7 Highlights from Nuffield Councilís Review on the Ethics of Genome Editing

Posted by Jessica Cussins, Biopolitical Times guest contributor on October 18th, 2016

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The UK Nuffield Council on Bioethics’ recently released report, Genome Editing: an ethical review  (full version available here) is the most substantial and thorough assessment of its kind. It delves deeply into the ethical, social, and political underpinnings and implications of genome editing, and touches on related, converging technologies including synthetic biology, gene drives, and de-extinction. A second report with ethical guidance regarding the use of genome editing for human reproduction is due in early 2017 from a Council working group chaired by Karen Yeung

This first report will be an important reference for people across disciplines for some time, and I will not do justice to its scope and breadth here. However, I want to draw attention to just seven concepts that are particularly helpful and illuminating, as much for their framing of the questions at stake as for their content. I briefly summarize each point, and select key quotes from the report.

1. On emerging technology and innovation

Contrary to frequent assumptions, innovation in science and technology is neither linear, autonomous, nor pre-destined. It is continuously co-produced in relation to a complex intersection of actors, institutions, market-drivers, and serendipity. Momentum and sunk costs can however encourage adherence to certain technological pathways, meaning the choice of paths we take should not be undertaken blindly, or lightly.

“A commonplace but now largely discredited perspective viewed science as a resource from which innovators draw, leading to new technological innovations that provide social or commercial benefits, such as increased wellbeing and productivity. The flaws in this ‘linear model’ are generally thought to stem from its failure to give due attention to the complexity of innovation processes, the importance of feedbacks, the role of markets and other actors, and the effects of uncertainty and serendipity. Science now tends to be seen less the wellspring of technological innovation than a ‘co-producer’ along with these other forces and actors.” (15)

“The factors that act to attract, secure and consolidate investment may also have the effect of confirming a course for innovation, creating both ‘lock in’ of contingent technological forms and forward momentum along a particular technological pathway. The reasons for this include factors such as sunk costs, learning effects, increasing returns to scale, high transaction costs associated with any change of direction and the mutual adaptation between technologies and associated conditions of use, including the structure, governance and practice of institutions, and not excluding social conditions, normative rules and standards, and public acceptance.” (18)

2. On the “editing” metaphor

Discussion of “genome editing” as opposed to “genetic modification” or “genetic engineering” has a re-framing effect that serves to distinguish the newer technological capabilities as more “precise,” as well as to diminish their consequences by avoiding connotation with such loaded terms as “GMO.” The “editing” metaphor instead conjures images of easily altered language or computer code.

“Whether intentionally or not, the ‘editing’ metaphor distinguishes the approach from less ‘precise’ forms of genetic ‘engineering’ and, simultaneously, distances it from their associated connotations, including the range of public responses that these terms typically excite. The editing metaphor also plays on characterisations of the genome as the ‘book of life’ containing ‘sentences’ (genes) made up of a ‘genetic alphabet’ of four ‘letters’ (A, C, G and T, the initial letters of the four chemical bases comprising DNA) that were common around the time of the Human Genome Project. The editing metaphor transfers easily to the more contemporary image of modifying computer code. The metaphor suggests not only the type but also the significance of the intervention: it is technical, is not dependent on scale (as it applies equally to changes large or small) and is seen as corrective or improving (at least in relation to the editor’s vision).

“In this way, the concept of editing has a certain thickness, whereby, while apparently descriptive, it implies a tacit evaluative judgement. It also implies an editor (the one who does the editing) and, by deeper implication, may distinguish the editor, who merely corrects and improves, from a putative, creative ‘author’. But whether authorship is assigned to a divinity or not, the implication is that the work of editing is trivial in comparison.” (19-20)

3. On the public interest

Science and technology are intimately connected with the public interest. They are forged through public funding and support, and they act upon and within the world, with impacts on the well-being and welfare of the public. 

“There is a public interest in research for at least two main reasons. The first is to the extent that a great deal of research in the academic sector is publicly funded, from money collected through general taxation. This implies a public interest in the fact that this money is spent in a way that reflects public priorities and pursues them with the greatest possible efficiency. The second, more profound, reason is that products and practices, processes and tools produced by the application of knowledge gained through research may have a direct or indirect impact on the wellbeing and welfare of the public (including their moral and social welfare). The public have an interest in science, in terms of its expectation of net social benefits, and invests in science both financially and through the trust placed in scientists to contribute to the delivery of these benefits. But more profoundly than this, the public have an underlying public interest in the overall moral and ethical texture of the society in which they live. How technologies like genome editing are taken up and regulated both reflects and influences the broader moral values on which common social life is based and the social meaning of the practices in question.” (21)

And, quoting from Sheila Jasanoff’s article “Technology as a site and object of politics”:

“…technology, once seen as the preserve of dispassionate engineers committed to the unambiguous betterment of life, now has become a feverishly contested space in which human societies are waging bitter political battles over competing visions of the good and the authority to define it. In the process, the virtually automatic coupling of technology with progress, a legacy of the Enlightenment, has come undone. Uncertainty prevails, both about who governs technology and for whose benefit. No matter which way one looks, the frontiers of technology are seen to be at one and the same time, frontiers of politics.” (21)

4. On normality, moral norms and rights

Should we judge what constitutes an acceptable or unacceptable biological intervention using a concept of what is “normal?” What would that mean and who would decide? What lessons must we heed from 20th century eugenics programs about desires to direct humanity?

