In the 21st Century — already dubbed the “Age of Biotechnology” — citizens will have to become educated about the issues raised by the application of new genetic technologies. They will witness the emergence of new policies intended to guide the use of genetic technology. Geneforum is committed to the belief that policies likely to affect the public character of our nation must be determined through citizen deliberation and participation, lest those policies face challenges from an enraged and outraged community at some later date.
Few issues raise a more profound challenge to human character than those coming from biotechnology and genetic engineering.
How can society decide what it wants without first “talking it over?”
Each and every citizen must be able to have some say in those decisions most likely to affect his or her life in common with the lives of others. Our obligation as a nation should be to guarantee that the very public issues surrounding contemporary genetic research undergo very public deliberation and participation, leading ultimately to public consent. Without support for democratic participation, the inalienable rights of the governed to have a say in the laws by which they are to abide are very much in jeopardy.
This is the challenge that defines Geneforum’s mission: to promote public understanding of the new genetics and facilitate public participation in the deliberations that will ultimately produce genetic policy.
Geneforum is grounded in the belief that those individuals and communities that constitute the public have a clear vested interest in the genetic policy decisions that affect their livelihood, the legacy they leave to their children — their very essence.
Further, we believe that anxiety and lack of understanding serve to discourage the public’s participation in these decisions; and that policy-makers, researchers, and citizens stand to benefit from increased participation in genetic policy development.
Ian Wilmut, the Scottish scientist who created “Dolly,” the world’s first mammal cloned from adult cells, announced the scientific breakthrough in the following way: “We believe that it is important that society decides how we want to use this technology and makes sure it prohibits what it wants to prohibit.”
Eric Parens, a bioethicist at The Hastings Center in Garrison, New York, says no institution in the U.S. today is constituted as a forum for discussing such big-picture ethical issues raised by the application of new genetic technologies. “The risks are huge,” he says. “I’m surprised by how little attention these developments have received. Nobody is educating people, and it’s crucially important that we have a public conversation.”
Geneforum strives to promote civic discourse about genetic policy through public education, public engagement, and public consultation. In those roles, we help the general populace learn more about genetic science and the ethical issues emerging from its application. Our aim is to create an informed and engaged citizenry with the capacity to help guide the development of public policies for the common good.
Carl Feldbaum, President of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, sees Geneforum as fulfilling a unique and essential function. “Neither industry nor academia can be the ones to actually lay [all the social and ethical issues] on the table — because neither has complete credibility with the public. It’s only the trusted intermediaries who can perform that function — and I think Geneforum fits that role.”