Essay: Biotech resistance – Gap between biotechnology and public opinion

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  • Biotech resistance - Gap between biotechnology and public opinion
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Innovation is seen as the key to survival and success for human kind. The advances made in biotechnology could even be of bigger importance seeing what they could mean for the length and quality of life of human beings. However the debates over biotechnology have gained a great deal of attention over the years from different parts of society. Researchers are concerned with this topic as well as reporters and other individuals. Not everyone seems to be keen on the developments going on in the field of biotechnology, especially since it is at odds at many of our moral and ethical values. Whether it is about the cloning of the Edinburgh sheep, the genetic modification of food or medical care issues such as the location of particular human genes such as the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 genes for breast cancer, there is great attention for these issues in public debate and media. Opinions on biotechnology differ from the end of humanity to hunger problems in the world . The visions differ from the benefits to the disadvantages of biotechnology. At one pole, we find celebration and boundless optimism and at the other we have profound suspicion and dire prediction. Notably, there is a huge gap between what we could do with modern biotechnology and what we actually do with biotechnology. Reasons therefore are of various grounds, some of them are legalization issues, scientific issues, financial issues but one of the biggest issues is the public opinion and what is accepted by society. This gap, caused by resistance to change, influences the way biotechnology is used and legalized. Recently historians of technology rediscovered the term ‘resistance’ as a ‘force’ that shapes technology, which requires an adequate analysis . The control of technology remains a desirable agenda by people who are affected by it . Questions are raised such as: do we really want to unravel the mysteries of biological dimension of human life? Do we really want to have the knowledge and power to control that dimension? Do we really want this huge responsibility? The answers vary not only depending on the subject, but also from country to country, culture to culture and of course per individual. It is shown that there is more opposition in Europe than in the USA in respect to biotechnology, and there is also variance within the European countries. Doing research to the kind of resistance and knowing wherein the problem lies however, is very important since there is much at stake. For nations it is a matter of international position in research as well as their economic interest, public acceptance may be a locational advantage worth huge amounts of money.
Some interest words coming from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee in the United Kingdom when it identified the field of human genetics as one that was ripe for review and regulation were:
”The fast moving pace of the science of human genetics, its actual and potential importance in clinical medicine and its bearing upon deep concerns of humanity, mean that it is necessary to keep matters under public review, and to provide for appropriate legislative and regulatory response when this is called for (‘). At the same time the rate of development means that situations and problems will change nog only within human generation, but may over-take primary legislation and the development of case law. It is therefore necessary to be flexible and to keep the development of the scientific possibilities under review, not only in the genetics peer groups, but also in public understanding, so that as far as possible issues are anticipated, and research and development and legislation and regulation are conducted with as full as possible an appreciation of consequences.”
The committee has pointed out the importance of the debate in public discourse about biotechnological inventions. The relation to legalization becomes clear seeing the rate of development, therefore the public debate matters even more. It is the exact reason why political agencies have funded major research projects to study public opinion on biotechnology, for example the European Commission did so. It is recognized that resistance to technological changes by end users is to be expected and is a valuable source of information that is critical to successful implementation of the innovation. Even though this is said in the context of businesses, this is not much different in the application of new technologies in general and acceptance of those who are affected in relation to policy making. Several authors suggest the need for greater attention to resistance or rejection as a response to innovation.
Seeing these major interests at stake and the need for attention for this subject, this paper elaborates on the resistance to biotechnological developments through public opinion. Firstly, the term ‘resistance’ will be explained, following with a few examples of resistance to the use of biotechnology recently. Then the relation between the media and resistance will be discussed, continuously the possible causes and effects of resistance will be drew upon, at last the possible solutions suggested in literature will be summed up and dealt with shortly in relation to the examples named in the beginning of the paper.
However the term ‘resistance’ is most often used in the context of organizational and management studies, relating to employees showing resistance to change within an organization, the term is now seen in the field of biotechnology too. The most basal definition of the term ‘resistance’ as to be found in the Oxford Dictionary is ‘the refusal to accept or comply with something’. As already mentioned in the introduction, recently historians of technology rediscovered the term ‘resistance’ as a ‘force’ that shapes technology which requires an adequate analysis . The term of resistance draws a lot of different and contradicting connotations and as said before it is loaded with a managerial and modernization bias, which is one of the biggest problems with the term, that there is no common definition and many distinctions to be found. For the purpose of this paper the definition of resistance stated by Zaltman and Duncan will be maintained, they defined resistance to change as ”any conduct that serves to maintain the status quo in the face of pressure to alter the status quo”. Historically resistance always existed towards new technologies, when the steam saw and automobiles were introduced in Scandinavia and against the introduction of textile machinery in the early nineteenth century in Britain. Technology is being resisted because it signifies the hegemony of a foreign power. The thing with new technologies is that they influence society and shape the way we behave; it is the effect lawmakers wish to achieve. This influence is what causes us to question these new technologies; it is a power we cannot control. As Lessig’s regulation of cyberspace argues there are four modalities of regulation: law, social norms, markets and architecture. One could apply Lessig’s theory to technologies in general and not only to cyberspace, relevant in this context are the social norms. Also social norms regulate by threatening punishment ex post, but unlike the law social norms the punishment of norms are not centralized, the norms are enforced by society and not by a government. Lessig’s theory shows the importance of acceptance by society and how these are interwoven.
