The question of where the line should be drawn in human gene editing, and if it should be allowed to create ‘superhumans’, has been tackled by Doha Debates in the final debate of the Qatar Foundation production’s first season under its new concept.
Three experts participated in an intense discussion on the ethics and challenges of human genetic enhancement during the debate at Northwestern University in Qatar, which, due to the global coronavirus pandemic, was held without its usual live student audience.
But the show’s interactive nature and role as a platform for dialogue and discourse was preserved by Doha Debates correspondent Nelufar Hedayat, who video-conferenced with students and shared tweets and Instagram videos from viewers in countries including Nigeria, the UK, Sweden, and Ghana.
The debate primarily focused on germline editing, which results in heritable changes to DNA — meaning that, if embryonic DNA was edited to produce blue eyes, the genes for blue eyes would be present in a person’s children, and their children’s children – and has earned the world’s attention and criticism in recent years.
Moderator Ghida Fakhry framed the debate by asking whether the aim of gene editing should be to edit out certain debilitating diseases or conditions, and if it will increase global inequality if it is initially only available to those who can afford it.
Professor Julian Savulescu, an ethicist, moral philosopher and the current Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, claimed gene editing is “a moral imperative for society”, saying: “What matters to each of us is our overall well-being.”
“We measure that in terms of things like happiness, whether we can set our own goals and achieve them, and whether we have deep and substantial interpersonal relationships. Genes don’t just affect health; they also affect our capacity for well-being — and nature doesn’t allocate genes equally.
“We already use various biological interventions, like iodising salt because it improves IQ, removing lead from paint because it causes intellectual disabilities, or using prescription drugs to reduce impulsive violence. There’s no difference between environmental and biological interventions — and parents should be able to access these technologies to improve their children’s lives, providing the technologies don’t harm their children or other people.
“Science can tell us how to achieve these things, but ethics can tell us whether we should — and the promotion of well-being is the central ethical principle.”
Technology and healthcare futurist Jamie Metzl, a member of the Human Genome Project-Write consortium, said gene editing is “a foregone conclusion”, telling the debate: “We’re already using so many therapies and technologies to improve the human race, and gene editing is no different.”
“What if we could engineer people to be resistant to a new coronavirus, or to eradicate painful genetic conditions; improve healthcare so that it’s not based on averages of the general population, but customised to your own biology; or allow the human race to live on a planet that will eventually become uninhabitable?”
However, he acknowledged the risks of gene editing and their capacity to cause division, saying that in order to avoid deepening inequalities and flattening essential genetic diversity, values and ethics must guide these technologies.“The issue of haves and have-nots — that’s one potential outcome,” he said.:If we don’t want that outcome, we’d better start organising for a different outcome.”
Katie Hasson, the programme director on Genetic Justice at the Center for Genetics and Society, asked the online audience: “Let’s really imagine this world, where each baby’s DNA is being manipulated from the moment of their conception in the lab, where parents’ immediate desires are written into their future children’s genome, and the generations to come.
“Would the traits perceived as the ‘best’ be available only to the affluent and privileged? Would gene editing dig deeper trenches between the haves and have-nots? Would parents feel pressured to select traits based on narrowly defined cultural and social norms? These are the questions we need to consider, and now is the time to do so.
“The practice is not safe, it’s not needed, and it has the potential to vastly increase the already outrageous inequality that we’re experiencing. Instead of using gene editing to level the playing field, intellectually and otherwise, we should work to create a society that values people as they are, with a range of abilities and embodiments.”
The post-show segment, hosted by Hedayat, sparked a global conversation, with comments and questions streaming in from Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Poland to Sweden, Brazil, and the US.
Hedayat interviewed special guest Nawaal Akram, a Qatari disability rights activist, athlete and comedian, who has the genetic condition muscular dystrophy.
She said that, for her, this debate was personal.
“So much time and research is done for the future, but right now, so many people with disabilities cannot afford the medicine, we cannot afford healthcare, we cannot afford education,” she said.
At three points during the debate, the online audience was asked to score each of the debaters’ three positions.
After the opening statements, Hasson’s anti-gene editing position garnered the strongest support, with 51%.
By the end of the debate, support for the middle ground and anti-gene editing position was nearly the same, with Metzl receiving 36% and Hasson 38%, while Savulescu gained 25%.
The debate’s connector, Dr Govinda Clayton, asked the speakers to broaden their focus to find some very specific points of agreement.
“All our speakers, whether they felt wary or energised by the potential of gene editing, agreed on one important point,” he said.
“It’s filled with risks and challenges, and we can’t build a fairer and more inclusive world without broad agreement on its ethical considerations.”
The full debate, including the experts’ views on editing out diseases like cystic fibrosis, are available online at www.dohadebates.com
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