to leave their farms and migrate to the slums in the big cities," he told swissinfo.

Strong signal

The response from the big retailers has been encouraging. The biggest retail chains, Migros and Coop, have backed the campaign, as have coffee shop chains Mövenpick, Merkur and Starbucks. All have stated clearly that they will not sell the ICTI coffee.

"It's a very strong signal to the industry that is working on new seeds that not everything that is possible is good," Riesen says.

The ICTI coffee is not yet on the market, and Swissaid and the Bern Declaration would like it to stay that way. They say consumer power could mean that there is never a place in the Swiss market for such products.

"We hope this message will show to developers and the investors that there is no market for this ripening-controlled coffee," Meienberg says. He adds that he would like to see the retailers adopt a code of conduct that would anticipate the social and environmental implications of new developments.

Coop spokesman Jörg Birnstiel said he did not believe there was any public demand for GM coffee, and that, in any case, the chain had strict guidelines about not stocking GM products if they had social, environmental or ethical implications.

The Swiss headquarters of Starbucks, meanwhile, told swissinfo that it was strongly behind the Swissaid/Bern Declaration initiative, and that it did not intend to stock GM coffee.

Fair trade

In parallel with their campaign, the NGOs have been encouraging people to buy coffee produced by fair trade labels, such as Max Havelaar, which support small producers and allow them to improve their standard of living in a sustainable way.

Swissaid and the Bern Declaration are also calling on major retailers to stock at least one fair trade brand. This is already the case in Migros and Coop, while Merkur says it is about to start stocking Max Havelaar coffee. Starbucks is also in discussions with the fair trade organisation.

The NGOs are not being complacent, however. Despite the strong support from most large retailers, others have remained silent.

Both the low-cost grocery chain, Denner, and Passaggio, the bistro chain which provides the catering for the Swiss Federal Railways, refused to answer letters and e-mails sent by the two aid organisations and by customers.

Meienberg also says that restaurants have been much slower than the supermarket chains in introducing fair trade coffee. With the likes of Merkur, Mövenpick and Starbucks backing the campaign, that may be about to change.

by Roy Probert
04.05.2002 - 16:12

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