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Women and Genetic Engineering

Book Review: "Women: Genetic Engineering Is Your Business"
By Eileen Elliott, Robin Gregg, Jean Grossholtz, Becky Holmes, Julie Innis, Mary Jacob, Gwyn Kirk, Dale LaBonte, Frederique Margolin, Nancy Richard, and Vandana Shiva

This month's reading is a privately-circulated working draft collectively written by eleven academic and lay women in Western Massachusetts. In clear and simple language their highly informative article skillfully debunks seventeen prominent myths about genetic engineering (e.g., "It will solve world hunger by increasing productivity" or "It is safe because we have government regulations"). This grassroots work-in-progress has resulted in a position paper on the subject that is genuinely ecofeminist.

In agreement with the Massachusetts draft, women at this month's session were likewise alarmed by the macabre prospects posed by genetic engineering: square tomatoes, patented mice, designer babies. One woman found some consolation in the fact that a wide range of groups have a vested interest in coalescing against this new Frankenscience.

Activists organizing around such issues as reproductive rights, health, nutrition, agriculture, the environment, animal rights, eugenics, racism, or Third World development will all be confronted by biotechnology's far-reaching influence. Another woman was heartened that even gourmet chefs—a generally apolitical lot—have joined forces to demand government labeling of genetically-altered food. Consumers are entitled to know for instance when tomatoes are spiked with a flounder's genes (ostensibly to withstand freezing temperatures).

One woman was certain that as a group feminists surely object to genetic engineering. Other women, however, noted that just as some feminists supported the Gulf War (ex., Geraldine Ferraro), there are inevitably those feminists who "just don't get it." Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger, an ardent feminist, was mentioned for her compromising role in jumping on the "biotechnology = jobs" bandwagon.

One woman said it is like the 50's all over again when the public was cheerleading nuclear energy, having been told it was "clean." Considering it took roughly thirty years to establish a mainstream anti-nuclear mass movement, we felt our planet simply cannot endure several decades of rampant genetic manipulation.

Given the known dangers of biotechnology (not to mention the unknown ones), several women wondered how the body politic can remain so impervious to its effects. A few women blamed capitalism not only for promoting the commodification of nature, but for encouraging a climate of aggressive opportunism at the expense of a responsible public policy. Other women concurred that the entire scientific process becomes corrupted when money is at stake (ex., Dr. Robert Gallo's notorious theft of AIDS research from the French in order to secure patent rights for the U.S. government).

Another woman, a botanist, added that because organic research doesn't require high tech toys, it's not considered "sexy." By contrast, the hot new field of biotechnology has become the darling of the grant-givers and venture capitalists. Another woman resented that massive funding isn't devoted to research and development of earth-friendly technologies such as solar energy, alternative transportation, recycling, etc. Instead, for example, in 1987 alone, 6,000 patent applications were pending for new life forms.

One woman questioned whether there is anything worthwhile about biotechnology. Another woman, an environmental engineer, suggested that bioremediation—the use of natural and genetically-created organisms to clean up toxic waste sites (as used at the Exxon Valdez oil spill)—is a promising cost-effective development. She acknowledged the perils of unleashing manmade bacteria into the environment, but felt any adverse effects on severely contaminated areas is managable.

Several women objected to bioremediation on grounds that polluters too often assume science will provide quick-fix cures. Others responded that we don't have the luxury of waiting for the perfect remediation. Another biotech benefit cited was DNA fingerprinting which can identify rapists with near precision. One woman worried that it may reinforce the specious theory that violence is genetic.

Others warned that privacy rights could be easily trounced on. Another woman added that such high tech methods would be unnecessary if women's words were just given due credence. Ultimately, women insisted that social problems require social solutions. Genetic approaches to crime, pollution, or world hunger are misguided, expensive, and Orwellian.

One woman earnestly asked, Is it not in the nature of human curiosity to know and learn all we can? Isn't the spirit of rigorous scientific inquiry laudable? Many of us believed not, especially when ecological holocaust is at stake. A woman who works with (and appreciates) computers argued that she is not a Luddite blindly opposed to any and all technology. Rather, she rejects technology when it violates democratic processes.

As the authors write: "Every technological 'advance' in this century has taken control from local people, from small scale agriculturists, from family farms." Another woman advised that in any quest for knowledge, ethical considerations must be absolutely paramount. Without ethics, Nazi experiments on concentration camp prisoners would invite legitimacy, and the barbarity of animal experimentation would go unchallenged.

In sum, we recommended that all genetically-based projects proceed cautiously, involve comprehensive global grassroots input and monitoring, and clearly articulate their impact on the next seven generations. Had such ecofeminist guidelines been followed in the past, the inventors of DDT would never have been given a green light, let alone awarded a Nobel Prize.

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