Science in Congress: A Review of the Recent Hearing on the Ethics of Genetic Engineering

Though the technology remains years, decades, or centuries away—depending on who you ask—debates about the implementation and ethics of genetic engineering and the editing of the human germline have been ongoing for years. The discussion to this point has been little more than a game of academic guesswork and sensationalism. It’s the kind of grand intellectual gesturing that has accompanied the proliferation of most revolutionary technologies: a convoluted mess of abstract theological and philosophical queries about the nature of humanity and the telos of the human species, along with heated and impassioned predictions about either the catastrophic or utopian sociological, political, and cultural consequences of the radical transformation of human life‑all lofty imaginings grounded by the gritty technical details of essentially every field of science and medicine.

However, the well-rehearsed dance of hypotheticals and theoreticals is coming to an end, and the dawn of actualization is finally upon us. This past April saw the publication, in Protein and Cell, of a paper titled, “CRISPR/Cas9-mediated gene editing in human tripronuclear zygotes,” in which a team of Chinese scientists outlined a first attempt at selectively editing the human germline. It was a failure in all the worst ways: inadvertent DNA mutations, complete embryonic death, and rejection of the edited DNA by other embryonic cells. Still, the attempt was made; the technology of the future had finally come to fruition.

It was this piece—awash in controversies about methodology and ethics—that served as the centerpiece of discussion at a June 16 congressional hearing with the House Subcommittee on Research and Technology. Entitled “The Science and Ethics of Genetically Engineered Human DNA,” the hearing included expert testimony from Jeffrey Kahn (bioethicist), Victor J. Dzau (president of theInstitute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences), Jennifer Doudna (biochemist/molecular biologist), and Elizabeth McNally (cardiologist/biochemist/molecular geneticist).

I’ll pause here to reiterate a distinction that each scientist was also careful to begin with: what we’re talking about is specifically the editing of the germline in pre-implantation human embryos—that is to say, permanently altering the DNA of a human being pre-birth in ways that would be passed on to offspring and through generations. It’s in this area (as the team of Chinese scientists found out) that the most serious ethical concerns are raised and that we’re most limited by our knowledge (or lack thereof) of the human genome. Less complex forms of genetic engineering, such as editing the DNA of non-human organisms, modifying viable adult cells, cloning cells and biological material, performing embryonic screenings for genetic abnormalities, and preimplantation genetic diagnosis are already established. Permanent modification of human DNA is poised as the next inevitable step.

The presentation was overwhelmingly clear: the potential of this technology to ease the suffering of millions of people and to generally improve the human condition is limitless. Dr. McNally described the scientific moment as a “potent opportunity to improve human health,” speaking with zeal about the very real possibility of curing and eventually eradicating horrific genetic conditions like Huntington’s disease, sickle-cell anemia, and muscular dystrophy, to name a few.

But it wasn’t all starry-eyes and bleeding hearts. The name of the game was ethics—and in that regard, the optimism of both the scientists and the committee was tempered with reservation and reason. Running as a response to the Chinese experiment, panelist Dr. Doudna and other scientists published an exploration of ethics in the April edition of Nature that called for a temporary moratorium on clinical applications of genetic modification technology. In this, all the panelists agreed—the technology is revolutionary and should be pursued with force, but only, as Dr. Dzau put it, after “thoughtful, comprehensive, scientifically-driven, and independent” reflection on behalf of the entire scientific community and others. To this end, Dzau is in the process of organizing a massive, multi-disciplinary, and international coalition of experts that aims to tackle the bioethical, legal, cultural, and sociopolitical questions at work here, and he hesitantly submitted to the House Committee that these ethical guidelines would be formulated by early 2016.

Dr. Kahn was the only panelist to mention generally the types of ethical objections that stand in opposition to genetic technology: 1) the fear that inadvertent side-effects and genetic mutations, appearing only later in a patient’s life, would be unknowingly passed down to an offspring that could not give consent; 2) the fear of “playing God” or in some way “going too far”; and 3) the fear that parents or other powers-that-be would begin to selectively edit the DNA of children for non-medical purposes.

The first objection is a legitimate one, but not one that can’t eventually be overcome by the development of better and more well-researched, well-tested technology. The temporary moratorium on clinical applications outlined by Doudna and the committee being established by Dzau seek to ensure that these technologies will not be tested on human beings until meticulous and extensive scientific and ethical research has been performed. However, the problem, as Doudna was quick to point out, is that the technology—given how simple and accessible it is to any scientist with a lab—can be difficult to regulate. Kahn suggested that scientific publications have a role to play here; it’s peer-review as regulation. Refusal to publish or review any experiment performed on human beings without international consent can be a method of curbing rogue experiments like the one that took place in China.