An important example that can be given of resistance nowadays is related to the manipulation of embryonic stem cells and cell-based therapies. Nowadays we do have the technology and knowledge to control stem cells in a way that we can create certain type of cells, we can clone and we can prevent unborn children from certain diseases. One of the treatments that receives a great deal of debate and attention is the PGD treatment (Pre-implementation Genetic Diagnosis), ”PGD enables people with an inheritable condition in their family to avoid passing it on to their children. It involves checking the genes and/or chromosomes of embryos created through IVF.” . As one could imagine, this raises a lot of moral and ethical questions. Many concerns towards this treatment exist, such as that it will create intolerance towards the disabled community. However on the other hand arguments are made that the use is ethically permissible and the use of such a treatment should be completely within the choices of the parents. PGD was introduced in 1989 and now 26 years later it is still not possible to have this treatment except under strict conditions. In the Netherlands the use of this technique is only allowed in case the embryo has a big risk at a serious disease such as Huntington. However this criterion caused some displease for many people. Which diseases do we consider as serious and which ones don’t we qualify as ‘serious’? Who is the one to judge whether a disease is serious enough to use such a treatment? In 2008 a huge debate in the Netherlands unraveled about whether breast cancer should be qualified as such a disease so that PGD treatment could be used to prevent the embryo from having the BRCA-1 or BRCA-2 gene. Reason for resistance against qualifying the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 gene as a serious heritable disease is because having the gene does not always lead to having breast cancer, some stay healthy even though carrying the gene, this would lead to destroying embryo’s which might have been completely free of breast cancer during their lives. Also some argued that there are good treatments for breast cancer nowadays and the majority survives. This led to a PGD Regulation in 2009 that laid down a national committee that has to decide case by case upon the use of the PGD treatment. Also think about the other possibilities forehand with PGD such as gender selection and ask yourself why not? Why not using the modern technology available and giving parents the freedom to do so. This is the gap that is caused by resistance. We do not use the technology because public opinion has not accepted such a technology yet. In 2009 there were 36 countries with laws or policies on gender selection where 0 permitted it, 5 prohibited it for any reason and 31 prohibited it for social or non-medial reasons (this means it is allowed in case to avoid a serious sex-linked disease). There have been some intense debates about this technology, for people it feels like interfering with nature and ”playing for God”; on the other hand there are arguments that gender selection can be used for good purposes such as family balancing. However, if we look into the history of gender selection it always existed somehow, even though this was not through science, The Greeks, for example, thought that tying off the left testicle would produce a male because the male determining sperm were derived from the right testicle. The Jewish tradition believed that ‘When the woman emits her semen before the man, the child will be a boy. Otherwise, it will be a girl.’ Why did people did not resist such practices and beliefs but do resist when science starts to play a role? One of the reasons can be found in the way the technique is applied, there is one embryo selected and the other embryos are discarded. Some believe that this embryo should be seen as a person and a person is a rights holder with a right to autonomy and killing that person would obviously be morally wrong. But even if the problem wouldn’t lie in discarding embryo’s, since there have been new techniques discussed already where embryos aren’t discarded , the other arguments against gender selection will remain. There are many nuanced arguments such as, couples with already 3 boys should be able to apply gender selection to have a girl, but a childless couple does not have the same right, but it remains a difficult topic with a wide variety of arguments brought forward. Human genetics challenges us to rethink in an upmost fundamental sense what we are and how we interact with the environment in which we find ourselves.
Media and Resistance
When studying resistance one needs to know the actors, one needs to identify the people that are resisting the particular technology and how they differ from the other social groups. One should understand that when people are resistant to a new technology, it is not the technology or the product that is resisted but the changes that are caused by the technology. Therefore it is of importance to understand the resisting individual and realize what the occurring change means for the individual that gives raise to resistance, one can affect resistance by understanding and reacting to its sources.

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