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Hastings Center Genetics Symposium Draws Journalists from Around the World

Is there a parental obligation to create “better” babies? Now that scientists can genetically edit plants and animals for agricultural and other purposes, what can we learn from the longstanding international debate over GMOs?

These questions were the focus of a preconference symposium that The Hastings Center organized at the World Conference of Science Journalists in San Francisco on October 26. The conference included 1,364 journalists and other professionals in science communication from more than 70 countries.

The symposium, New Genetic Technologies: Ethical Debates & Global Science Policy, featured Hastings Center scholars and other bioethicists, along with journalists from the New York Times, Washington Post, Science, and The Intellectual in Beijing. Roughly 200 people attended the symposium, which was also streamed on Facebook Live. The event was part of The Hastings Center’s project on gene editing and human flourishing, supported by the John Templeton Foundation.

“We can now literally change our own species, and we can cheaply and relatively easily mix DNA from across species to develop new forms of life,” said Hastings Center president Mildred Solomon in opening remarks. “Many of these discoveries are awe-inspiring. But new knowledge and the new powers we’ve gained also raise profound questions and should impel actions, at community, nation and global levels, actions that should be evidence-based in good science and that should identify and consider values questions and navigate value conflicts. It is your talents and your integrity – as mediators of science, as interrogators of science, as investigators of the story behind the science — that will, in large part, determine whether this new age brings benefits or enables harm.”

The first session, “Human Gene Editing and Procreation:  Is There a Parental Obligation to Create “Better” Babies?” was moderated by Robin Marantz Henig, a book author and contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.  

Josephine Johnston, The Hastings Center’s director of research, expressed concern about the possibility of there ever being a parental obligation to create enhanced babies using genetic testing of embryos, prenatal genetic testing, and, eventually perhaps, gene editing. She specifically questioned whether doing so would be in the best interests of children or parents themselves. Underscoring her point, she noted that this year marks the 20th anniversary of Gattaca, a film about a dystopian society that expects parents to use genetic science to create babies with desired characteristics.

Ronald Green, professor emeritus of religion and ethics at Dartmouth College, explained why he thinks that prospective parents do have a moral obligation to use of genetic technologies to prevent or treat diseases in embryos and fetuses, but he rejects the moral obligation for prospective parents to create children who are “better than well.” Enhancements might cause unforeseen harms, such as increased disparities between those who can afford genetic enhancements and those who can’t, as well as a possible “arms race” in which particular enhancements become the norm, and “no one wins.” A version of his remarks is posted in Bioethics Forum.

Xiaoxue Chen, an editor at The Intellectual, a science magazine in Beijing, said that the first use of genome editing on human fetuses, which occurred in China, prompted a discussion there about ethics, especially because germline genome editing would affect future generations. Chinese scientists have told her that the government is seeking their suggestions on how to regulate the technology.  “Scientific discoveries and advances are ahead of moral and ethical considerations,” she said.


With rapid developments involving Crispr being heavily covered in science journalism, Robin Marantz Henig, the moderator, asked if there was a risk of overselling it?

Joel Achenbach, a reporter for the Washington Post, thought that there was, particularly if journalists do not pose hard questions to scientists, including questions about whether they are being funded by companies that stand to gain from optimistic predictions about gene editing. “I think there’s a lot of power in science journalism being able to explain this incredibly complicated, bewildering world that we are engineering,” he said.


The second session was “What to make of our newfound powers to “edit” plants and animals?” Hastings Center research scholar Gregory Kaebnick began with an overview of the possible uses of gene drives, technologies that make genetic changes to an organism that spread to all its offspring, and eventually throughout the organism’s entire population. Gene drives could be used to modify mosquitoes, for example, to eliminate mosquito-borne illnesses, as well as for purposes in agriculture and conservation. “What does the good use of these technologies look like?” Kaebnick asked. “Good can’t be decided by experts only. Public engagement is necessary.”

He ended by calling for a precautionary approach. “Precaution doesn’t mean not doing something,” he said. “It means carrying out a decision in a way that allows for careful consideration of whether to do it.”


Gary Marchant, a professor at Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, highlighted several regulatory challenges in the governance of gene editing. For example, how can international trade reckon with what will inevitably be international variations in the ways in which the products of gene editing are regulated? He cited international variations in the regulation of genetically modified plants and animals as an example of the likely challenges to regulating the products of gene editing.

Picking up on the highly charged public debate for and against GMOs, Amy Harmon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times, addressed the misunderstanding about the safety of GMOs and the role of journalists to educate the public about basic facts. She cautioned journalists to be aware that the academic scientists they interview may “have an agenda” for or against GMOs, since many receive funding from industry and interest groups. “Journalists must be watchdogs,” she said.

Kai Kupferschmidt, a Berlin-based reporter for the journal Science, closed with the recommendation that science journalists covering new technologies should examine the ethical questions that they raise. This means writing about innovative technologies when they are new enough to explore the ethical concerns and stimulate public discussion about them. “We have to make people realize that the things they think are certain are much more uncertain,” he said. “It won’t make you a lot of friends, but it will make you a better science journalist”.