The second objection—that we might somehow be “playing God”—is the least important scientifically but, unfortunately, the most important culturally. It’s the one that we as skeptics and humanists must be most concerned with given how pervasive this type of thinking is both in our government and the general populace. Looking at this objection outside of theology, “playing God” reads more like “toying with nature.” It’s a position that assumes a telos for the human species—that there is an ultimate end goal for humanity, that we are supposed to be a certain way, and that nature (or God, or some other omnipotent force) has set things in motion for specific reasons and in ways that should not be altered. This is, of course, absurd given that humans have been altering nature to fit our needs since we first crafted tools to kill animals that were then cooked over fire. Nevermind the abundance of technologies and medicines that have already and will continue to subvert the natural ailments of Homo sapiens; nevermind that nearly every new medical advance of the last one hundred years has been greeted with the same tired rhetoric. Nevermind the naturalistic fallacy. No, there is no plan for humankind. No ultimate design. Jean-Paul Sartre said, “man is nothing else but what he makes of himself” and the same is true for all of humanity.

The third objection and its corollaries are the ones we have to take most seriously, though it should be noted that the “designer babies” of everyone’s nightmares are nowhere close to reality and won’t be for a long time. This is because personality traits, like intelligence, and physical genetic traits, like strength, are not located in single, easily identifiable genes, but are instead enmeshed in complex constellations of seemingly random and unrelated genes. Compound this with the fact that these genetic traits interact significantly with and are activated by a near-infinite multitude of sociological and environmental factors and, well, you get the picture. We don’t have even a fraction of a fraction of the knowledge required to bring something like this to fruition.

There are more pressing sociological concerns. In his book Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, philosopher Francis Fukuyama gives us two frightening scenarios: a) unequal access to the technology of genetic engineering could lead to the stratification of society on a biological level, and b) cultural and in-group prejudices could manifest themselves biologically.

In regards to unequal access to the technology, it seems inevitable that the division and disparities that already exist between classes in any given society would become exaggerated once systemic and structural forms of oppression begin to manifest themselves biologically—negating entirely any chance for an individual or a group to obtain equality through purely social means. If genetic technology follows the same pattern as other medical technologies—that is to say, if whites have more access than minorities, if the rich have more access than the poor—we could see pervasive and harmful cultural myths (the privileged class is more hard-working, smarter, stronger, etc.) become biological realities, possibly forever thwarting humanistic goals of egalitarianism. These are things to keep in mind when moving forward—issues that can only be avoided by comprehensive ethical reflection, extensive policy reformation, and a continual push to provide fair and equal access to all available medical technologies for all human beings both domestic and foreign.

Scientific and ethical concerns were not the only forces at play in the hearing; the discussion was rife with political overtones. In the hearings’ final minutes Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) rambled on about the eventual creation of super-soldiers and the proliferation of nuclear warheads. The speech was met largely with awkward silences and nervous giggles, but his comments were not entirely out of place. It was certainly not lost on the committee that the first scientists to attempt genetic engineering were Chinese and not American. It was a point of contention that drew some unfortunately typical and antiquated rhetoric—demands that the United States provide “scientific and moral leadership” in the area of genetic engineering and all related fields. In other words: do it the best, do it the quickest, and beat the Chinese. One could be forgiven for imagining the birth of an arms race with the potential for an equal or greater destruction than the one we’ve already had. It’s the unfortunate but expected politicization of a globally applicable, generally benevolent technology.  Like persuading a kid to eat his vegetables with the promise of dessert, the American government, it seems, will only swallow science if swayed with the promise of power.

Politics from the committee were met with politics from the panel. The unprecedented slashing of scientific funding has absolutely crippled the US scientific community. We’ve become less competitive, less productive, “less exceptional”—to borrow a phrase from the hearing—and are perpetually losing top scientists to international programs. If better funded, the scientists argued, and without the theologically-based restrictions on embryonic research, genetic engineering technology could become fully reliable within the decade.

The politics of science funding is absolutely critical to humanism insofar as scientific discovery and application is the best way to improve the general well-being of other human beings. The question of funding, then, does not simply fall into the arena of partisan politics or culture wars (though it certainly does battle there as well); lack of funding for science constitutes the active obstruction of humanist goals and a general dismissal of the value of human life.

As skeptics—and, more importantly, as humanists—we must always engage with nascent and emerging technologies in regards to their capacity to tangibly improve the health and well-being of all sentient creatures. Dr. McNally made a powerful statement at the end of her testimony: “It would be unethical to NOT offer genetic modification as a treatment to suffering patients.” And here I agree: this would be unethical in the same way that withholding any available treatment from any suffering person would be unethical. As humanists, we are morally obligated to support any reliable means of alleviating the suffering of other human beings, and to take seriously only those objections grounded in rational reflection and empirical data. Metaphysical, theological, or otherwise unverifiable and subjective concerns should never be employed in formulating the ethical and scientific guidelines for the implementation of new technologies—and we must encourage both our peers and our representatives to think critically about these technologies, to not surrender their faculties to uncertainties, superstitions, or biases, and to trust, encourage, and support the scientific community in their efforts to improve the nature of human life.