Bioethics Blogs

What is a moral epigenetic responsibility?

Guest Post: Charles Dupras & Vardit Ravitsky

The ambiguous nature of epigenetic responsibility

Epigenetics is a recent yet promising field of scientific research. It explores the influence of the biochemical environment (food, toxic pollutants) and the social environment (stress, child abuse, socio-economic status) on the expression of genes, i.e. on whether and how they will switch ‘on’ or ‘off’. Epigenetic modifications can have a significant impact on health and disease later in life. Most surprisingly, it was suggested that some epigenetic variants (or ‘epi-mutations’) acquired during one’s life could be transmitted to offspring, thus having long-term effects on the health of future generations.

Epigenetics is increasingly capturing the attention of social scientists and ethicists, because it brings attention to the importance of environmental exposure for the developing foetus and child as a risk factor for common diseases such as cardiovascular, diabetes, obesity, allergies and cancers. Scholars such as Hannah Landecker, Mark Rothstein and Maurizio Meloni have argued that epigenetics may be used to promote various arguments in ongoing debates on environmental and social justice, as well as intergenerational equity. Some even suggested that epigenetics could lead to novel ways of thinking about moral responsibilities for health.

Is it fair that disadvantaged populations are exposed to an inequitable share of harmful environments – such as polluted areas – that are epigenetically-detrimental to their health? Who should be held responsible for protecting children and future generations from epigenetic harm induced by their environments? Should we hold the parents accountable for detrimental epigenetic impact of their behavior on their children?

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.