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"Gattaca" Discussion Panel at the National Film Theatre (NFT)

(Tuesday, 10th March, 1998, NFT1 - Chaired by: Tim Radford, Guardian Science Editor)

The Panel:

Dr Paul Nurse FRS, Director General of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund and the head of Cell Cycle Laboratory

Professor Sheila McLean, Director of the Institute of Law & Ethics in Medicine at the University of Glasgow

Dr David King, Editor of GenEthic News and former geneticist

Alistair Kent took the place of John Gillott, Policy Officer for the Genetics Interest Group who was unable to attend the discussion

The evening began with a special preview screening of the film Gattaca, followed by a question and answer session with an assembled array of key players in the genetics debate. Behind the premise of Gattaca lies the vision of a future where you can predetermine the genetic make-up of a human being. There will no longer be the need for natural conception. Instead, for those able to afford it, babies will be immaculately conceived in a test-tube, thereby classing the world into two distinct categories: 'Valids' for the genetically perfect and 'In-Valids' for those anything less so. Free from human virtues and flaws, a genetically perfect human being will live a healthier and generally, a better life than a mere "ordinary" person. People will be judged on their genetic composition and those judged unfit will be ostracised from society of perfection. This is the sinister future envisaged in Andrew Niccol’s movie.

The panel were asked to comment on the plausibility of this predicted future of genetically enhanced humans. Though questioning many of the devices used by the script writers to keep the film flowing (doubting if some of the technological leaps depicted in the film would ever be attainable), the panel widely agreed that Gattaca manages to be both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Guardian science editor and chair for the evening, Tim Radford, then opened up the discussion to take in the moral issues raised by such fundamental intervention with nature as seen in the film. The audience were asked if they would continue or terminate a pregnancy if they were told that their unborn child was carrying Huntingdon’s disease. The majority, unsurprisingly, opted for the latter. Currently, through the Intro Vitro Fertilisation programme and ante-natal screenings mothers are already being given reproductive choices. Parents are faced with a dilemma about whether or not they should have a child who may have to be constantly cared for and whose life may be spent being unwell and perhaps even in pain. Some are grateful of the knowledge that their unborn foetuses might be carrying a potentially fatal disease and can act on this advice. Being ‘genetically imperfect’ was like denying a child a better and healthier future - condemning them to live a low quality of life, i.e. more prone to suffer from heart disease, poor eyesight etc. In the film, the young Vincent was seen being constantly monitored for injuries by his parents. They were made to be extra vigilant and even guilty by the fact that he was conceived naturally.

On the other hand, there are parents who desire the perfect designer baby purely for selfish reasons. A frightening notion that is reflected in the film. There are people who genuinely want to select from a shopping list of traits that will ensure the perfect baby is born, even as trivial as wanting blue eyes. However, according to the panel, designer babies are not on the horizon, as the technology is not available. The technology may not be there yet, but already there are rich wannabe mothers who can walk into a sperm bank with the sole intent of picking and choosing her perfect surrogate father with the ‘perfect’ characteristic and physical profile.

In a Gattaca future, a socially desirable character has been created through genetic engineering. (It comes as no surprise that models were hired to play the staff working at the elite Gattaca Corporation). The panel were concerned that by taking genetic engineering to the dangerous levels as portrayed in the film, it would create a two-tier system. In the film, race and gender no longer seem to form the basis of our underlying prejudices - it is those who are ‘genetically imperfect’ that are deemed the minorities and the underclass of society. Social, economic and political strata will be based purely on biological terms if the norm is a genetically enhanced human being, it suggests. History has forewarned us that science in the wrong hands can have apocalyptic effects. The innate superiority of the Aryan race as advocated in Hitler’s political philosophy is an extreme example of taking the concept of ‘Valids’ too far. The killing of 6 million Jews and other minorities was seen as a justification for purging those who were regarded as biologically inferior. Political and economic forces can play a major influence on shaping the views of a nation that is vulnerable to an ideology that conveniently blames someone else for their misfortunes.

There was concern that the ruthless application of genetic discrimination would have a major social impact on occupations, qualifying for health insurance, and family/personal relations, as reflected in the film. If the technology was available, there will be those interested and privileged enough to pay what ever cost to attain the best opportunities out of life for themselves and/or their family. Their intention it seems is to set the trend towards widening the bridge between the genetically perfect and the ‘imperfect’, therefore giving them the advantage over the latter - a step up in life. The issue of private health insurance obviously strikes a stronger chord with US audiences who are more heavily dependent on private insurance than a 'national health service', but the same will clearly increasingly apply here in the UK.

Chair Tim Radford managed to give each of the panel members an opportunity to voice their opinions but in doing so leaft little time for real audience interaction save a handful of questions. Although Dr David King, a former geneticist himself and now editor of the newsletter GenEthic News (which keeps a watchful eye on the whole field of genetics), offered up reasonable arguments for caution in the development of genetics his potential role as the proverbial 'thorn-in-the-side', condeming all things genetic, was seized with vigour by a member of the audience. As a questioner, the crusty figure stood up and spouted forth a staggeringly wide range of activities that were 'evil' - everything from the development of nuclear power to genetically-enhanced vegetables - which he blamed all scientists for and implied that collectively they were destroying the planet. After a couple of minutes, Radford had to call a stop to this character's amusing diatribe and after a thoughtful pause wondered if the crusty had actually asked a question! Which gave the rest of the audience (who were clearly getting bored of the individual's rant) a good laugh at his expense. To his credit, Dr Paul Nurse attempted to defend the 'pursuit of knowledge' argument for justifying scientists actions but sensibly agreed that he too thought nuclear war was an evil thing.

Although there is clearly a huge divide between the supposed 'near future' as depicted in Gattaca and the far more probable near future were are likely to face, the undeniably fundamental moral and social issues that surround the genetics debate made for a fascinating, informative and occasionally amusing evening.

Jenny Chung & Rob Dyer

Click here to read the DSO review of Gattaca

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