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Johnston Discusses Ethical Concerns about Human Gene Editing

Josephine Johnston, The Hastings Center’s director of research, discussed the science of human gene editing, the policy activity it has triggered, and the moral and ethical concerns that it raises at a public talk at the Yale School of Medicine on September 8.

Human gene editing is a new technology that enables scientists to make specific changes, or edits, to the genes of humans and other organisms. Last December, an international group of scientists called for a moratorium on making heritable changes to the human genome – known as human germline gene editing — noting that, among other ethical concerns, it raises “moral and ethical considerations in purposefully altering human evolution.”

Those considerations can include the idea that the human genome is our common heritage, the potential impact of the technology on the parent-child relationship, and different views about the appropriate role of humans in nature. Johnston also explored the concern that making permanent “enhancements” to subsets of the population could exacerbate social inequities or be used coercively.

“One of my take-away points was that many of these concerns are widely shared, and are not meaningless or absurd as some scholars claim,” says Johnston, who is a principal investigator of a Hastings Center project on gene editing and a project on next-generation prenatal testing. “These concerns probably cannot justify outright bans on the technology but they can profoundly inform uses of the technology. We need better ways to engage with these concerns in public debate so that they are more widely discussed and understood.”

The Hastings Center has never shied away from the toughest ethical challenges faced by society.

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