14 November 2016
ByAppeared in BioNews 877
The Guardian Science Weekly, 25 October 2016
Presented by Ian Sample
If we had the ability to clone humans, create new biological organisms, or genetically modify genomes, does this mean we should? In the Guardian's Science Weekly Podcast, 'Ethics and Genetics: Opening the Book of Life,' host Ian Sample is joined by bioethicists Professor Peter Singer, Professor Jackie Leach Scully and Professor Julian Savulescu to challenge this 'technological imperative' and discuss some of the ethical questions surrounding genetic technologies.
This episode was excellent as a quick, insightful introduction to the ethics of cloning, genome editing and synthetic biology. Although it was not a thorough debate, and did not lead to any definitive answers, it was a useful discussion of these topics in a way that could stimulate interest and inform those who may be new to them.
While the podcast is quite suitable for listeners without a background in ethics, it may not be so easy for listeners who are unfamiliar with the genetic technologies being discussed. The hosts made a point of defining ethical concepts, such as when Sample started off the discussion by asking Singer to define 'utilitarianism' – an influential ethical theory defining right action according to beneficial consequences – but the hosts did not clarify or define other concepts that may not be universally understood, such as eugenics, synthetic biology, or the Human Genome Project.
I felt that the genetic technologies chosen for discussion – genome editing, cloning and synthetic biology – were excellent choices as these issues are current points of interest for both bioethicists and members of the public. While the ethical discussion seemed rather fast-paced as the hosts moved quickly between topics, the podcast still offered a depth of discussion that is not always present in mainstream commentary on these topics. For example, 'designer babies' (genetically designed children), begins as a popular mainstream discussion about genome-editing concerns, but professors Singer and Savulescu take this implication a few steps further: if we did allow for genetically modified children, would only the wealthy be able to afford such modification? How would that contribute to inequality? Would children feel limited by their genetic design?
From a bioethics perspective, I felt that they could have added more breadth to the discussion by addressing moral perspectives beyond utilitarianism. However, bioethicists may appreciate Professor Scully's comments on the importance of considering social context in bioethics, as this approach is of current interest to many in the discipline. It also added to the ethical discussion by allowing listeners to consider how sociological questions can complement and influence ethical ones. For example, how do individuals and society wish to use these technologies? Does this influence how we think about the morality of using these technologies?
I would recommend this podcast to listeners who have some knowledge of genetic technologies and who are interested in ethical questions surrounding their use (with no ethics background required). Although bioethicists themselves could find this podcast enjoyable, those who are already familiar with these ethical questions may not get so much out of it.