The following is an excerpt from President William Jefferson
Clinton’s commencement address at Morgan State University May 18, 1997.
President Clinton was awarded an honorary doctorate of laws.
The past half-century has seen mankind split the atom, splice genes
create the microchip, explore the heavens. We enter the next century
propelled by new and stunning developments.
Thirty-six years ago President Kennedy looked to the heavens and
proclaimed that the flag of peace and democracy, not war and tyranny,
must be the first to be planted on the moon. He gave us a goal of
reaching the moon, and we achieved it–ahead of time.
Let us today set a new national goal for science in the age of
biology. Today, let us commit ourselves to developing an AIDS vaccine
within the next decade.
Science often moves faster than our ability to understand its
implications, leaving a maze of moral and ethical questions in its
wake. The Internet can be a new town square or a new Tower of Babel.
The same computer that can put the Library of Congress at our
fingertips can also he used by purveyors of hate to spread blueprints
for bombs. The same knowledge that is developing new life-saving drugs
can be used to create poisons of mass destruction.
Science has no soul of its own. It is up to us to determine whether
it will he used as a force for good or evil. We must do nothing to
stifle our basic quest for knowledge. After all, it has propelled us
from field to factory to cyberspace. But how we use the fruits of
science and how we apply it to human endeavors is not properly the
domain of science alone or of scientists alone. The answers to these
questions require the application of ethical and moral principles that
have guided our great democracy toward a more perfect union for more
than 200 years now. As such, they are the province of every American
We must decide together how to apply these principles to the dazzling new discoveries of science. Here are four guideposts.
First, science and its benefits must be directed toward making life
better for all Americans — never just a privileged few. Their
opportunities and benefits should be available to all. Science must not
create a new line of separation between the haves and the have-nots,
those with and those without the tools and understanding to learn and
In the twenty-first century a child in a school that does not have
a link to the Internet or the student who does not have access to a
computer will he like the nineteenth century child without school
books. That is why we are ensuring that every child in every school,
not matter how rich or poor, will have access to the same technology by
connecting every classroom and library to the Internet by the year 2000.
Science must always respect the dignity of every American. Here at
one of America’s great Black universities let me underscore something I
said just a few days ago at the White House. We must never allow our
citizens to he unwitting guinea pigs in scientific experiments that put
them at risk without their consent and full knowledge.
Second, none of our discoveries should he used to label or
discriminate against any group or individual. With stunning speed,
scientists are now moving to unlock the secrets of our genetic code.
Genetic testing has the potential to identify hidden inherited
tendencies toward disease and spur early treatment. But that
information could also he used, for example, by insurance companies and
others to. discriminate against and stigmatize people.
We know that in the 1970s, some African Americans were denied
health care coverage by insurers and jobs by employers because they
were identified as sickle cell anemia carriers. We also know that one
of the main reasons women refuse genetic testing for susceptibility to
breast cancer is their fear that the insurance companies may either
deny them coverage or raise their rates to unaffordable levels. No
insurer should be able to use genetic data to underwrite or
discriminate against any American seeking health insurance. This should
not simply be a matter of principle, hut a matter of law, period.
Third, technology should not he used to break down the wall of
privacy and autonomy free citizens are guaranteed in a free society.
The right to privacy is one of our most cherished freedoms. As society
has grown more complex and people have become more interconnected in
every way, we have had to work even harder to respect the privacy, the
dignity, the autonomy of each individual.
Fourth, we must always remember that science is not God. Our
deepest truths remain outside the realm of science. We must temper our
euphoria over the recent breakthrough in animal cloning with sobering
attention to our most cherished concepts of humanity and faith.
If we hold fast to these principles, we can make this time of change a moment of dazzling opportunity for all Americans.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates
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