New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference Oral Submission to the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification

Issue 3, April 2001

The Royal Commission on Genetic Modification has recently completed fourteen weeks of formal hearings, with some 330 "interested parties" having presented written submissions and appeared before the Commission. Public meetings, regional Hui and a meeting with young people been held and some 10,000 written submissions received from the general public. The Commission now has the substantial task of analysing what it has received, and determining the directions for New Zealand with respect to the use of genetic modification.

On 22 February 2001, Bishop Peter Cullinane, Father Michael McCabe and Anne Dickinson appeared before the Royal Commission to discuss the written submission made by the New Zealand Catholic Bishops' Conference. Before answering questions from the Commission they presented the following oral submission.

Sir Thomas, members of the Commission.

The debate about genetic modification is characterised by complexity, and that has been very evident in the written submissions of interested parties. Taken collectively, the submissions reveal much about human nature, because genetic modification and its applications are human activities.

In this debate aspects of our human nature appear at times to be in opposition. For example, the desire to explore our universe and use our creativity is as much part of our nature as our need for stability and predictability. The need to seek physical sustenance and support from our environment coexists with a deep psychological and spiritual need to live in harmony with the environment. Reason gives us the means of balancing these apparently competing needs, and it is the reasoned approach which often reveals that needs appear to be in opposition only when they are taken to extremes or there is a focus on one need to the exclusion of others. We are most likely to do harm when we focus on one need to the exclusion of others. For example, a focus on the economic benefits of genetic modification to the exclusion of other human values will impoverish rather than enrich us as a people; likewise, so will blanket opposition to genetic modification on the grounds that we are not wise enough to be trusted with its use.

The issues at the heart of the GM debate are issues about our own human nature, and they are not new issues. We have faced them many times before, as we have worked out ways to ensure that we can obtain the benefits of new knowledge while limiting or excluding potential harm. In our submission we stated that while we do not see the technology of genetic modification to be in conflict with ethical values, we are very aware that there are some uses of that technology which are unethical or unwise, or offensive to some people.

Many known uses of genetic modification have been tabled, with potential uses only being hinted at or simply unknown at this stage. While as a Commission you may make decisions about known uses of genetic modification, we consider it vital that you also put in place a means of ethically evaluating new uses as they arise in the future. We recognise the role the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) currently plays in evaluating environmental, health and safety aspects of uses of genetic modification. However we believe that needs to be complemented by a broader evaluation based on a framework of ethical principles. We have argued for such a framework in our submission and we would now like to briefly outline possible components of such a framework.

We do not need new ethical principles to evaluate uses of genetic modification. There are already fundamental and accepted ethical principles underpinning much of our legislation and the work of ethics bodies in New Zealand. They are powerful guides in thinking about the ethical dimensions of many diverse situations, including genetic modification.

The first of these ethical principles is that of non-maleficence – "first, do no harm". Essentially this is a principle about safety. "First do no harm" involves more than ensuring physical or environmental safety. We believe that too much is being asked of the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act [HSNO] in its current form, because it does not provide a sufficient framework for balancing ethical, cultural and spiritual beliefs with scientific information. The case-by-case approach of the regulatory process needs to be guided by policy, which incorporates wider concerns and defines the boundaries in our use of genetic modification.

We are supportive of recommendations which recognize that applications of genetic modification lie along a continuum of risk. Low risk research activities of the type carried out safely in containment for the last twenty-five years are now routine, and do not need the same high level of regulatory and community scrutiny as new uses which have potentially irreversible effects.

There has been much said about the Precautionary Principle. We support the application of the principle to uses of genetic modification, in a form which recognises that human activities always involve some degree of risk, however slight. Understanding of the degree of risk is often a function of time, the risk increasing or decreasing with advances in knowledge. This is particularly so for certain milestone events in the use of genetic modification, for example, a first release of a Genetically Modified Organism [GMO] into the environment. For this type of use the competitive element of human nature needs to be tempered by the virtues of caution and patience. There are some complex and potentially irreversible uses of genetic modification which we simply don't know enough about, and where there is the possibility of serious or irreversible damage the burden of proof should fall on those who wish to carry out the activities in question. There is wisdom in delaying these types of decisions for a period of time in order to carry out further research, not only into the science, but also into the ethical, cultural and economic aspects of the application.

The second fundamental principle to be included in an ethical framework is that of beneficence, the potential of an action to provide a good or a benefit. Those who will benefit from a particular genetic modification should be clearly identified, and their need for such benefit evaluated to ensure that it is not achieved at the expense of the well-being or benefit of others. We recognize the value to the community of economic benefit, but strongly believe that it should not be the key driver in decision-making. Improvement of the human condition, respect for our environment and other life forms, and less tangible and longer term benefits are all equally important considerations.

