January 28, 2022

Somerville vs Savulescu on gene editing

Two prominent bioethicists debate the leading issue of the day

The debate over editing the human genome is bound to continue for a long time, now that the new CRISPR technology promises to make it quick and easy.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation brought together bioethicists Margaret Somerville, of McGill University in Montréal, and Julian Savulescu, of Oxford University, to debate the topic, which touches upon profound issues of human identity.

Somerville opposes altering the human genome and Savulescu supports it, provided it can be made safe. Their exchange of views is extremely interesting (read the transcript in full here). Below are their summing-up statements:

Margaret Somerville:  The analogy I’d make is to our physical environment. We have new technologies that we’ve used in our physical environment, and very recently, we’ve come to the awareness that it’s not indestructible and that we can do damage that is irreversible. And we’ve now recognized, as the conference in Paris this week is talking about, that we have to hold our physical ecosystem on trust for future generations, not to lay it waste, not to leave future generations worse off than we are – and hopefully better off.

And I think we can say the same about what I call our metaphysical ecosystem, the values, beliefs, attitudes, principles, stories that we tell each other and buy into to form a society, that we also have to hold on trust. I believe this idea, this area of actually designing future humans, and that’s what this about, contradicts what we need to maintain as the base of our metaphysical ecosystem – that is, respect for human life, in general, and respect for every individual human, and that includes human embryos.

Julian Savulescu: Nature does not deliver human beings who are necessarily healthy, does not deliver human beings who are necessarily social, does not deliver human beings who are necessarily happy. There is vast natural inequality. The most extreme examples are genetic diseases. Science now is beginning to allow us to understand why that occurs and how we can intervene. We ought to use that knowledge ethically and we ought to draw important distinctions. It’s not a question of gene editing, yes or no, it’s a question of what kinds, in what circumstances, and with what limits.

The important distinctions are between therapeutic and reproductive gene editing, between gene editing for treatment and for enhancement, and for gene editing to correct inequality versus to increase inequality. In my view, we need a mature ethics that enables us to use powerful science such as gene editing, but also artificial intelligence, the internet, nanotechnology. All powerful science has profound risks of abuse, and historically we have abused science. Today we need to develop an ethics that enables us to harvest the fruits of science while also preventing abuse.

Creative commons
gene editing
genetic engineering
Julian Savulescu
Margaret Somerville