Posted on February 21, 2019 at 11:15 PM
By Jon Holmlund
The World Health Organization (WHO) has empaneled an expert
advisory committee to propose standards for governance and oversight of
human gene editing.
This group is to meet in Geneva on March 18 and 19 to review
the state of the field, broadly, and formulate a plan for its work, over the
ensuing 12-18 months. Sounds like your
basic organizational meeting.
The WHO website does not specify a more detailed charge for
the committee, which no doubt will determine its goals. It is said to have been formed “after an
open call for members,” implying, I suppose, that the members volunteered,
as opposed to being invited or otherwise prevailed upon.
are Edwin Cameron, former Justice of South Africa’s Constitutional Court, and
Margaret Hamburg, who, among her other positions, was FDA Commissioner under Barack
A review of the full
list of biographical sketches for the members shows that they are a truly
international group, representing nations from the developed and developing
world, and from all continents (except Antarctica, of course). They are a mix of physicians, biologists, and
ethicists. None appears immediately
recognizable from the recent media coverage of human gene editing. If there are members with a specific interest
in promoting technology, that is not obvious from the list, which WHO further
says was limited to people screened carefully for conflicts of interest.
One can tell but little from such bio sketches, but in this
case it at least appears that a broad range of cultural perspectives will be
There is no clear representation for a theistic or religious
perspective. Also, because the work of
such a group naturally draws and involves scientific specialists, the broader,
non-scientific, “lay” public is not represented.
Past work by these members addressing gene editing will be
of interest to review, which your present correspondent has not, yet.
One hopes that this group will offer wise counsel that, as
discussed in prior posts to this blog and elsewhere, goes beyond the usual,
limited “benefit-risk” estimates that characterize Western bioethics.
But it will unavoidably not constitute the broad, cosmopolitan,
multinational and multiethnic, naturalistic and theistic dialogue that is hoped
for—probably too much to hope for, too much to ask of a group of 18 people—in advance
of broad adoption of heritable human gene editing, which appears inexorable.
Godspeed and best of success to this group—follow its work
as closely as possible.