Should Humans Destroy Smallpox?

By: Frances Tain

In sending something irrevocably into extinction, whether it be an ideology, a civic right, or a species of organism, humans run the risk of losing as many freedoms or benefits as they gain. Of current debate on the world stage is whether or not to send smallpox (Variola major) into extinction. This would be the first deliberate extinction of a species by humans, and two distinct schools of thought have emerged regarding the pros and cons of such an act. Although the very nature of the debate is highly value-laden and politically charged, destruction of the species has already been approved by health organization representatives from 190 countries. Destruction is scheduled for June 30, 1999, subject to final approval as required by the World Health Organization (W.H.O.).

Smallpox is a highly contagious disease caused by a poxvirus. Common symptoms of this disease are blindness, deformities and death. In 1958, W.H.O. proposed the worldwide eradication of smallpox via a combination of vaccination, early detection and vigorous containment of outbreaks. The campaign was so effective that the last occurring case was reported in October of 1977, and in 1980 W.H.O. declared smallpox as ³completely eradicated². At present, only two live cultures remain, one in the U.S. and one in Russia. If all goes as currently planned, these cultures have less than two years to remain in existence.

Those who wish to destroy smallpox cite the end of smallpox-induced virulence as the main benefit of this course. Smallpox having led to many deaths worldwide, this reason is obviously the most compelling. Another reason for destroying it is that there is no foreseeable human ³need² for smallpox since scientists have mapped its genome, and can therefore study it safely in its non-virulent form. One reason for saving smallpox is that the information scientists have may not be complete, and so we may be irrevocably destroying new research possibilities. There is also the broader question of whether or not humans should decide the fate of a species, whether it be smallpox or killer whale.

Obviously the issue at hand is the greater good, and what people identify ³the greater good² to be. The issue in my mind is really one of precedence and whether or not humans want to take species existence into their own hands. Despite the fact that I do not welcome the thought of a smallpox epidemic, I feel that we as a species do not have the right to decide the fate of another species simply because we can. The message that comes from such actions is that we are somehow God-like and can eliminate species from the earth once they cease to be ³useful².

There are many examples in today¹s society where potentially ³harmful² or ³useless² entities are allowed to continue for the sole reason that their elimination would be more deleterious than their existence. Such societal examples would be the lawfulness of pornography, Neo-Nazi movements, or Satan worshiping. Although most might agree that these things are ³undesirable², outlawing these or other ³fringe² activities would curtail civic freedoms for all. Our society cannot withstand setting a precedence restricting religious worship or free expression. Similarly, in electing to destroy the last of smallpox, a dangerous organism might be eliminated, but at the cost of the sanctity of one species¹ right to live over another¹s.

An instance where legislation limits beneficial alternative uses of a ³harmful² substance is the prohibition of marijuana use. Marijuana is deemed unacceptable for recreational use, but the stringency of marijuana-related law makes impossible its advantageous uses (e.g. medicinal uses, hemp as fiber for paper/clothing). In the case of the smallpox, potentially beneficial uses for it may still exist, and extinction is obviously irreversibly prohibitive.

I believe that we as a species do not have the right or obligation to choose to eliminate another species from the earth. In doing so, humans make an immense statement, that we can decide the fate of the other inhabitants of earth. That is too powerful a concept for human beings, who may never be ready for the ensuing implications or responsibilities.

Frances Tain is currently pursuing a Master's of Science in Resource Ecology Management at the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment.

Archives | Bulletin Board | Comments | Contribute to the ESU | ESU Staff | Home | November/December 1997 Contents | Links | Next Issue | Search by Keyword | Subscriptions