Bioethics @ TIU

Public discussions on human gene editing

Posted August 25th, 2016 by Jon Holmlund

On August 3, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine posted online the slides and talks from its July 12 meeting to discuss public implications of the Human Gene-Editing Initiative.  A total of four meetings plus a related workshop were held: an introductory discussion in December 2015, followed by three more substantial meetings plus the related workshop in February, April, and now July of 2016. 

I’m still working through the materials, notably Francis Collins’ slide set from the July 12, 2016 meeting, addressing regulatory processes, in utero gene editing, and other topics.  But what first caught my eye was a brief written statement from the same meeting, from Ron Cole-Turner of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.  In it, he states that Christian opinions on human gene editing are not monolithic; that, far from being reflexively in opposition, those opinions are quite open to editing even of the human germline as long as safety concerns are addressed, embryos are not sacrificed in the process of research, and therapy rather than enhancement are in view.

I must say the statement disappointed me.  The “safety argument” is the most prominent ethical concern raised in discussions of whether editing human genes in heritable ways is ethically permissible.  We certainly want assurances that we would not put the “edited” individuals at risk, and we really would want some level of certainty that the downstream effects would not be disastrous.  But of course, the latter may be impossible to assess, since adverse consequences could be subtle and might become apparent over many generations.

Beyond that, I thought Cole-Turner’s statement was too limited, with no mention of questions of informed consent, and with no deeper reflection on how human germline editing might (I would say, would) alter the way we look at ourselves, each other, our children, and the human race in general.  The push would be further toward seeing humans as plastic, alterable entities without limit, and, beyond questions of “simple” justice (how would we keep from making benefits available only to the rich?), would create a class of, as C.S. Lewis suggested, “conditioners,” or as contemporary European thinkers have put it, a class of engineering humans who work on other, engineered humans.  Finally, Cole-Turner did not really engage the concern that there is a constant eugenic temptation in humanity that would likely re-assert itself with force.

Cole-Turner’s statement was not proud; he opened by admitting that no one person could speak for all Christians.  And maybe brevity was necessary on the occasion of the committee meeting.  But I still would hope for more robust “religious” inputs at sessions like this.  Otherwise, one gets the feeling that all that is sought is a token religious imprimatur on the most cutting-edge biotechnologies of the “brave new world.”

Follow the link in the first sentence of this post, and the statement by Cole-Turner, as well as other materials from all the meetings, may be reviewed in detail.  It is good that these are posted, because, although it’s easy to say that a thorough public discussion of transformative biotechnology should be held with all stakeholder groups, only so much is generally done to achieve that.  Even interested parties, like your humble correspondent, have limited time to devote to the details.  But more of us in the general public should labor to make time to dig in deeper.

ADDENDUM: After posting the above I went back to the link (top of this post) and read through the slides from Dr. Collins.  Readers of this blog should by all means do so as well.  At the end, he muses about the level of acceptability of 28 current or possibly future interventions, placing them on a grid of when they will be in practice vs. level of ethical concern they prompt.  The slides are self explanatory and worth musing over.–JTH

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