Evaluation of the potential of a particular genetic modification to do harm or provide benefit depends upon the acceptance by all of a third fundamental principle, that of veracity or truthfulness. Sound decisions depend upon the availability of information which is honest, unbiased and comprehensive. As we said in our submission, this debate has been characterised by polarization and the use of carefully selected information to support particular viewpoints. Truthfulness requires that all information be available and verifiable, and that research be open to all possibilities, rather than designed to support particular stances. Competitive advantage or personal philosophies are not reasons for obscuring truth, because there is too much at stake for all of us.

Our Western society is based on respect for individual freedom, which carries with it an acceptance of responsibility for one's actions and for their contribution to the common good. These concepts are reflected in the principle of respect for autonomy, the fourth principle to be included in an ethical framework, respect for autonomy, acknowledges our right to our own choices, opinions, values, goals and freedom to act in a way which is respectful of others. An autonomous person makes choices after careful consideration of alternatives, which means that respect for autonomy must operate in tandem with the principle of veracity, or truthfulness. In the health field the provision of good information to patients as the basis for personal decisions has long been accepted. Likewise, the provision of neutral and non-judgemental information about the risks and benefits of genetic modification is a key component of respecting the autonomy of individuals. The labeling of foods with a GM component is an example of providing information that allows people informed choice.

The fine detail of how the principle of respect for autonomy is to be applied will be one of the most challenging aspects of developing an ethical framework. Labelling food is one of the simpler solutions – the growing of food and the modification or use of copies of human genes gives rise to more difficult issues. It is in this area of respect for autonomy that issues of concern to Māori need to be worked out, so that their spiritual beliefs are respected without imposing a veto on GM work within New Zealand. In relation to genetic modification the teasing out of respect for autonomy requires a commitment to dialogue, with a multi-disciplinary and multicultural approach being essential. Such a dialogue challenges all groups engaged in the debate to stand in the shoes of others, rather than simply dismissing perspectives which differ from their own.

A fifth principle, that of justice, must also be included in an ethical framework. Application of the principle of justice would bring into focus questions about the sharing of the benefits and risks of genetic modification, and issues about human rights. In this new context there is the possibility of starting afresh in seeking to make social justice a reality, taking account of the poor in our midst and remembering that, as a nation, we consume far more than our fair share of the earth's resources. Our use of this new technology has the potential to exacerbate further the inequalities that subject many Third World countries to injustice and marginalisation. This is especially so if we use it in an exploitative way or to gain wealth for ourselves at the expense of others. As a nation, we can decide to use this technology, not only to benefit ourselves, but also to respond to the needs of the poor. In New Zealand we have a particular responsibility to provide leadership in the use of this technology to benefit or protect our Pacific neighbours. Is it too much to require that "the needs of the poor take priority over the desires of the rich" in determining how we will use genetic modification?

We noted in our submission that many of the issues in genetic modification have arisen from a non-Māori world and have their origins in a different cultural perspective. The Treaty of Waitangi requires respect for the "world view" of Māori, their spirituality, culture and traditions. We draw your attention to the Witness Brief of Dr Mere Roberts, presented on behalf of the Māori advisory group to ERMA, Nga Kaihautu Tikanga Taiao. Members of the group are highly-qualified in scientific disciplines. They identify a number of serious issues for Māori in the regulatory process, and state that they are concerned that until these issues are addressed and resolved, there would appear to be no circumstances available under the HSNO Act "within which Māori spiritual and cultural concerns will ever be considered of sufficient significance to lead to the decline of an application." They consider that the Act in its present form is failing Māori, a statement that deserves serious attention. These issues may be better worked out within an ethical framework through the principle of respect for autonomy than on a case-by-case basis in a regulatory system.

To conclude, we believe that developing and applying a framework of ethical principles to uses of genetic modification is essential, but that it will be a challenging task. It will require dialogue across disciplines and between groups with strongly-held views. However it has the potential to bring about a deepening of the ethical wisdom needed to handle not just this scientific advance, but others yet to come.

If this debate could be described as having sides, a pro-GM lobby and an anti GM lobby, then we need to understand the value in both perspectives. The very focused innovation and creativity of science is balanced by the perspective of those who look at the impact of potential change on the less tangible aspects of our lives. This is not a matter of one side winning. It is about how we go forward together with a greater understanding of one another, and with the ability to make decisions for our common good.

1 April 2001