Fast Forward-Pause-Stop: The 3-Speed Human Germline Debate

Biopolitical Times
Three illustrations of command buttons. They are diagonally placed and represent fast forward, pause, and stop.

Researchers borrowed a tool from the bacterial immune system toolkit, and developed a genetic modification technique called CRISPR/cas9. CRISPR’s rapid uptake by biologists in nearly every field demonstrates the technology’s utility and potential. Its use for deliberate species modification, and human germline modification in particular, has spurred vociferous debate.

The debate has three buttons – Stop, Pause, and Fast Forward. Or so it seems. 

Steven Pinker grabbed headlines and staked out the Fast Forward position with his Boston Globe op-ed. His central point – that taking dignity, social justice, health and safety into account will cost millions of lives – expresses technological optimism at its extreme. His central pitch, “get out of the way,” targets those who would Pause or Stop CRISPR’s use to address those concerns. “Get out the way” functions like recent accusations of “scientific authoritarianism.”

Big Tobacco called researchers and public health experts “Nicotine Nazis,” in its campaign to fight tobacco regulation.  More recently, opponents of environmental protection measures have accused climate scientists who support such measures of scientific authoritarianism. Here, Pinker’s “Get out of the way” in effect charges those who support moratoria or regulation of CRISPR with being human, rather than scientific.

There is nothing inherently wrong with technological optimism. Nor is technological optimism incompatible with principled caution. A 2012 study by Hochschild, Crabill & Sen shows that a majority of the 4,300 Americans they surveyed holds coherent views that pair technological optimism and support for regulation of genomic science. Hyper-optimism paired with scientific authoritarianism, on the other hand, makes any other position seem oppositional, and creates both a false sense of polarization and a false divide between science and human values.

Leading scientists and ethicists, including David Baltimore, Jennifer Doudna, Hank Greely, Rudolf Jaenisch, Paul Knoepfler, and most recently, The Hinxton Group, have called for hitting the Pause button. Others would hit Stop. Eric Lander, and Edward Lanphier, for example, have advocated prohibiting human germline modification altogether.  The proposed moratoria vary considerably. Most, if not all, are moderate and take seriously risks to human health, life, and status arising from efforts to implement germline genetic changes.

Most are also narrowly tailored, subjecting only human germline modification to scrutiny. The combination of the Fast Forwards’ efforts to characterize moratoria as extreme, and the Pause and Stop supporters’ sole focus on modifying the human germline, effectively edits out other pressing issues that genetic modification techniques like CRISPR raise. 

Jasanoff, Hurlbut and Saha have pointed out that the 1973 moratorium on recombinant DNA research and the subsequent meeting as Asilomar bracketed off “three serious concerns: environmental release of engineered organisms; biosecurity; and ethical and social aspects of human genetic engineering.” The proposed moratoria may have the same effect.

Social stratification by wealth, race, and disability patterns technology use; technology does not by its very existence erase stratification. That fact alone should temper our optimism.  Yet the Fast Forwards tend to overlook history and social reality in projecting the effects of new technology.

 Only a few observers, including Hank Greely, have raised concerns about the environmental consequences of using CRISPR and a technique known as “gene drive” to re-engineer organisms. Some scientists have also pointed to risk that releasing modified mosquitoes may have unintended consequences, as have importation of nonindigenous plants and animals.

The CRISPR debate is just getting started.  The issue of genetic modification is not new.  Nor is human germline modification a stand-alone issue. While I support a moratorium and rigorous discussion, we need more than an ad hoc response.  It is time to develop a participatory governance approach to the many issues that technologies like CRISPR raise.

Lisa C. Ikemoto is a fellow at the Center for Genetics and Society. She is Professor at the University of California, Davis School of Law. She teaches bioethics, health care law, public health law, reproductive rights, law & policy, and marital property. Her research areas include reproductive and genetic technology uses, health care disparities, and public health law. Her recent work addresses reproductive tourism, the ways in which human gamete use links the fertility and biotechnology industries, and the privatizing effects of informed consent. She will interview George Annas in the upcoming installment of the Center for Genetics and Society's Talking Biopolitics series.

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Composite image via Pixabay and Flickr/Shaury Nash