Why Not Just Genetically Engineer Women For Milk?
Why Not Just Genetically Engineer Women For Milk?
MAdGE (Mothers Against Genetic Engineering in Food and the Environment) today launched a highly controversial billboard campaign in Auckland and Wellington to provoke public debate about the social and cultural ethics of genetic engineering in New Zealand.
The billboards depict a naked, genetically engineered woman with four breasts being milked by a milking machine, and GE branded on her rump.
"New Zealanders are allowing a handful of corporate scientists and ill-informed politicians to make decisions on the ethics of GE. Our largest science company, AgResearch, is currently putting human genes into cows in the hope of creating new designer milks. The ethics of such experiments have not even been discussed by the wider public. How far will we allow them to go? Where is the line in the sand? Why is the government lifting the moratorium on GE when we have not even had a public debate on ethics?" said Alannah Currie Madge founder and billboard designer.
Fonterra, New Zealand's largest milk company recently purchased the patent rights to large amounts of human DNA from an Australian genetics company. (Dominionpost 15.9.2003) "The mothers of New Zealand would like to know exactly what our milk company are doing with this human DNA. We at MAdGE want an assurance from Fonterra that they will continue to keep our milk GE Free now and in the future and not use human genes in cows to boost milk production." said Ms Currie.
What is a mother? What does motherhood mean?
"Our experience of our mother is immense and long-lasting, from the beginning of our life onward; [She]... fills our childhood. This woman accompanies us all the days of our lives...we are nourished for years through her efforts, her devotion." She gives us... "wisdom beyond knowledge, benevolence, sheltering, sustaining, the... [gift].. of fertility, growth, nourishment." [Aeppli] She gives us life. And as each generation of women become mothers they pass these things on to their daughters so they in turn can become mothers and so on and so on through the centuries.
What is the first thing a mother does when she gives birth? She puts her baby to the breast and feeds it. It is the most profound and the most intimate of relationships. It is the way we bond with our children. And mother's milk is the natural food for a baby, balanced, sustaining, nourishing. No commercially made formula has ever been able to replicate mother's milk. Doesn't that tell us something, not just about its complexity, but about its uniqueness, its perfect natural design?
What gives us the right to think that we can tamper with 'mother' nature? What arrogance is it that allows mankind to think that he can improve on millennia of evolution? A woman is not a cow, nor is a cow a woman. Do we, as human beings, have the right to blur the boundaries between species, especially when we do not know what the long term consequences may be? As an experiment it transgresses the fundamental integrity of both woman and cow. Not just physically, though to permit human genes to be put into cows so that cow's milk is more like human milk is an affront to both of us. But morally and spiritually as well. The taking of land from indigenous peoples here in New Zealand and in other countries around the world took away from those peoples not just their identity but their life force. If women's essence, their milk, their means of nourishing their young is taken away from then, usurped and commodified, the damage to their life force is unimaginable. What monstrous arrogance to even contemplate interfering with the material essence of womanhood. Or for that matter, of cowhood. We must not allow it to happen.
Think of some of the scientific experiments of the twentieth century. Thalidomide, so women didn't have to suffer the perfectly natural discomforts of morning sickness. And the consequences of that? Deformed babies. The agricultural pesticides that leave poisonous residues in our food, the chemicals in timber that have left some environments so contaminated they are uninhabitable. How long did it take to recognise the appalling damage of nuclear radiation? We meddle with the natural world at our peril. Let us not do it again. Keep genetic engineering in the laboratory and out of the environment.
Who knows what mother earth will do to us this time if we, yet again, fail to respect her integrity.
Some time in the very near future it will probably be possible to use genetic engineering to create human animals. The cells and organs of human animals would be virtually the same as ordinary humans, except the creatures would have underdeveloped minds. Scientists may be able to develop and breed lines of human animals that behave as nicely as friendly pets or other domestic animals. The existence of farm animals whose with genuinely human cellular biology could solve major problems facing medical industries. Females could be engineered to overproduce human proteins of pharmaceutical interest in their milk, with production being turned on and off by the administration of hormones.
Most people find this idea repugnant and our moral code is constructed as if we should treat anything of human origin with proper respect. We do not condone killing other members of our species. We do not eat human flesh. We sometimes care for injured or sick people for years when there is only a faint hope of their ever recovering consciousness. The legal systems of most modern societies allow individuals to claim certain basic rights that restrict the power of authorities.
But when it comes to other species we act differently. Cruelty is generally outlawed, but animals are killed for sport and the consumption of their flesh is allowed. We are only just in the process of developing laws that may protect our closest evolutionary relatives, the other hominids, from virtual extinction. Their closeness to humanity has made them targets for medical experimentation. They are still hunted and driven off their lands, just as indigenous peoples were by colonizing powers. In the meantime, the use of domesticated species like cows has been industrialized in modern societies.
Large numbers of farm animals are conceived by human design and action. Virtually every aspect of their exploitation has been mechanized or modified by the application of some sort of technology. Now it is possible to manipulate the molecular details of their biological constitution by using genetic engineering to create animals whose organs, down to the level of their metabolism, have modified functions that serve commercial goals.
New Zealand has been at the forefront of using genetic engineering to turn animals into material commodities, being the first country to grant a patent on the kin of Herman, the Dutch bull who carried a human gene in his chromosomes. Our scientists have genetically engineered farm animals in various ways to make them humanoid. We have allowed the insertion of human genes into goats. Flocks of sheep that produce a human protein have been bred in the Waikato. Now cows are being genetically engineered at Ruakura for a mixture of medical, scientific and commercial purposes, in many cases by inserting human genes into them.
All of this has been approved and taken place in what amounts to an ethical vacuum. There has been scant attention paid to the ethical, cultural and spiritual aspects of interference with the genetic make-up of animal species. We have adopted applications of genetic engineering in the same way as we have adopted new technologies in warfare. As long as some new instrument is considered to be appropriately goal-oriented and an argument can be made that its effect is somehow the same as what we are used to, no further discussion is necessary, except to allay the concerns of Luddites.
It has been normal in history for the desires and concerns of those who have no power to be trampled on by those who serve to gain from exploiting the world around them. But never before has this been done with so little foresight as is happening now with genetic engineering. The use of animals for GE experimentation is a particularly poignant demonstration of the determination of modern humans to push aside even biological restrictions on their pursuit of material power. But in the end it is humanity, not animalhood, which is denigrated.
If we want to respect both ourselves and our
evolutionary kinsfolk, our animal friends, we should start
by thinking about what rights we might extend beyond the
boundaries of our own species, like the right not to be
genetically engineered. The rights we claim over the
integrity of our biology, like the right not to be exploited
through genetic engineering, should apply somehow to species
whose biology is similar to our own. We would enhance human
rights by finding appropriate ways of extending them beyond
narrow definitions of who we are.