“While nature contains many prodigies, the normal can serve to orientate moral action (for example, in terms of whether that action tends to support what is regarded as normal functioning or produce divergence from it). What counts as normal is therefore a legitimate question but often one that is highly contested with regard to the extent to which norms are related to natural states or socially constructed, particularly in relation to issues of disability, medical intervention and enhancement. Disability justice and rights scholars have made a range of moral arguments against selective technologies, from individual rights based arguments such as the right to life of people with disabilities, to arguments for the social and emotional value (e.g. vulnerability to contingency) of biological difference, to the value to humankind of conserving disability cultures, and the importance of the visibility of disability in establishing social attitudes, behaviour, and structures.” (28)

“A particular concern that has been raised is that genome editing combined with social liberalism may facilitate the ‘consumerisation’ of human biology, and the spread of ‘consumer’ or ‘liberal’ eugenics, driven by the choices of parents rather than by state policy, but with possibly similar, socially divisive results. Objections here concern the practice as well as the consequences: that the biological conditions of human existence should not be the subject of choice since they allegedly interfere with identity of the person in morally significant ways.” (52)

5. On social justice and a just society

The advantages and opportunities of science and technology in general, and of genome editing in particular, may not be fairly distributed among different groups, different nations, or across generations. Developments cannot therefore be seen outside of the context of social, intergenerational and global justice. 

“Such concerns require us to attend to the need to ensure that measures (such as the introduction of a new biotechnology) that affect welfare do so without discriminating unfairly among people. Although people may be equal in dignity and the enjoyment of rights, they are not equally situated with regard to the benefits and harms of biomedicine and biotechnology. Certain people may be disproportionately affected, may find themselves (perhaps involuntarily) in circumstances that render them particularly vulnerable, or be excluded from access to decision making or to benefits that are available to others. As a result, they may experience unfair discrimination and systematic disadvantage. It is argued by many that dignity and rights discourse is, in fact, insufficient to ground socially just action and that a specifically social justice perspective is called for: they consider it to be essential to put in place means for tracking social justice outcomes over time, and social justice goals in regulation of genome editing technologies.” (29-30)

6. On public policy

Public policy initiatives around genome editing are high-stakes, representing a collective vision of a desirable future, and determining those actions deemed unacceptable to the public interest. Public policy is both reflective of and impactful upon the society in which it functions, and in the world at large.

“As well as forestalling or redressing unjust treatment of individuals, public policy measures both reflect and affect the kind of society in which they are implemented, including the relationship between public and private, how and to what extent different groups and members participate in social life, how different priorities, preferences and values are resolved or tolerated, how equal or unequal in power, status and wealth its members are, and how open or closed the society may be. The features of any society are complex, interdependent and dynamic, but public policy measures often imply and express consistent common values and may be articulated around a collective vision of the desirable future state that they are expected to contribute to bringing about. These, in turn, influence the behaviours, institutions and culture of the society, for example whether it is welcoming or hostile to difference in terms of ethnicity, belief, appearance or ability.” (30)

7. On looking forward

Genome editing is a new development that has garnered enormous excitement. It is important to discuss the impacts of this disruptive new technology, but it will also be useful to avoid inevitability arguments, sky-high expectations, and to remember that it is just one element of a number of larger converging technologies. Future discussions would benefit from beginning with real human challenges or problems, rather than with a technology for its own sake.

“It should be remembered that most prospective technologies fail, and that some lead to undesirable consequences, a fact often obscured by ‘whig’ histories that reconstruct the history of successful technologies and their beneficial social consequences. Scientific discovery and technological innovation is important but not inevitable. Most important among the factors shaping technological development is human agency. It is human agency, in terms of decisions that are made about directions of research, funding and investment, the setting of legal limits and regulatory principles, the design of institutions and programmes, and the desire for or acceptance of different possible states of affairs, that will determine whether, and which, prospective technologies emerge and, ultimately, their historical significance.” (112)

“We are convinced that it makes little sense to treat the questions raised by genome editing as if they belonged to a single field (a hypothetical discipline of ‘genome editing studies’). Rather, they should be addressed as part of different technology convergences (e.g. with ART, with gene drives, with agricultural technologies, etc.), which also includes political technologies (regulation, legislation, etc.). But, more than that, we conclude that it is not the scale at which questions are posed but also their orientation that is important. Beginning with questions about what can be achieved at the genome level risks reducing all questions to ‘ELSI’ questions (questions about the ethical, legal and social implications of genome editing, as if that were the only or most obvious pathway available to address a complex set of real world challenges) and leaving questions about the appropriateness of genome technologies in any given case unaddressed. This is why the next, normative, phase of our work should begin with problems or challenges (and the potential diverse framings of those challenges), rather than technologies, and adopt a comparative methodology.” (115)

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Image via Nuffield Council on Bioethics

Posted in Assisted Reproduction, Bioethics, Biopolitics, Parties & Pundits, Disability, Eugenics, Human Rights, Inheritable Genetic Modification, Jessica Cussins's Blog Posts, Synthetic Biology, The United Kingdom


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