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Forward Future Requires Past Principles

By Sonia Arrison
Nov 4, 2005 5:00 AM PT

The imperative to fight diseases like AIDS and cervical cancer is a no-brainer, yet new technologies that help in this quest are under assault from bureaucrats and advocacy groups. As technology advances, questions surrounding its control and use will only get hotter. A key set of guiding principles is therefore of the utmost importance.

Forward Future Requires Past Principles

This month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will consider whether or not Pennsylvania company OraSure will be allowed to sell an in-home test for HIV, which causes AIDS. Contrary to what many might assume, the ability to conduct in-home HIV tests has been around for years but a coalition of laboratories and AIDS counselors has blocked its use.

HIV testing is an estimated half-billion-dollar business. The labs gain nothing, and lose a great deal, when this power is put directly in the hands of individuals. In the case of the counselors, their opposition to in-home HIV testing is either a power play or profound foolishness, perhaps both.

Incorrect Logic

AIDS counselors and affiliated groups have long argued that in-home AIDS tests are dangerous because persons who test positive might be so devastated, they'll kill themselves. Such paternalism misses the obvious point that if millions can test themselves at home, fewer people will get AIDS. Of course, that would mean fewer people to counsel. When it comes to new advances in fighting cervical cancer, the issue is the same but inverted.

Merck & Co. and GlaxoSmithKline have developed a new vaccine for cervical cancer, a disease that strikes more than 10,000 American women each year. Though almost 100-percent effective against two of the most common cancer-causing human papilloma virus (HPV) strains, the vaccine is not immune to those who wish to control its use. In this case, the culprits are those who want to force people to use it.

"I would like to see it that if you don't have your HPV vaccine, you can't start high school," said Juan Carlos Felix of the University of Southern California. By contrast, there are some, such as Christian conservatives, who would rather fight sexually transmitted diseases with a different tool: abstinence.

Advocates for vaccination argue that forcing everyone to get a HPV vaccine (including men) is no different from wearing a seatbelt. This is a logical error. It is more like forcing someone to get car insurance when they haven't decided whether they will drive.

Liberty, Independence

The key point that both the HIV test and HPV vaccine controversies have in common is a disregard for individual choice and liberty -- concepts responsible for American success and happiness. Vaccines and tests have been around for a long time, so if anyone thinks the issues they raise are difficult, dealing with what's coming next might seem like climbing Mount Everest. Scientists are currently working on technologies that will allow people to transform their bodies in ways previously unimagined.

Memory-enhancing drugs, life-lengthening hormones, and the ability to re-grow organs are not far off. If society is to deal with these issues, a framework is needed, and it should not be created ad hoc as each issue comes up. Fortunately, a long time ago some thoughtful people created some very good guidelines that merit more attention and commitment from policymakers.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are core human rights that should be the foundation of all policy. Every individual should have the ability to avoid death and pursue survival. Regulations that ban life-saving procedures or tests, such as a ban against at-home AIDS tests, violate this right. Liberty means having the freedom to make your own choices about how to live your life so long as it doesn't hurt someone else, and that means the ability for an individual to decide to abstain from sex instead of having a vaccine foisted upon them.

In an age where technology is changing and advancing rapidly, knee-jerk reactions such as banning technology or forcing its use are often the wrong way to go. Before policymakers fall prey to the arguments of those who seek to control others, they should consult core principles that have guided the nation in the right direction for centuries.


Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute. She also serves on the Technology Advisory Board for the Acceleration Studies Foundation.


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