Steven Pinker’s“The moral imperative for bioethics” calls on bioethicists to “get out of the way,” painting those who seek to consider the ethical implications of genetic engineering as Luddites who disdain science. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In 1982, a presidential commission on bioethics issued a report on genetically engineering human beings. It stated, “Some people have suggested that developing the capability to splice human genes opens a Pandora’s box, releasing mischief and harm far greater than the benefits for biomedical science. The commission has not found this to be the case.” The report went on to embrace this new knowledge as a “celebration of human creativity.” Since then, scientists and bioethicists have worked together to advance genetics research in ways that deserve the public’s trust.
Worse than his attack on bioethics, Pinker is asking the public to ignore one of the most important scientific achievements of our time. CRISPR-Cas9 technology may well bring enormous benefits, but no technology is neutral. If applied to humans, it could enable nearly anyone working in a laboratory to make irreversible changes to the human genome. That is an awesome power that can be directed to good or, if used indiscriminately, can change our species in ways we may regret. Even the inventors of this technology have called for a moratorium on its germline use in humans, so that we can think about consequences.
Wisdom demands, and democracy requires, not stepping away, but standing up for thoughtful reflection and public engagement.
The Hastings Center is a bioethics research institute. The writer is also a professor of medical ethics at Harvard Medical School.