Human Exceptionalism

Regulate Synthetic Life Science While the Horse is Still in the Barn

The CBC asked me to comment on the ethical implications of the recent scientific announcement that they have implanted an artificially created genome into a bacteria.  My main take is that the time to regulate this emerging field is now, not later, while we have time to deliberate and create proper protections that doesn’t stifle science. From my piece:

…it was an astounding scientific achievement that could lead, the scientists said, to man exerting “a new power over life.” They weren’t kidding. The potential safety and ethical consequences of learning to engineer new life forms—including eventually of the human variety—is hard to overstate. That being so, we had better get about the task of erecting legally enforceable safety and ethical parameters around this field while we still have time to act deliberately. And here’s an important truth: If society doesn’t decide where we want the science to go—and not go—the amoral inertial imperative of technological advance will fill the resulting vacuum with potentially terrible consequences.

I point out the terrible problems that fundamentally unregulated IVF has created:

Indeed by failing to regulate IVF, it has, in effect, regulated us, leading directly to tremendous changes in the norms of family life (e.g., Octomom and aged motherhood), the reemergence of eugenics values (for example, in embryo selection), and an overall utilitarian objectification of unborn life (human cloning, embryonic stem cell research, and advocacy to permit fetal farming). If that was true of IVF—which, recall, had the original limited goal of helping infertile married couples have babies—imagine the potential epochal impact broadly synthesizing life could exert over the earth’s biology and human morality.

But we have time not to make the same mistake with synthetic life:

The good news is that unlike IVF, concerns over the impact of synthetic life could become a rare field about which the political left and right, so often at loggerheads, could agree. Thus, we should applaud President Obama for directing his new bioethics advisory panel (Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues) to investigate the implications of this field and report back to him with proposed societal responses. I also urge the proposed conservative “shadow bioethics panel” now being formed —which seems designed to continue the splendid moral analytical engagement of the now defunct President’s Council on Bioethics—to engage the issue and publish recommendations for proper regulatory action.

This is not to say that the science should be wholly stifled. But it is to say that we should refuse to assume the posture of mere flotsam and jetsam floating on the currents. For once, as a powerful new science emerges, let’s control our own destiny. The last thing the world needs is a synthetic life science sector Wild, Wild, West.

Naked science is amoral, and hence potentially dangerous. However science conducted within proper ethical parameters provides tremendous benefit.  Part of being human is the power of self restraint. That is certainly necessary considering the safety and ethical implications of this new emerging science.

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