Toward true public engagement about gene editing

The March 22, 2018 edition of Nature includes two thoughtful, helpful commentaries about improving the public dialogue around “bleeding edge” biotechnologies.  In this case, the example is gene editing, of which one commentator, Simon Burall from the U.K., says, “Like artificial intelligence, gene editing could radically alter almost every domain of life.”  Burall’s piece, “Don’t wait for an outcry about gene editing,” can be found here.  The other commentary, “A global observatory for gene editing,” by Harvard’s Sheila Jasanoff and J. Benjamin Hurlbut from Arizona State, can be found here, and an umbrella editorial from the editors of Nature is here.  All are open-access and all are worth reading by any citizen who would like to be informed at even a general level about the ethical discussions of biotechnology.

The three share this tone: more inclusiveness, more humility on the part of scientists, and willingness to have difficult conversations are called for—and have been generally lacking in past efforts to engage the public in discussion of the implications of new biotechnologies.  In the view of Jasanoff and Hurlbut, even the much-admired 1975 Asilomar conference that established boundaries on recombinant DNA research and its applications, was too narrow, focusing on technically-definable risks and benefits but not taking time to reflect more deeply on the ultimate ramifications of what the scientists were doing.  The experts dominate, and lecture—gently, but clearly—the “laity.”  This can create a sort of foregone-conclusion effect: getting people comfortable with the research agenda and the scientists’ and technologists’ (including industry players’) goals is the true point.  The possibility that some work simply should not be pursued for a while may scarcely be expressed, much less heeded.  As Hans Jonas said in a reflection about Asilomar, “Scientific inquiry demands untrammeled freedom for itself.”

Burall, Jasanoff, and Hurlbut seem to be saying, repent from that, as it were.  Don’t just have a panel of a dozen scientists or so meet for a single seminar or webinar with a dozen or so non-scientists (with, I might add, the token clergyperson).  Create a clearinghouse for a wide range of views on what gene editing really might mean, and how humans should respond.  Open the dialogue to a large number, not just a few, non-scientists from a wide range of perspectives.  Pay attention to cultures other than the developed West—especially the global South.  Perhaps start with seminars that are cooperatively organized by several groups representing different interests or stakeholders, but don’t stop there—create a platform for many, many people to weigh in.  And so on.

They don’t suggest it will be easy.  And we do have a sort of clearinghouse already—I call it the Internet.  And we’d want to be sure—contra John Rawls—that viewpoints (yes, I’m thinking of God-centered perspectives) are not disqualified from the outset as violating the terms of the discussion.  And, perhaps most importantly, what threshold of public awareness/understanding/agreement would be insisted upon to ground public policy?  Surely a simple popular majority would be suspect, but unanimity—achievable in smaller groups, with difficulty—would be impossible.  And concerns about “fake news” or populist tendencies run amok (the “angry villagers”) would be unavoidable.

But, as Jasanoff and Hurlbut say, “In current bioethical debates, there is a tendency to fall back on the framings that those at the frontiers of research find most straightforward and digestible…[debate must not be limited by] the premise that, until the technical capability does exist, it is not necessary to address difficult questions about whether [some] interventions are desirable…Profound and long-standing traditions of moral reflection risk being excluded when they do not conform to Western ideas of academic bioethics.”

Bingo and amen.  How to make it happen, I am not sure.  Jasanoff and Hurlbut say they are trying to get beyond binary arguments about the permissibility or impermissibility of germline genome editing, for example.  Still, I don’t see how the “cosmopolitan” public reflection they advocate can go on without agreeing on something like a fairly firm moratorium—a provisional “presumption to forebear,” as I like to put it—while the conversation proceeds.  And hey, we’re the Anglosphere.  We’re dynamic, innovative, progressive, pragmatic, visionary.  We don’t do moratoria.   Moratoria are for those Continental European fraidy-cats.  Then again, these writers are seeking a truly global discussion.  And past agreement by assembled nation-states appears to have at least slowed down things like chemical and biological munitions (recent events in Syria notwithstanding).

These authors are doing us a service with their reflections.  Read their articles, give them a careful hearing—and note that their email addresses are provided at the end.  Maybe I’ll write to them.

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