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Slouching Toward a “Brave New World”


Genetic engineering is among the most powerful human technologies ever invented. It holds great hope for everything from medical uses to cleaning up the environment. But it could also unleash a deadly pandemic or lead to a “new eugenics” with very sharp teeth.

The last time we witnessed something like this was the splitting of the atom. At that time, we had a sufficiently cohesive and responsible world community to enact meaningful legal and regulatory restrictions to govern the technology’s development, which have been generally successful — with some obvious exceptions. Imagine where we would be if atomic energy had developed under an “anything goes” paradigm.

Anything Goes?

We are apparently no longer sufficiently cohesive or responsible to similarly come to grips with the vast power of biotechnology. As a consequence, experiments are going forward that are both unwise and potentially unsafe. For example, even though the biotech world was in a supposed uproar about the birth of the first germ-line genetically engineered babies (meaning the changes will flow down the generations), nothing has been done to stifle supposedly rogue scientists from continuing to pursue such unethical human experimentation.

And now, two influential bioethicists take to the venerable Journal of the American Medical Association to ask: “Heritable Genome Editing: Is a Moratorium Needed?” You can guess what their answer is: no.

No Principled Opposition

Indeed, the Brave New Worlders candidly reveal that within the biotech/bioethics community, there is essentially no moral or principled opposition to engaging in germ-line human engineering:

The battle lines over heritable genome editing currently pit those who choose to ask “whether” to proceed against those who ask “how” to press on.

The latter hold that the collective ethical good is best served by a “responsible path” toward the prevention of crippling monogenic disorders; they are willing to trust that regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will hold applications for heritable genome editing to rigorous demonstrations of safety and efficacy before they garner agency approval.

The “latter” approach is rank subterfuge. Without an enforceable, international legal ban on these experiments in humans to allow the regulations to catch up with the technology — which these authors and many other heavy hitters in the sector oppose — experimenters will simply do what they want. If U.S. agencies won’t give the green light, some will simply resort to “outsourcing ethics” (a term coined by my friend, the Stanford bioethicist, William Hurlbut) and conduct research in other countries, particularly China or Africa. I suspect that is already going on.

“When,” Not “Whether”

As for the other group the authors mention, they aren’t really concerned about “whether” to genetically engineer, but are concerned merely about “when” to do it (as I predicted):

Those committed to asking whether to move forward with heritable genome editing espouse the primacy of a “broad societal consensus” as a precondition but have not articulated precisely how such societal accord may be attained.

Such a voluntary pause would have zero impact on those determined to keep on engineering regardless of what society might think.

With few influential voices within the biotech sector supporting laws to at least temporarily prevent human germ-line tinkering, the impetus will have to come from us. Good luck with that. Congress is snoozing. Regulatory and international agencies are mired in inertia. Most people, it seems, could not care less — if they even know about what is happening, given the sparse concentrated reporting by the popular media.

So, as we yell at each other about whatever momentarily excites the social-media universe, one of the most important ethical questions ever to face humankind — whether to permit the human race to be engineered down the generations, and if so, under what conditions — goes essentially unaddressed outside of the community of scientists, bioethicists, and biotech companies with a vested interest in the outcome.

We are slouching toward Brave New World. That’s worse than deciding we want to go there because it reflects a profound unwillingness and/or inability to govern ourselves responsibly.

Photo credit: James, via Flickr (cropped).

Cross-posted at The Corner.