Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Genetic Bipartisanship in Congress!

Michelle Kirtley


March 2, 2007

In the wake of the 2006 mid-term elections, bipartisanship was the talk of the town, but after only a few weeks into the work of the new Congress, Capitol Hill seems as log-jammed as ever. Is it really so difficult to find areas of common ground? Undoubtedly, competing worldviews often lead to drastically different policy proposals. But consensus can be found in some surprising areas if politicians and their constituencies are willing to bury grudges and look beyond stereotypes and sound bytes.

The policy challenges that have emerged from the biotechnology revolution offer fertile grounds for unusual coalitions. Legislation protecting Americans from discrimination by either their employers or their insurance companies on the basis of genetic test results will probably sail through Congress with majorities in both parties, and President Bush has already signaled his intention to sign the bill into law. This bill will allow Americans to pursue the full range of available genetic diagnostic tests without fear of unwanted reprisals. A large coalition of patient advocacy groups, scientists, and biotechnology companies has formed to support this bipartisan legislation against the opposition of some of the leading special interest groups in Washington. This alliance has been buoyed by the considerable efforts of former Speaker Newt Gingrich and the director of the Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Efforts to ban human cloning have also been supported by an unusual alliance. Pro-life and conservative family values groups have been teaming up with technology watchdogs from the far left to push for legislation that would criminalize attempts to create human life through the process of cloning.

A similar, but even more unlikely coalition has formed to try to protect women from the dangers of egg extraction--the process used to harvest women's eggs for use in in vitro fertilization (IVF) or human cloning. Staunchly pro-life women have joined with luminaries from the pro-choice movement in an international campaign they've titled "Hands Off Our Ovaries." These women are concerned that if human cloning moves forward, the demand for human eggs will dramatically exceed the supply of willing, "altruistic" donors, causing poor women around the world to be coerced into "donating" their eggs without being fully informed of the potential consequences to their health and fertility. Resisting criticism from allies on both sides, these women have put aside decades of enmity over abortion to work together towards a common goal: a moratorium on the process of egg extraction. Sadly, perhaps because the polarization theme plays better on the nightly news, the Hands Off Our Ovaries campaign has been able to garner the support of only a handful of representatives in Congress.

Congress is also beginning a discussion of the practice of patenting human genes. Currently, patents have been granted on over 20 percent of the human genome. Patent holders own a monopoly on genetic tests developed for the patented gene and can prevent other researchers from studying the genes they own. Human geneticists in the academic community regularly receive "cease and desist" letters from gene-patent holders. Consequently, gene patents are interfering with patient access to diagnostic tests and are stifling medical innovation. Rep. Xavier Becerra, a liberal Democrat from California, and Rep. Dave Weldon, a conservative Republican from Florida, are partnering to ban all future patents on human genes.

These seemingly strange partnerships in Congress exist because it is possible to start from vastly different worldviews and end up with similar policy goals in some areas. It is often said that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. A democracy must employ this type of principled pragmatism in order to tackle the complex issues posed by the genetic revolution.

—Michelle C. Kirtley, Ph.D.
    Science Policy Analyst


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”