May 26, 2024

Obama orders report on synthetic life

Obama orders study of benefits, dangers and ethics of synthetic biology

President Barack Obama’s new Commission for
the Study of Bioethical Issues has been given its first big assignment. After
Craig Venter’s announcement that his research team had created “synthetic
life”, the President wants
the commission to investigate
the potential benefits and dangers of the new
technology “while identifying appropriate ethical boundaries and minimizing
identified risks”. The commission is supposed to “consult with a range of
constituencies, including scientific and medical communities, faith
communities, and business and non­ profit organizations” and report back within
six months.

, of the bioethics think tank The Hastings Center, was a bit
perplexed by the President’s request. Bioethicists had expected that the new
commission would have a very pragmatic focus, as opposed to the more
metaphysical approach taken by its counterpart under President Bush. However, Obama’s
observation in the letter that “It is vital that we as a society consider, in a
thoughtful manner, the significance of this kind of scientific development” suggests
that it is going to be difficult to escape the “big picture” questions. Parens
writes in Bioethics Forum:

“Should there be limits on science aimed at
creating new life forms “from scratch”? or, Is there an “ethical boundary”
between the sorts of cell engineering we’ve done for a while now and the sorts
of cell – and perhaps species – creation that Venter is talking about?… there
is a tension between the language in the letter, which suggests that the
commission should take up big philosophical questions, and the White House
announcement last year that the new bioethics commission would avoid them. For
the sake of clarity and forthrightness, the White House should choose.”



Michael Cook
synthetic biology