As bioengineering advances, Biden should reestablish the President’s Council on Bioethics
All new technologies raise major ethnical concerns; however, few come close to the tantalizing issues that advances in biological engineering raise. Genetic engineering is no longer a science-fiction phenomenon. The creation of CRISPR technology – a molecular tool that can edit specific sections of DNA – has allowed bioengineers to edit the genome of somatic stem cells and germ cells. Interventions in the former have been used to cure people of diseases such as sickle cell, and interventions in the latter – also known as germline editing – can be used to create inheritable changes in the DNA; that is, affect the genetic composition of all future generations. We are becoming our own Darwin.
Reestablishing the President’s Council on Bioethics would help focus the national dialogue on these issues. The council was originally formed by President George W. Bush in 2001. The council was dissolved in 2009 by President Obama. Critics of the council argued that it was formed to fortify conservative arguments against stem cell research and abortion. Bioethicist Leslie A. Meltzer accused the council of wrapping “political and religious agendas in the guise of dignity.”
Additionally, Obama thought that such a council ought to “offer practical policy options” rather than philosophical guidance. He hence created a The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (the Bioethics Commission), composed of medical doctors, medical ethicists and other academics with backgrounds in medicine.
While this commission offers a much-needed perspective of the medical profession, it is also important to explore other moral, ethical, political and sociological implications of genetic engineering. Breakthroughs in genetic engineering bring diverse concerns, oftentimes extending beyond the scope of medicine and medical ethics. For example, some critics of genetic engineering argue that the government will use this technology to force people to have children with attributes the government prefers – for example, children who feel no fear or pain to make soldiers – in the pursuit of new forms of eugenics.
Others argue that it has the potential to dilute the meaning of equality, as any meritocratic competition, from athletic events to job interviews, would be largely predetermined by biological destiny. Others still hold that such interventions would decrease diversity as parents choose similar “desirable” traits for their children. And, finally, some critics maintain that genetic engineering could threaten the entire evolutionary process, as humans cannot predict which traits might be evolutionarily beneficial in the future. A reestablished President’s Council on Bioethics, composed of diverse members from a wide variety of fields, would be able to address these issues in a way the existing Bioethics Commission cannot.
As I see it, deliberations regarding genetic engineering would benefit if more attention were paid to the difference between micro and macro ethical decisions. The first concerns decisions made by each individual, the latter by the state, that is by law makers and the courts as well as various administrative agencies. We can live with some parents choosing to have children with extraordinary muscle mass to become football players, while others seek children who are violin virtuosos or math savants (micro ethical decisions). But we cannot live with the government requiring people to have infants with particular traits (a macro ethical decision).
There should be a strong morally shared understanding and constitutional prohibitions against such government policies as they would indeed entail a return to eugenics and could permanently affect the gene pool due to the size and scope of such interventions.
In short, we do not have compelling reasons to prevent micro bioengineering, once the tools are perfected, and most of the objections raised against them apply only to macro bioengineering.
This, however, is one perspective in a very complex moral discussion. President Biden should encourage the proper deliberation of these issues by reestablishing the President’s Council on Bioethics.
Amitai Etzioni is a professor of international affairs at the George Washington University. He published “Genetic Fix: The Next Technological Revolution” in 1973. These issues are explored further on CivilDialogues.org.