The ACLU is studying science fiction to find the next threats to your liberty

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Some of today's biggest legal debates (genetic discrimination, patents for human genes) might have seemed far-fetched not so long ago. So the American Civil Liberties Union is looking to science fiction to figure out tomorrow's biggest challenges to personal liberty.

According to a fascinating article in the American Prospect, a policy analyst named Jay Stanley prepared a report for the ACLU in 2002 called Technology, Liberties, and The Future, which addresses the ACLU's possible response to "everything from cloning to artificial intelligence to genetic splicing to nanotechnology." The report has never been released to the public, but apparently it draws on opinions from legal scholars — and on sources as diverse as 1984, Brave New World, Blade Runner, Terminator and Aliens. In Stanley's report:

he carefully imagines what could happen when human reproductive cloning is perfected — "what enforcement action would be taken when, say, a sixth-grader is discovered to be an unauthorized clone of Jennifer Lopez?" Could genetic enhancement inspire a kind of neo-eugenicist society where social classes are determined by access to the kind of wealth one needs to take advantage of such technologies? If humans succeeded in splicing their own DNA with that of animals, where would the line of "personhood" be drawn? Citing a scenario out of the 1997 movie Gattaca, Stanley expresses concern that the growing ability to remove genetic defects prior to childbirth might lead to employers collecting hair or skin cells from prospective employees.


In the wake of Stanley's report, the ACLU hired a science advisor, Tania Simoncelli, to monitor scientific advances and emerging issues. This eventually led to the ACLU challenging a company that was trying to patent human genes, in court — and winning. (The company, Myriad, has appealed, and the case may eventually go to the Supreme Court.) But who knows what impossible-to-predict scientific advances could be alienating our inalienable rights in future? [Prospect]