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Beach Blanket Bioethics

Bioethicists and contemporary novelists are captivated by the same issues. In recent years, major novelists have written acclaimed novels on research misconduct (Allegra Goodman’sIntuition), human cloning (Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go), and the pharmaceutical industry (Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections). Now, it’s our turn on the bestseller list: a major bioethicist has written a novel about biobanking.

Sequence, by Lori Andrews, Director of the Institute for Science, Law, and Technology at IIT, is a thriller set in the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology – a real place, she reminds us. The heroine is molecular geneticist/physician Alexandra Blake. Alex is brilliant. She was one of the authors of the Nature article describing the sequence of the human genome, and danced with James Watson at the publication celebration. She’s gorgeous yet practical, her must-have accessory being a fanny pack filled with medical supplies. She has eclectic taste in men – a musician, a Congressman – and in home décor: she lives in a barely renovated beauty salon, commercial rents being cheaper than residential in DC’s hipper neighborhoods. This is a genre thriller: there are forensics, conspiracies, gizmos, and chases galore, and no one ever seems to eat or sleep amid the hunt for a serial killer preying on women at military bases. But there is also serious consideration of the same issues that are the focus of the author’s scholarly research: the ethics of biobanking, including the rights of individuals to refuse to provide tissue samples (a gay serviceman calls himself a “DNA conscientious objector,” fearing he’ll be outed by his genes), limits on the commercialization of biobanks (a company with the all-too-possible name “Gene-Ease” has designs on the Department of Defense’s DNA Registry) and informed consent by tissue donors for subsequent analysis of their DNA (Alex objects to a Homeland Security law permitting analysis of biobanked samples without consent, even as she’s ordered to comply with it). Biobanking also provides the means to frame someone for murder, and the way to identify the real killer. I also enjoyed the reference to “Elektrobank” by The Chemical Brothers – a title and band name so perfect for this book’s theme they seem invented. (But they’re real. I Googled them.) If you’re looking for a beach book with bioethical heft, try Lori Andrews’s latest.

I recommend pairing it with another bioethical thriller featuring a woman protagonist, a serial-killer plot, and all-too-vulnerable databases of bio-information: A Philosophical Investigation, by Philip Kerr. Published in 1992 and set in early 21st century London, it’s an intellectual thriller in more ways than one: a national database of brain scans, intended to identify potential serial killers according to the size of a particular neural region, is encoded using the author list from the Penguin Classics. One day, “Wittgenstein” hacks his way in and . . . you’ll just have to see it for yourself. Happy reading.

Published on: July 12, 2006
Published in: Bioethics

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