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More MS news articles for January 2004

Human gene implants repel public, survey shows

Jan 28, 2004
Simon Collins
New Zealand Herald

The first public survey by the Government's new Bioethics Council has found overwhelming opposition to the idea of putting human genes into other organisms.

The suggestion was described as "repulsive" and the product of a "sick mind", though it already happens in genetic modification experiments in this country.

The survey, commissioned to launch the council's first public consultation exercise, found an "almost universal rejection" of the idea among 58 people selected to represent a demographic cross-section of the population.

They were interviewed in 10 focus groups around the country.

The council, chaired by former Governor-General Sir Paul Reeves, was appointed in 2002 to advise on the broad ethical issues raised by genetic modification.

Specific applications for GM products will continue to be heard by the Environmental Risk Management Authority (Erma). But the Bioethics Council is expected to lay down ethical principles to guide it.

The council plans 17 small meetings with various population groups, 11 hui on marae and two all-day "community conferences" in Hamilton and Nelson to test public views on putting human genes into other organisms, before writing a final report in June.

But its initial research indicates New Zealanders overwhelmingly oppose projects such as AgResearch's plan to make human proteins in cow's milk to help people suffering from multiple sclerosis.

A report by market research firm NFO NZ (formerly CM Research) says most people in its 10 focus groups found the general concept outside their experience and unacceptable.

"Some find the idea so repulsive that they cannot contemplate or fully discuss it," the report says.

"Others find the idea so foreign that they cannot imagine why anyone would think of such an idea, unless they 'had a sick mind'.

"Key words used to describe their feelings are 'diabolical', 'revulsion', 'betrayal', 'not normal', 'yuck', 'scared me' and 'weird'."

The report says people fear losing control over their own genes, feel concern for the animals that might be modified for human benefit and think it "just doesn't seem right".

Pacific Islanders and Maori, especially, felt that eating food containing human genes would be a form of "cannibalism" or "incest".

Some people changed their opinions after discussion about particular examples that might produce medical benefits.

The report finds that many younger New Zealanders now use the word "nature" to explain feelings about the world that older people explain with Christian concepts.

"For younger participants and young women in particular, the term 'nature' has taken on a positive meaning of 'the natural order', and 'unnatural' is a negative term."

The report also finds "a deep mistrust about motivations for scientific development". "It is felt that political agendas, profit/greed, war/terrorism and scientific excitement override more positive motivations."

AgResearch's own surveys have also found public disquiet about its research. A postal survey last May found that 44 per cent of New Zealanders disagreed with genetically modifying cows for human benefit, 31 per cent approved of it, 21 per cent were neutral and 4 per cent did not know.

However, the institute said opinion was shifting in its favour. The same survey in 2001 found 59 per cent opposed and only 20 per cent in favour.

The executive director of the Biosciences Policy Institute, Francis Wevers, said the Bioethics Council's process would be "seriously flawed" unless it told people that regulations required GM applications to be considered by "a reputable, independent policy body".

Environment Minister Marian Hobbs said that two years ago she would have expressed the same fears as the public did in the NFO survey, but she had since learned that many of the same genes were found naturally in both humans and other living things.

She said she had a huge belief in the value of arguing and reflecting on public issues such as GM - "not yelling at one another".

© Copyright 2004, New Zealand Herald