Proposed moratorium on human germline: Asilomar analogue?

The Editorial Board of The Washington Post (WaPo) recently published their opinion  on regulation of heritable genetic changes in human eggs, sperm, and embryos. The authors expressed some measure of relief that organizations such as the National Academies in the U.S., the Royal Society in Britain, and the World Health Organization are beginning to consider the daunting topic of human heritable genetic changes. The board advised, “The goal must be a framework that will enable genuine scientific advancement but avoid reckless fiddling with the source code of life.”

The WaPo editorial board further recommended “something of similar scope and power” to that of the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA Molecules, held in February 1975. Asilomar, as that conference came to be called, was convened to evaluate the risks posed by the novel technology of genetically modifying organisms. The public perception of Asilomar has been primarily one of scientists shouldering the “social responsibility of science.”

Further, the WaPo article pointed out that one of the authors of the March 2019 Nature commentary calling for a “global, temporary moratorium on clinical uses of human germline editing” was Paul Berg, a Nobel laureate, and one of the organizers of the Asilomar conference. The Nature commentary, authored by Eric Lander, Françoise Baylis, Feng Zhang, Emmanuelle Charpentier, and Paul Berg, described the consensus for a moratorium thusly:

The 18 signatories of this call include scientists and ethicists who are citizens of 7 countries. Many of us have been involved in the gene-editing field by developing and applying the technology, organizing and speaking at international summits, serving on national advisory committees and studying the ethical issues raised.

This description appears to differ substantively from one Berg gave of the Asilomar analogue. In an 18 June 2011 video interview by Larry Goldstein, Berg had this to say about the success of Asilomar:

We made some decisions that were smart in retrospect. For example, one of the things we did not do – and did not include in any way in the agenda was the ethics. We didn’t talk about genetic testing… we talked about real experiments, and what the impact of those experiments would be in the field (10:40-10:58)

Of the five authors calling for a moratorium on human heritable genetic changes, only Françoise Baylis is an ethicist. A 2004 article penned by Baylis and Jason Scott Robert, “The Inevitability of Genetic Enhancement Technologies,” gives insight to her views. The paper concludes with

. . . we maintain that accepting the inevitability of genetic enhancement technologies is an important and necessary step forward in the ethical debate about the development and use of such technologies. We need to change the lens through which we perceive, and therefore approach, the prospect of enhancing humans genetically. In recognising the futility of trying to stop these technologies, we can usefully direct our energies to a systematic analysis of the appropriate scope of their use. The goal of such a project would be to influence how the technologies will be developed, and the individual, social, cultural, political, economic, ecological, and evolutionary ends the technologies should serve. It is to these tasks that bioethical attention must now fully turn.

It appears that 1) Paul Berg’s previous concerns about “ethics” being involved is not a problem to date in this enterprise; and 2) the called-for moratorium is truly only a “speed bump” on the road to converting future generations into our own laboratory experiments. The “individual” ends such experiments will serve are likely to be the individuals who are paid handsomely to do such experiments or who hold the patents to the processes utilized – not the individuals formed. Despite the extensive embrace of heritable human genome editing by the principals cited here, we need to remember that this is not a road that we must travel. Future generations are not our playground. We need to rethink this “moratorium”:  It should be an outright ban.

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