<up for debate> Biotechnology, Women and Health

Text Size: Normal / Medium / Large
Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

I love the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair that takes place every fall in Toronto.

I love the chance to see, touch and smell the animals, to mingle with the families, the farmers and the "horsy set."

I also love to see the displays, where the purveyors of our foods, and the regulators entrusted to ensure food safety, get a chance to communicate with the average citizen.

This year, I was amused to see a booth devoted to biotechnology, and an enormous display panel assuring the reader that the Monarch butterfly was definitely not at risk from genetically engineered corn. Hmmmm.

I was amused, but I wasn't reassured. If smoke doesn't necessarily imply a fire, a smoke-screen sure seems to.

Whether or not we can establish hazard in this instance, concern is unlikely to go away. Concern about biotechnology is not just about direct threats to human health and the environment; it's about social justice - the equitable distribution of benefits and harms.

What is it?

Biotechnology involves new technologies like genetic engineering, and new social arrangements like life form patenting. For most industrialized nations, biotechnology promises the next big wave of industrial development. If the 1950s brought us "better living through chemistry," the 1980s, 1990s and perhaps the 21st century - industrial strategists hope - are the era of biotechnology.

It is this emphasis on biotech as a key tool of industrial development that concerns many observers. What social priorities does such an emphasis imply?

The Canadian Biotechnology Strategy

For Canada, as for many countries, hopes for biotech have been written into national industrial policies. The most recent version of Canada's policy - the Canadian Biotechnology Strategy - was published in 1998, and a national advisory committee was established in 1999 to take some account of social and ethical concerns, and the need for a national dialogue.

Documents on Canada's biotechnology strategy are dry and inaccessible. But the stories they tell warrant a closer look. To establish a biotechnology industry in Canada (in the early 1980s), and now to promote it, has taken money: money for research, for research tax credits (the most generous in the world, we are told), for industry lobby groups, for projects of public education and communication. It has also involved efforts in other policy domains, both nationally and internationally: facilitative regulation, extended patent protection, trade agreements. These policy agendas presume that ordinary citizens will benefit as a by-product of industrial growth, and will benefit also as consumers of new products.

Taking a Closer Look

It is as consumers of new food products that many citizens have become critical. Citizens have expressed concerns about safety; but more importantly, they have insisted that they be treated as more than consumers. Concerns encompass the organization of farming, the protection of biodiversity, the heavy hand of trade agreements, the extension of intellectual property protection, and issues of justice for the global South in the benefits accrued from the South's biodiversity.

By contrast with what has been written about agricultural biotechnology, less is available about biotechnology in medicine and health care. Moreover, where medical applications are mentioned, there is a tendency to see them as unproblematic. In part, this is because health is seen as an unlimited good - anything with the potential to reduce disease or improve health is greatly desired (and hyped). In part, also, the lack of critical commentary on biotech in medicine reflects a willingness to accept the trade-offs between hazards and benefits that health care often requires.

Yet health care is a major focus for biotechnology developments. Around the world, up to 90% of biotech activities are devoted to medical applications; in Canada, the figure is closer to 60%. Whatever the exact magnitude of the commitment, proponents share the belief that biotech has the capacity to 'transform' medicine and health care.

Biotech in Medicine, Health Care and Health: The Working Group on Women, Health and the New Genetics

Like many women's health advocates, I have been drawn to the examination of biotechnologies, especially genetic biotech, out of concern that these transformations might pose challenges for women's health and substantive equality. In 1997, I and several other women joined together to form a Working Group on Women, Health and the New Genetics. The Centres of Excellence for Women's Health Program, and specifically, the National Network on Environments and Women's Health (NNEWH), We has aided our efforts.

The Working Group decided to focus its attention on the federal government's Canadian Biotechnology Strategy since the Strategy involved the new genetics, raised questions of values and ethics, and was gender-neutral in its formal approach but not, we suspected, in its application. There was concern that an industrial policy designed to improve the health and well being of Canadians through "more reliable health surveillance, disease diagnosis and therapies," as the policy documents put it, ignored many aspects of "health needs" - notably, those having to do with the social determinants of gender, class, region, race, language and ethnicity.

The Working Group organized a National Strategic Workshop in February 2000, at York University in Toronto, entitled: "The Canadian Biotechnology Strategy: Assessing its Effects on Women and Health." The Strategic Workshop was intended as a forum in which to pose and discuss a series of fundamental, feminist questions related to state biotechnology policy, and to extend feminist analysis beyond traditional concerns with the New Reproductive and Genetic Technologies (NRGTs).

We developed a series of background documents prior to the Workshop, and after the Workshop developed more. These and other materials (a total of 8 documents) will be available through a web page, which is currently under development. The web page is to be hosted by the Canadian Women's Health Network (CWHN) - www.cwhn.ca.

It is our hope that these documents, which examine issues of genetics, biotechnology and women, will be of use to individuals and organizations as they address these complex questions.

F Alice Miller is a founding member of the Working Group on Women, Health and the New Genetics. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Centre for Health Economics and Policy Analysis at McMaster University.


Biotechnology and the New Genetics - What it Means for Women's Health (2000) by Anne Rochon Ford.
This booklet was developed as a result of the Workshop. It introduces some of the women's health implications of biotechnology and the new genetics in an accessible manner.
Gender and Genetics: A Feminist Analysis of the Canadian Biotechnology Strategy (CBS) and Alternative Visions for Community Action. (2000)
This booklet provides a gender analysis of some of the policies which support biotechnology in Canada and abroad, and provides resources for community involvement.
The Gender of Genetic Futures: The Canadian Biotechnology Strategy, Women and Health.
Proceedings of a National Strategic Workshop held at York University, February 11-12, 2000. (2000) Edited by: FA Miller, L Weir, R Mykitiuk, P Lee, S Sherwin and S Tudiver. NNEWH Working Paper Series, Toronto: York University.

Contact the Canadian Women's Health Network Information Centre for ordering information of above materials.
Toll free: 1-888-818-9172
E-mail: questions@cwhn.ca

More information:

The Canadian Biotech Strategy

The Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee