By Jon Holmlund
Passing along word that the National Academies of Medicine and Science are planning an international commission on human gene editing, the editorial board of the New York Times has issued a welcome call to make the public discussion of the issues as broad as possible. Read the whole thing, but this key graph is particularly important (emphases mine):
“As gene-editing technology advances toward the clinic, scientists will need to do more than listen to the concerns of bioethicists, legal scholars and social scientists. They will have to let these other voices help set priorities — decide what questions and issues need to be resolved — before theory becomes practice. That may mean allowing questions over societal risks and benefits to trump ones about scientific feasibility.”
See the 29 March 2018 post on this blog regarding two calls—the Times linked to one, and quoted from the author of the other—for broader discourse. This discourse is urgently needed, but must go beyond risk-benefit discussions to the broader meaning of, and issues raised by, heritable human gene editing in particular. (Somatic human gene editing, to treat a known disease in an existing individual in a way that cannot be passed on to the next generation, is less troublesome ethically, except insofar as it enables the heritable version of gene editing.)
The challenges to effective public deliberation of heritable human gene editing are formidable: getting truly wide participation; getting the scientists to inform and educate non-scientists without trying to lead them to a set of preferred conclusions; engaging the developing, as well as the developed, world; obtaining “religious input” that is more than token; and sustaining the conversation as long as necessary to hold attention in our short-attention world.
It seems that to execute on that will take a pretty large group of dedicated people engaged in a focused, full-time effort to make it happen. Existing science and ethics groups, like the National Academies, may be the default nominees, but it also seems like a broader group of facilitating entities is needed. The “global observatory” mentioned by the Times editorial would, as proposed, be established by an “international network of scholars and organizations…dedicated to gathering information from dispersed sources, bringing to the fore perspectives that are often overlooked, and promoting exchange across disciplinary and cultural divides.”
Hear, hear. One hopes that this happens—and that individuals can find a way to help make it happen. Spread the word—people should be encouraged to set aside time, energy, and mental space to consider this revolution for the human race.