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Posted on January 31, 2019 at 9:01 PM
By Jon Holmlund

Passing along word that the National Academies of Medicine
and Science are planning an
international commission on human gene editing
, the editorial board of the New York Times has issued
a welcome call
to make the public discussion of the issues as broad as
possible.  Read the whole thing, but this
key graph is particularly important (emphases mine):

“As gene-editing technology advances toward the clinic, scientists will need to do more than listen to the concerns of bioethicists, legal scholars and social scientists. They will have to let these other voices help set priorities — decide what questions and issues need to be resolved — before theory becomes practice. That may mean allowing questions over societal risks and benefits to trump ones about scientific feasibility.”

See the 29
March 2018 post on this blog
regarding two calls—the Times linked to one, and quoted from the author of the other—for broader
discourse.  This discourse is urgently
needed, but must go beyond risk-benefit discussions to the broader meaning of, and
issues raised by, heritable human
gene editing in particular.  (Somatic human gene editing, to treat a
known disease in an existing individual in a way that cannot be passed on to
the next generation, is less troublesome ethically, except insofar as it
enables the heritable version of gene editing.)

The challenges to effective public deliberation of heritable
human gene editing are formidable: getting truly wide participation; getting
the scientists to inform and educate non-scientists without trying to lead them
to a set of preferred conclusions; engaging the developing, as well as the
developed, world; obtaining “religious input” that is more than token;
and sustaining the conversation as long as necessary to hold attention in our
short-attention world.

It seems that to execute on that will take a pretty large
group of dedicated people engaged in a focused, full-time effort to make it
happen.  Existing science and ethics
groups, like the National Academies, may be the default nominees, but it also
seems like a broader group of facilitating entities is needed.  The “global observatory” mentioned
by the Times editorial would, as
proposed, be established by an “international network of scholars and
organizations…dedicated to gathering information
from dispersed sources, bringing to the fore perspectives that are often
overlooked, and promoting exchange across disciplinary and cultural divides.”

Hear, hear.  One hopes that this happens—and that individuals can find a way to help make it happen.  Spread the word—people should be encouraged to set aside time, energy, and mental space to consider this revolution for the human race.

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