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Master Race

Blue gene babies mutate in 'Gattaca'

By David Templeton


Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies. This time out, he meets with a team of genetic bioethicists to discuss the disconcerting new techno-thriller Gattaca.

THE THREE BUILDINGS that house the Stanford University Center for Biomedical Ethics resemble nothing so much as a pleasant suburban apartment complex from the 1970s. What goes on inside, however, may end up guiding our society's choices through the 21st century.

Labeled simply "A," "B," and "C," these buildings are home to a world-class research facility devoted to studying the cultural effects of the increasing number of innovations within the medical and scientific industries.

Building A--my destination--is the headquarters of Stanford's Program in Genomics, Ethics, and Society. This program--with its international assemblage of doctors, scientists, ethicists, philosophers, lawyers, and psychologists--was established three years ago to study the far-reaching implications of applied genetic research, including the controversial fields of genetic testing and engineering.

Last week, a band of PGES researchers went out on an unofficial field trip to see the new film Gattaca. Set in the near future, this provocative film imagines a world in which human genetic engineering has created a two-class social system, with an upper class of laboratory-manufactured citizens called "valids," who get all the good jobs and perks, and a lower class made up of "in-valids," those poor slobs unfortunate enough to be born by means of that genetic crapshoot called sex. The story follows one such in-valid (Ethan Hawke) who, longing to become an astronaut, uses the borrowed DNA--blood samples, loose hairs, dead skin cells--of a disabled valid in order to enter Gattaca, a corporate-sponsored school for genetically pure future space travelers (set in Frank Lloyd Wright's Marin Center).

I am met by Dr. Sally Tobin, a renowned molecular geneticist and PGES senior research fellow who is developing an exhaustive CD-ROM tool to educate physicians about the Human Genome Project, an international undertaking that seeks to build a genetic map of the human species. As we make our way toward the bright, book-lined conference room, Tobin is joined in turn by lawyer and PGES fellow Margaret Eaton, administrative assistant Heather Silverberg, PGES coordinator Laura McConnell, and Anne Moyer, a Ph.D. in social and health psychology. As we seat ourselves, it becomes clear that the consensus on Gattaca is split, with a few claiming to have found it to be an uplifting film, and the rest having found it merely scary.

"Scary in that you walk into a genetically engineered society, where parents can create fertilized eggs that are genetically tested to select the best," Eaton explains. "The valids are intelligent, tall, good-looking, athletic--perfect. That's the scary part. The uplifting part is that someone who doesn't have those genetically produced attributes is able to succeed despite the fact that he's discriminated against. It's not a hopeless world."

"One of the ways you could view this movie," says Silverberg, "is as a commentary on our striving for perfection."

"Good point," Tobin continues. "Think about it. If the world is made up of perfect people, there's still going to be number two and number three."

"Even the fellow with the genetic pedigree that allowed him to be in the Gattaca program admits at one point that he has a fear of heights," says Moyer. "That may be a commentary on the idea that, even with your best efforts, you're not going to get it quite right, you're not going to take everything into account."

"Was that something the genetic engineers missed?" I ask. "There's no gene for acrophobia, is there?"

"We don't know that," Tobin replies. "There might be."

"The other thing I thought about the movie," Eaton says, "is it created a context I'm not sure is going to exist. The point of all the biotechonology research going on today is that we want to learn about your genetic makeup so we can prevent you from getting sick or can treat your illnesses. Here is our hero with all these predilections for disease, but they don't talk about treating it. They didn't talk about the use of genetics for positive purposes; the only context in which it was shown was as discriminating against defective people."

"I think that, generally speaking, the public is going to look at this movie and they're going to be afraid," McConnell suggests. "Afraid that genetics is going to reduce us all to this. It's going to take a lot of secondary thinking to arrive at the conclusion that these are the problems of a genetically engineered society. That this is how it's not going to work.

"And its underlying point," SIlverberg adds, "is that if we don't address some of these issues, we may end up there."

"It's not that big a jump, is it, from what we're doing now?" I ask. "We routinely use amniocentesis to determine a genetic predisposition."

"That's just reproductive freedom," Moyer points out. "There is an ethical debate about how far we'll take that. If we select out those kinds of diseases, will someone come along and select out other traits?"

"See, but I don't think that's the future," Eaton insists. "And I don't think this film is the future. I have more faith in our ability collectively, as a society, to watch out for the negative stuff. Look at cloning. Someone clones a sheep and instantly there are worldwide moratoriums on cloning research. We can control ourselves.

"Though I'm not saying we don't have the potential to do monstrous things," she adds, as--around the table--heads nod. "The potential is definitely there. I just believe we'll rise above it."

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From the Nov. 6-12, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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