By: Clarence Page

Chicago Tribune (and national syndication)
March 25, 1998 Wednesday

If you could preprogram your future children to be tall, strong, smart, good-looking and resistant to diseases, including cancer or AIDS, would you do it?

Who wouldn't? You might even be viewed as negligent, even abusive, if you didn't?

But would there be social consequences if the practice was limited to only those who could afford it?

How about a world "genetocracy," a society in which a genetically enriched, superhealthy, superintelligent minority dominates a serflike majority of people with normal, untampered-with genes?

Molecular biologist Lee Silver of Princeton described that possibility in his book " Remaking Eden:Ê Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World." He foresees a world segregated into "gen rich" and "gen natural . . . entirely separate species with no ability to crossbreed and with as much romantic interest in each other as a current human would have for a chimpanzee."

If that possibility sounds more chilling than thrilling to you, you're not alone. So far, scientists have limited their tinkering with the human genetic code to changes that would not be passed on to the subject's children or grandchildren. But that may be about to change.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the nation's largest general science organization, recently named 20 experts to a panel to consider whether to venture into versions of genetic therapy that could be passed on to future generations.

Last week, another group of distinguished molecular biologists and geneticists, including Silver, met on their own at the University of California at Los Angeles to discuss how, why and when the intergenerational process, called "germline" genetic engineering, should proceed.

Either way, the next big civil rights movement may be the genetics rights movement. Politically, it is an issue that crosses party lines. The anti-abortion movement is concerned about what constitutional rights a cloned fetus may have. The workers' and civil rights movements are outraged by mounting reports of genetic discrimination by employers and insurance companies discriminating against workers known to have inheritable diseases in their families.

As Yogi Berra has been quoted as saying, the future is hard to predict, since it hasn't happened yet. But the decisions we make now will determine what kind of future is going to happen.