September 28, 2022

You’ve heard of the Wild East of bioethics? What about the Wild West?

Chinese bioethicists defend their country’s reputation

In the wake of China’s gene-editing scandal, Chinese bioethicists have tried to correct mistaken impressions of an ethical “Wild East” in their country. Writing in The Hasting Center Bioethics Forum, Xiaomei Zhai, a professor at the Center for Bioethics, Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, Peking Medical College and a Hastings Center Fellow and three colleagues argue that He Jiankui “committed grave wrongdoing without regard for international ethical norms and national regulations” but that there is no ethical divide between East and West.

They make five points.

(1) In principle, despite He’s rash experiment, germline genome editing for the prevention of genetic diseases ought to be ethically permissible, although for the time being there should be a moratorium on the practice.

(2) In principle, germline genome editing for enhancement should eventually be permitted if there are medical reasons. He was too hasty and unethical, but the day will come when this can be done.

(3) What about the Wild West, not just the Wild East?

Some commentators consider Dr. He’s wrongdoings as evidence of a “Wild East” in scientific ethics or bioethics. This conclusion is not based on facts but on stereotypes and is not the whole story. In the era of globalization, rule-breaking is not limited to the East. Several cases of rule-breaking in research involved both the East and the West. In the notorious case of Golden Rice trials, in which children were used for testing the nutritious effect of genetically modified rice without the consent of their parents, a blatant violation of Chinese rules, the principal culprit was on the faculty of an American university. More recently, in the case of the proposed head transplantation, the initiative also involved a Western scientist. Dr. He studied and worked in elite universities in the United States. Several American scientists and scholars knew of his plan to create gene-edited babies…

(4) He’s missteps are not attributable to China’s authoritarian government.

We have no intention to defend any authoritative regime. However, establishing a causal relation between China’s current regime and Dr. He’s wrongdoing is not straightforward. We would like to mention that at roughly the same time when Dr. He committed his wrongdoing, other Chinese scientists launched a spacecraft and sent devices to land on the dark side of the Moon. These scientists made this great achievement without violating any laws or policies.

(5) The real culprit is a culture which encourages scientists and institutions to profit from research:

we should reflect on the prevailing international science culture that puts premium on sensational research and being first. And what should also be blamed is a policy in China that encourages scientists at universities to run businesses and share part of the profits with the universities without sufficient oversight. This policy urges scientists to make quick money without regard for international and national ethical norms. Dr. He had been running eight biotech companies and has collected millions of millions Chinese dollars; how could he have had sufficient energy and time to conscientiously conduct his scientific research?

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge

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