[ExI] NYC Debate: Bioethicists Hold Public Debate Ban on Genetically Engineered Babies

James Clement clementlawyer at gmail.com
Thu Feb 14 18:35:28 UTC 2013

Thought this might interest the group: *B*ioethicists Hold Public Debate
Ban on Genetically Engineered Babies.

February 14, 2013

In an early public skirmish in what may well become a long battle over
ethical questions that are at the core of human biology, medicine, and
research, four intellectuals gathered on a stage in New York City last
night to debate whether or not there should be a ban on the use of genetic
engineering to improve human babies*.*

Hosted by Intelligence Squared US
the debate took up whether or not there should be an outright ban on all
genetic engineering for enhancing babies, with one team charged with
arguing that such engineering is unethical, dangerous, and immoral, and
should be banned, and the other side saying that it isn't any of these
things, and that a ban would be damaging to science and medicine*.*

Arguing in favor of a ban were Tufts University Professor and Chair of the
Council for Responsible Genetics Sheldon Krimsky and Robert Winston, a
professor at Imperial College, London, and a member of the House of Lords,
and they said the complexity of the human genome can lead to genetic
engineering mistakes and errors and yield unknown consequences, that
fetuses and zygotes are unable to consent, and that there may be other
options for treating genetic diseases or for prospective parents*.*

They also argued that abuse of genetic technologies could lead to a quest
for perfection through the engineering of 'designer babies' and starting a
slippery slope that may bring about eugenics programs like those pursued by
Hitler and those explored in the film *Gattaca**.*

Opposing a ban, Duke University Law Professor Nita Farahany and Princeton
University Professor Lee Silver held that a ban on genetic engineering
would be immoral because it would deny people access to treatments for a
range of genetic diseases that cause tremendous pain and suffering*.* If
there are examples where genetic engineering could save lives, or make sick
babies healthy, then such a ban would be an untenable policy, they said*.*

Farahany said that if such a ban were enacted in the US, it would be left
behind other parts of the world, where Americans would travel to have
genetic treatments and where groundbreaking research would be conducted,
and that it could eventually lead to back-alley operations where people
seek out the banned treatments so they can have healthy babies*.*

Silver argued that genetic engineering is not a transgression against
nature, because Mother Nature has not provided humans with a perfect
genome, does not care one whit about the health of our children, and has
essentially "waged all-out war" on children in part by making all people
hosts to at least a hundred risk variants for genetic diseases*.*

Farahany, who serves on the Presidential Commission for the Study of
Bioethical Issues, also stressed that reproductive decisions are private
matters and that it would be far better to use public policy to set the
ethical lines that may or may not be crossed by doctors or scientists than
to enact a ban*.*

Silver waved off the concerns about the potential abuses of genetic
engineering by pointing out that pharmaceutical drugs are abused all the
time and they are not banned*.*

Much of the debate centered on the process of mitochondrial transfer, which
is already being used*.*

"It is safe*.* It works. It eliminates massive childhood suffering,"
Farahany said*.*

"Nita, just bear in mind that the children who were born of mitochondrial
transfer are still children, and the real problem, of course, is what
happens to them when they are adults*.* We don't know," Winston replied.

"Well, happily they will get to become adults*.* They won't become adults
without this option," Farahany responded*.*

Generalized uncertainties about the possible impacts of genetic engineering
treatments simply should not be an argument for banning them, she said*.*

"I have news for you," Farahany added*.* "Every single time we decide to
reproduce there is uncertainty*.* We have no idea how this unique
combination of individuals is going to result*.* And we certainly aren't
going to say that we are going to ban natural reproduction*.*"
* *

Best regards

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