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Erik Parens Addresses National Academies on Human Genetic Enhancement

What if gene editing technologies such as CRISPR could be used to safely and effectively “enhance” future generations – to make them, for example, better able to perform on IQ tests? Hastings Center senior research scholar Erik Parens addressed that question at a public meeting of the National Academy of Science and Medicine committee on human gene editing. Would such interventions raise any new ethical questions?

On July 12, in Washington, D.C., Parens told the committee that such technologies would not raise any new ethical concerns – but they would raise familiar and profoundly important concerns. First among them, the proliferation of these technologies could “exacerbate the already obscene gap between the haves and have nots.”  Those with social advantages could try to edit into their offspring genetic advantages to increase their social advantages.

Parens, who has written about his skepticism regarding the technical feasibility of using gene editing to enhance future generations, said that, nonetheless, we as a society need to get much better at discussing the use of emerging technologies to “enhance” human beings. A first step is to resist the temptation to lapse into the sort of “for” or “against” thinking that tends to plague our public conversation about enhancement. No one, Parens observed, is against “true enhancements,” if by that phrase we mean interventions that promote human flourishing.  The pressing question is, What is human flourishing?  The good news is that there is an emerging scientific literature that addresses that ancient question.

Parens, a principal investigator on a Hastings Center project on gene editing and human flourishing, suggested that a second step toward a better public conversation about enhancement would be to invest more public resources into integrating and acting on –what we already know about the nature of human flourishing. “Maybe – and I know how fanciful this sounds – maybe we should create a National Institute on Human Flourishing – an institute that would include people who study the natural and behavioral sciences; people who study the humanities and the world’s wisdom traditions; and people who do social science – people who study the social structures that have to be in place for people to flourish.”

Watch the symposium here.