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Video Review: 'Should we fear gene editing?' – TedMed

1 October 2018
Appeared in BioNews 969

The TedMed talk by Professor Alta Charo, entitled 'Should we fear gene editing?', highlights the progress made and the concerns raised in genetic research over the past fifty years. From the development of amniocentesis in the 1970s to the recent developments in genome editing, Professor Charo maintains that the capabilities have improved drastically but people's fears have remained the same.

Professor Charo, a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, asks: 'Are we going to become impatient with imperfection?’ The fear that parents will abuse genetic technologies to treat their future children as commodities rather than gifts is a powerful one, frequently depicted by the media. Professor Charo describes how these fears – which have persisted for the past 50 years but never come to fruition – can fuel legislation to limit access and research in harmful ways. However the evidence shows that people haven’t abused these technologies – they are not being used frivolously but rather used thoughtfully and only when justified.

Professor Charo maintains that this fear might stem from the significant value we seem to place in genetics and how it shapes our identities. She argues that we tend to think of our genes as being who we are, but that societal and environmental factors are just as influential in shaping our identities. For instance, if we look at who makes up a family, it isn’t always the biological parents but rather those who nurture and care for the children. 

Professor Charo concludes that we ought to shift our focus in order to better engage with ethics and genetic technologies going forward. She suggests we should be asking: first, how does genetics affect what it means to be human; second, are the fears we have unrealistic; and third, what is the government's role in limiting or promoting uses of genetic technologies?

I am still left with one question that may be a crux of this issue: what about the media?

One example Professor Charo describes in her talk is how magazines present the same cover image over and over again depicting the idea of a designer baby. Can we do anything to shift how it depicts genetic technologies in the future?

One action point would be organisations using the media to educate the public about genome editing, its uses, the statistics, and encourage discussion around what role government ought to play. Such targeted advertising campaigns can be successful in sharing bite-sized messages to wide audiences, and it could be a specific strategy that researchers could use.

I would have liked Professor Charo to further unpack the media's role and how the field of genome testing might influence the media while also educating the general public.

All told, I think that Professor Charo did a great job explaining and defending her argument in the limited timeframe, and I found her argument that we should shift our focus when it comes to genome editing and our fears convincing. I would have liked some more substance in the 'next steps' part of her conclusion, how we might begin to assess strategies to educate and offer these technologies to those who need them.

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