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Synthetic Biology: The Presidential Bioethics Commission’s First Challenge

When announcing its new bioethics commission, the White House indicated that it would stick to “practical” ethical questions and avoid getting bogged down in big “philosophical” questions of the sort explored by the previous bioethics commission. President Obama’s first assignment for the new commission, however, makes clear why avoiding those big questions may be harder than it seemed.

Prompted by Craig Venter’s announcement last week that his group is on the road to using manufactured DNA to create new forms of life, the President sent a letter requesting that the commission study the ethical implications of “synthetic biology” and report back to him in six months. The letter’s first paragraph says that synthetic biology raises the prospect of important benefits, but also “genuine concerns.” The second paragraph identifies practical concerns regarding risks to human health and national security. In the next paragraph, however, the President asks the commission to develop recommendations that would both minimize those risks and identify “appropriate ethical boundaries.

The language of “appropriate ethical boundaries” begins to sound like the president has in mind big philosophical questions such as, Should there be limits on science aimed at creating new life forms “from scratch”? or, Is there an “ethical boundary” between the sorts of cell engineering we’ve done for a while now and the sorts of cell – and perhaps species – creation that Venter is talking about?

The letter’s next paragraph sounds even more like the president thinks big questions are at issue, when he suggests that “faith communities” should be consulted. If a new technology raises a question about the “appropriate ethical boundary” between human ingenuity to be celebrated and human ingenuity to be reined in, then it makes sense to consult faith communities. Those folks, after all, have been asking questions about the proper limits of human ingenuity forever.

Thus there is a tension between the language in the letter, which suggests that the commission should take up big philosophical questions, and the White House announcement last year that the new bioethics commission would avoid them.

For the sake of clarity and forthrightness, the White House should choose. One option is to revise the early suggestion about the scope of the commission and invite it to embrace big questions.

Another option is for the White House to reassert its original conception and insist that the commission stick to narrower, “practical” questions. A plausible reason to choose option two is that we already know from past bioethics commissions what we will hear from members of faith communities.

Some of them will emphasize our responsibility to be co-creators with God and to mend a broken world. Others will emphasize our complementary responsibility to remember that we are not the creators of the world, and that we should be careful about acting as if we were.

Because faith communities don’t speak with one voice, it’s easy to ignore the cautionary voices and heed the enthusiastic ones. After all, enthusiasts, persuaded by Venter, will argue: “Just look at the Gulf of Mexico. If we don’t move ahead with synthetic biology, we may miss our last best chance at finding a “synthetic” alternative to oil and saving the planet!”

The second option, though, would be a mistake. It is illusory to think that we can really avoid big questions like, Would efforts to synthesize new forms of life exhibit precisely the attitude toward nature that has brought us to the brink of ecological disaster? We can assume that the answer to that question is no and move forward, but we can’t truly avoid it.

Whether we choose to go slow or full steam ahead, we will have given a tentative answer to a big question.

Optimally, the White House would instruct the commission to be explicit about asking big philosophical questions. But if the White House doesn’t change its stance and, therefore, leaves the commission to assume answers to the big philosophical questions, the commission should be forthright about those assumptions. At a minimum, it owes us clarity about how it’s proceeding.

Erik Parens is a senior research scholar at The Hastings Center.

Published on: May 24, 2010
Published in: Emerging Biotechnology, Science and Society

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