Press Release No: 18/50
2 March 2018
Is gene-editing humans playing God? And under what conditions can and should gene-editing be allowed, morally as well as legally?
Those were key questions discussed at a conference in Paris by scientists, theologians and philosophers from 27 to 28 February 2018.
The event was organised by the Thematic Reference Group for Bio-ethics of CEC in collaboration with Institute for Protestant Theology, Faculty of Protestant Theology in Paris and the Institute of Orthodox Theology, Saint-Serge.
Prof. Robin Lovell-Badge, Head of Stem Cell Biology and Genetics research at the Francis Crick Institute, UK, set the scene by explaining that genome-editing is nothing new. He said the phenomena started 12000 years back when farmers choose to breed certain domesticated animals over others.
New methods of altering genome, as CRISPR-Cas9, are now “sufficiently precise and efficient that old arguments of altering DNA being too unreliable and unsafe to use with humans, may well no longer apply,” said Prof. Lovell-Badge.
Coming from an Orthodox perspective on the subject Prof. Miltiadis Vantsos from the Faculty of theology of the University of Thessaloniki, made parallels to other scientific disciplines where risks are not always known, the pre-cautionary principle should apply to genetics as it has the potential to cause irreversible harm to nature or man.
“To play God is to become God by God’s grace.” Miltiades concluded that “human being is not a mere biological existence but also a spiritual one, which should not be underestimated”.
Prof. Bruno Saintôt of the Jesuit Faculty of Paris, said that the Roman Catholic Church is one of few churches who understands the concept of a person as starting already with fertilised eggs. “The intrinsic value of personhood has implications far beyond this hot button issue, it is essential to value and respect decisions by individuals, hence the requirement to furnish people with the necessary information,” he added.
Looking at the theological arguments on bioethics, Prof. Saintôt, building on fundamental ethical principles proposed by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI suggested we need more clarity around concepts as “playing God”, “genetic inheritance”, “natural law” or “the biological nature of man as intangible”.
Prof. Peter Dabrock, of the Friedrich-Alexander Universität, Germany, coming from a Protestant background suggested methodological reflections “on the approach of the so-called wide-reflective-equilibrium” as well as on “the role of theological ethics dealing with issues of the modern world like emerging bio-technologies”.
According to Prof. Dabrock Protestant ethics “could support churches as very special agents within a globalised society in order to stimulate an urgently needed, transparent and participatory discourse on controversial issues of gene-editing.”
Prof. Mark Hunyadi, professor of philosophy at Catholic University of Leuven, argued that contemporary bioethics is in the hands of what he calls “small ethics”, an individual-centered approach. In order to surpass this “bioethical paradox of our time”, he calls for a collective process of questions that bioethics itself raises day by day.
This was echoed by Dr Laurence Lwoff, Head of Bioethics Unit at the Council of Europe when she outlined all the challenges they are confronted with when trying to design legal frameworks to protect against both current as well as future risks in such a rapidly developing field as bioethics.
When considering the risks there were wide support among the delegates that the public should be involved in discussions if and what type of gene-editing should be permissible.
Prof. Lovell-Badge said that “as a scientist I would be failing in my duty if I don’t say what might be become possible with new research methods.” Gene-editing should not be extended to anything else than prevention or curation of disease was his clear position.
The participants of the event finally stressed that there is further need to distinguish between science fact and science fiction by concentrating more on medical and pastoral care and our vulnerability as humans.
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