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Crowdsourcing the Moral Limits of Human Gene Editing?

In 2015, a flourish of “alarums and excursions” by the scientific community propelled CRISPR/Cas9 and other new gene-editing techniques into public attention. At issue were two kinds of potential gene-editing experiments in humans: those making inheritable germ-line modifications and those designed to enhance human traits beyond what is necessary for health and healing. The scientific consensus seemed to be that while research to develop safe and effective human gene editing should continue, society’s moral uncertainties about these two kinds of experiments needed to be better resolved before clinical trials of either type should be attempted.

In the United States, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) convened the Committee on Human Gene Editing: Scientific, Medical and Ethical Considerations to pursue that resolution. The committee’s 2017 consensus report has been widely interpreted as “opening the door” to inheritable human genetic modification and holding a line against enhancement interventions. But on a close reading it does neither. There are two reasons for this eccentric conclusion, both of which depend upon the strength of the committee’s commitment to engaging diverse public voices in the gene-editing policy-making process.

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