Friday, October 02, 2015

When bioethics goes bad

I have just received a copy of the Australian science magazine Cosmos in the post, as I have an article in it on invisibility. And it reaffirms the impression I had when I reacquainted myself with the magazine during a visit to Melbourne earlier this year: it is a thoroughly splendid publication which deserves to have a wider global reach. The production values are high, the writing is smart, and it’s altogether an accessible but non-sensationalist digest of what’s up in science. In the latest issue you get Dan Falk on 100 years of general relativity, Robin McKie on dark matter… what more could you ask?

So now I’m going to gripe. Not about the magazine per se, but I want to take issue with something that is said in the latest issue. One of the columns is written by Laurie Zoloth, a professor of medical ethics and humanities at Northwestern University. I came across Zoloth before when I wrote my book Unnatural. She is one of the opponents of “advanced reproductive technologies”, including genetic therapies applied to embryos, and she represents a perfect example of how vague scaremongering and woolly moralizing can be used to damn promising new technologies in this field. For example, she complains that we have a tendency to treat infertility as a disease which must be cured. This is a fair complaint insofar as it refers to the way assisted reproduction is often marketed by private clinics (especially in the US, where regulation seems disturbingly lax). But as I wrote in Unnatural,
It is characteristic of critics like Zoloth that they duck the unpalatable corollaries of their criticisms. Should we, then, ban IVF and tell those who suffer from infertility that they must simply learn to live with it? Or might we merely want to constrain and monitor how it is done? At the same time Zoloth herself pathologizes infertility to a grotesque degree, saying that ‘the hunger of the infertile is ravenous, desperate’ – with the implication that it is also dangerous and lacking all moral restraint.

That last comment of hers is unforgiveable – but, as I point out in my book, entirely in accord with traditional views of infertility as something morally suspect.

Zoloth doesn’t see these technologies as attempts to alleviate serious medical conditions, but rather, as narcissistic quests for perfection: for the ideal “designer baby”. Her criticisms of cloning reveal as much; as I said,
Bioethicist Laurie Zoloth bases her objections to cloning on the idea that it will generate a ‘close-as-can-be’ replica, and that this would indeed be a clone’s raison d’ĂȘtre. In a car-crash of metaphors, she asserts that in child-rearing we must ‘learn to have the stranger, not the copy, live by our side as though out of our side’. (Didn’t Eve come, asexually, out of Adam’s side?) Even in literal terms, it seems odd to imply that the cloned child of a couple would be, to the non-cloned parent, less of a ‘stranger’ than a child sharing half his or her genes. But Zoloth’s real fear seems to be that, for reasons unspecified, the parents of a cloned child will, like Victor Frankenstein, fail to parent it as they would any other child. [As she wrote]:
“The whole point of ‘making babies’ is not the production, it is the careful rearing of persons, the promise to have bonds of love that extend far beyond the initial ask and answer of the marketplace.

Again, that last comment is both meretricious and true to the mythical roots of such discomfort: a cloned child will, for some reason, not be “normal”, nor will it have a “normal” upbringing. I’m not arguing in favour of human reproductive cloning, which undoubtedly raises important ethical questions quite beyond any considerations of safety. Rather, I just want us to consider those questions with open eyes, and not to cast lazy aspersions based on ancient prejudices.

Well, Zoloth is at it again in her Cosmos column, which considers the prospects of CRISPR/Cas9 editing of human genomes. She says that germline genetic modification “is a code for engineering embryos. It has been rejected by every political, religious and ethical body that has considered it.” So there’s your argument: it is wrong because folks like me have decided it’s wrong. No mention of whether such work might not actually be used to “make babies” anyway, but, as in the case of the recent application in the UK, to solve medical problems related to conception. The use of embryos that are never intended, or legally allowed, to be implanted for full-term gestation, is in Zoloth’s view just a trick for “deflecting criticism”. The scientists in the US and China are, she warns, “continuing to refine the technique” despite the Chinese work discovering that there could be “disastrous consequences for the embryo”. (Never mind the fact that the Chinese work was conducted precisely to find out if that would be the case, i.e. to assess the risks.)

And so to Zoloth’s conclusion: “Our knowledge of unforeseen consequences is too poor; our capacity for greed and narcissism too strong; our society already too unjust to begin to design babies to a spec sheet.” Oh, she has a way with outrageous phrases all right. What does that “designing babies to a spec sheet” actually mean for all serious researchers thinking about the possibilities of using CRISPR/Cas9 (if and only if it looks safe enough) for humans? It means “curing babies of debilitating genetic diseases” (or avoiding the termination of embryos screened and found to contain them). There is no room in Zoloth’s litany of our evils for any recognition that we also have compassion. For these folk, compassion is merely what paves the road to the Brave New World.

Zoloth sits on the US Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee, which, she says, “reviews every proposed clinical trial of gene therapy”. I am very alarmed by that.

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