Genetics and law

Print edition : February 15, 2019
The book unravels the philosophical, legal and ethical challenges posed by genetic research.

James Watson, the first director of the Human Genome Project (HGP), once quipped: “Genetic revolution brings unprecedented power to humanity with new ethical and social dilemmas.” Watson wanted 2 per cent of the resources spent for the HGP to be set apart for a project called ELSI (Ethical, Legal and Social Impact of genetic revolution).

While humans explore the unlimited contours of life, the genomic revolution has unearthed the secrets of human life and attempted to give solutions to diseases that have tormented human life. Although many books, articles and monographs have been published in this area, the book under review is of contemporary relevance since it unravels the philosophical, legal and ethical aspects of the challenges posed by genomic research.

While focussing on the legal aspect of genetics, Vani Kesari has examined the relevant ethical issues relating to genetics and genomic technologies.

The book throws light on how philosophy coupled with spiritualism and humanism has influenced legal principles and the basic precepts of law and how as a result legal principles can address the challenges posed by scientific advances. The work analyses the response of law to the human rights challenges genomic research poses. With several pages dedicated to notes, references and bibliography, it will be a treasure trove for researchers in the area.

Vani Kesari attempts to make a philosophical inquiry into the scope, content and nature of the concept of life. The various issues relating to the sanctity of life are examined from theoretical and practical perspectives. The book also elaborates on the legal aspects of many of the currently debated issues such as capital punishment, contraception, sterilisation, suicide and euthanasia.

It delves into the concept of “life” in human rights jurisprudential discourses and in human rights instruments. This is worth understanding not only for the legal fraternity but also for the layman.

The author also raises the point that most human rights instruments employ the term “dignity” without taking the effort to define it. The judicial interpretation of the connotations of the term is examined in detail through Indian and foreign judgments. The author throws light on the perils of patenting in the area of genetics. She points out that human genetic research involves risk and at the same time it promises benefits to humanity.

The task of law is to balance the relative weightage between benefit and harm and choose the technique that furthers the interest of research participants and society alike. Cloning technology and its infringement upon bioethics are examined in this context.

The major criticism levelled against cloning is the destruction of human embryos used for therapeutic cloning and the legality of embryonic research. The author rightly points out that the major lacuna in this regard is the fragmentation of authority governing the realm of biomedical research.

Advances in certain areas of genetic research require legal restrictions since it can corrode the faith in human dignity and negate principal rights such as equality, non-discrimination, autonomy, and bodily integrity. The book evaluates recent legislative efforts undertaken in this field in different jurisdictions and at the international level. Discussions on the existing regulatory framework in India and the inherent weakness in it are highlighted in the book.

A concluding suggestion by the author is strict penal sanctions and monitoring mechanisms lest genetic research become an aberration on human dignity.

As the legal scholar Dr N.R. Madhava Menon mentions in his foreword, “The Saga of Life is the unending story of man’s struggle with Nature and his efforts to know the unknown.”

This work may be considered as aiding the scientist, the legal fraternity, and the academia in understanding the nuances behind this journey.

Dr B. Ekbal is a public health activist, neurosurgeon, and academic.

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