Human genome editing: ask whether, not how

Observatory Co-Director Ben Hurlbut argues in Nature that reaction in the wake of the reveal of He Jiankui’s CRISPR/Cas9 experiments risks presuming the inevitability of human germline genome editing. It thereby prematurely forecloses broader debate about whether germline editing should happen at all. Hurlbut highlights the Global Observatory’s efforts as one “modest experiment” to challenge this foreclosure and, following Hannah Arendt, help us build the capacities to think and speak more clearly that which we do.

Imperatives of Governance: Human Genome Editing and the Problem of Progress

Global Observatory Co-Director Ben Hurlbut uses the etymology of governance—from an ancient Greek nautical term meaning “to steer the ship”—to discuss the course of human germline genome editing. This metaphor allows the concept of governance to capture not only its direction, but its tools, currents, and personnel. Hurlbut identifies a shortening of the ethical horizon of genetic modification over the last half-century, as bioethics has increasingly focused on the near future, specific technologies—like CRISPR—and their immediate applications.

Revisiting the Warnock rule

Spurred by recent announcements that researchers in the UK and USA had sustained human embryos in culture for nearly two weeks, Nature Biotechnology collected commentaries from more than a dozen experts on whether it was time to reassess the 14-day rule. Much of the discussion focuses on the potential benefits of studying the “black box period” of human embryonic development, between about 7 days and 28 days, and on questions of who should decide whether the two-week limit might be breached in the interest of learning more about this period.

Constitutionalism at the Nexus of Life and Law

J. Benjamin Hurlbut, Sheila Jasanoff, and Krishanu Saha guest-edited the November 2020 issue of the journal Science, Technology, & Human Values. This essay introduces a collection of articles gathered under the theme of “law, science, and constitutions of life.” Together, they explore how revolutions in notions of what biological life is are eliciting correspondingly revolutionary imaginations of how life should be governed.

Democratic Governance of Human Germline Genome Editing

An international regulatory commission convened by scientific academies is a premature and problematic approach to governing human germline genome editing. Given the complex, international landscape of genome editing and significant cross-national differences among regulatory cultures, deferring to a single commission to set the agenda for global governance raises troublesome questions of framing and representation.

Adjudicating the GM Food Wars: Science, Risk, and Democracy in World Trade Law

This piece was originally written by four scholars, including Observatory Director Sheila Jasanoff, as an amicus curiae brief to the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO was considering a legal challenge from the United States, Canada, and Argentina to the de facto moratorium on genetically modified food imports in the European Communities (EC). The challengers argued that such a moratorium was illegal on the grounds that the European Union’s actions were not based on sound science of risk assessment.

Remembering the Future: Science, Law, and the Legacy of Asilomar

Global Observatory Co-Director Ben Hurlbut discusses the ways in which Asilomar crystallizes an imaginary of “governable emergence.” This imaginary posits the relationship between science and the law, where science and technology drive social change while the law lags behind and merely reacts. It also positions the scientific community as gatekeepers by giving precedence to expert assessments of technological possibility and the characterization of technological novelty. Institutionalized bioethics serves an ancillary role, focusing on the downstream consequences of novel technologies.

New Beginnings

In Experiments in Democracy, Observatory Co-Director Ben Hurlbut traces a history of the American debates, forms of reasoning, norms, and institutional struggles that have faced the moral status of the human embryo and justified its use for research purposes. In the first chapter, he examines the ethics and politics of reproductive rights and research in the US, from the mid-1960s to 1980.

Natural Mothers and Other Kinds

In this seminal book, Observatory Director Sheila Jasanoff explains the reasons behind the different paths that the US, the UK, and Germany have taken in biotechnology policy and regulation. This includes different political cultures and ways of public reasoning and decision-making, which she captures with the concept of “civic epistemology.” Chapter 6 focuses on debates and moral dilemmas that surrounded the emergence of IVF and the “technological capacity to manipulate human life” (2005:146).

Making the Facts of Life

Observatory Director Sheila Jasanoff identifies that the processes of making sense of ambiguous biological entities—like human embryos—are also political processes that settle questions of ethical responsibility toward these entities. These processes draw on established national scripts for ordering the relationship between science and politics. She characterizes the formulation of the 14-day rule as an act of “ontological surgery” that drew a line at two weeks between the nonhuman and human as research subject.

Life in the Gray Zone

In chapter 4 of the book Making Sense of Life, Observatory Director Sheila Jasanoff reflects on the challenges that new entities created through biotechnology as ‘moral grey zones’ bring to democratic societies as filled with moral questions. Such biological objects include the cloning of Dolly the Sheep, “three-parent embryos,” human embryonic stem cells (hESCs), and spare embryos created for IVF purposes.

CRISPR Democracy: Gene Editing and the Need for Inclusive Deliberation

CRISPR raises basic questions about the rightful place of science in governing the future in democratic societies. This editorial argues that the 1975 Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA is a poor model for governance of emerging gene editing technologies. The authors argue that study and deliberation can be steered in more democratic directions by focusing on four themes: envisioning futures, distribution, trust, and provisionality.