Hastings Center to Address Profound Questions about Human Gene Editing

Major New Project Encompasses Scholarship, Public Outreach, and Education

The Hastings Center has launched an international project that focuses on the social and ethical implications of using powerful gene editing methods on human germline cells (embryos, sperm, and eggs). Such methods would create permanent changes passed on from one generation to the next. These technologies, especially CRISPR-Cas9, have raised unprecedented hopes for benefiting human health, with scientists around the world working intensively with gene editing to find novel ways to treat cancer and other gene-based diseases.

However, gene editing also poses such profound safety and ethical questions that some of the scientists who developed CRISPR-Cas9 called for a moratorium on its use in humans, providing time to consider whether and how to deploy it.

Leading the Hastings Center’s project are Erik Parens, a senior research scholar, and Josephine Johnston, director of research. Co-investigators are Gregory Kaebnick, a research scholar, and Mildred Z. Solomon, president. The three-year project, which is supported with nearly $1 million from the John Templeton Foundation, will examine a variety of fundamental questions about how use of gene editing in humans might affect “human flourishing” and core human values such as love, compassion, acceptance, and respect for those with disability.

To address this broad set of questions, The Hastings Center is convening a multidisciplinary working group of leading scholars from around the world with backgrounds in medicine, genetics, social science, philosophy, moral psychology, and law. They will explore the potential implications of gene editing on a range of personal and societal issues in areas such as human reproduction, human enhancement, and social justice.

“We are at a special moment in time, with an historic discovery that many people believe will be transformative of human power over plants, animals, and humans,” says Dr. Solomon. “We are especially grateful to the Templeton Foundation for supporting our triple aim of developing new scholarship, equipping journalists, and preparing the nation’s teachers to engage with these issues.”

The Hastings Center has a long track record of anticipating the social and ethical implications of new technologies, and specific expertise in ethical issues related to genetic engineering and genetic enhancement. Given its focus on human flourishing and on public engagement, The Hastings Center’s project will complement the ongoing and very important efforts of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which is developing recommendations to guide the use of this technology.