A moral imperative to pursue gene editing research?
The bioethicist Erik Parens has recently asked whether parents can be trusted with gene-editing technology, in a thought-provoking essay published in Aeon magazine. To set the stage, he writes that: “In April 2015, in the pages of Science, a group of prominent scientists and ethicists announced the need for a public conversation about a new gene-editing technology that, in principle, could be used to make precise, safe and effective changes – or ‘edits’ – to human genomes.”
Why the need for a public conversation? For one thing, some people fear that this new technology – called CRISPR-Cas9 – will be used to create “designer babies,” that is, offspring whose genomes have been tweaked to select for traits that the parents judge to be desirable (in a way that goes beyond attempts to treat or prevent disease). Others see a direct path to Nazi-style eugenics, and suggest that a ban on at least certain uses of the technology should be strongly considered.
But as with any new potent technology, CRISPR-Cas9 could be used for good as well as for ill. The potential for misuse, then, needs to be balanced against the possible benefits that could be brought to society if the technology were used appropriately.
And that means (among other things) deciding what uses should be considered “for good” or “for ill” in the first place. In other words, there is no avoiding the need for a sober conversation about fundamental values.
Fortunately, the conversation is well underway. For a recent example, readers of this blog should take a look at the transcript of a fascinating debate between Margaret Somerville, a prominent Canadian ethicist, and Julian Savulescu, the Oxford philosopher and editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.