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Is synthetic biology sliding down the eugenics slope?

is synthetic biology promoting eugenics?“What will we do with this?” is a question we ask each time a significant new product or technology is developed. In some cases, the question is literal: Lasers were considered a “solution looking for a problem.” In others, the “what” takes on a moral tone, as in “how will this be used and abused?” With the potential to directly affect the natural world, advances in science and medicine should be debated in this context. The answers carry significant weight for society.

Of course, synthetic biology is a relatively new field. As such, both the practical and ethical discussions are ongoing and in many cases, heated. While companies and organizations are designing new products, the community at large is debating whether those applications are appropriate.

While there is no doubt that society should be continually evaluating the consequences of new technology, we should also be careful not to overstate and presume. This brings us to a recent article by Christine Rosen and published in Slate as part of the magazine’s Future Tense project. The project is described as “a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture.” Rosen’s article is titled “Build a Pet Dinosaur or Your Perfect Child,” and carries the sub-heading “synthetic biology companies want to tinker with life.” Though this may seem odd to point out, the article URL and search engine title includes the slug “synthetic biology advocates are veering too close to eugenics.”

Rosen’s article focuses on the work of Cambrian Genetics and CEO Austen Heinz. Cambrian focuses on 3D DNA printing, which has applications across biotech. Heinz has big things in mind when he looks at his company, and was quoted in a recent TechRepublic article as saying, “We print life. Life is very simple, it’s just code. Four letters — we print that.”

Here is where concern starts to mount. Going back to the Slate article,

[Heinz] wants to “democratize creation.” Just like anyone can be a book critic on Amazon or a food critic on Yelp, now anyone can design life […] “I can’t believe that after 10 or 20 years people will not design their children digitally.”

What of the specter of eugenics and other previous attempts to improve the human race through better design? Heinz expresses impatience. “The human population no longer lives in natural conditions,” he told me. “There’s no selective pressure. People with horrible diseases are around long enough to procreate.”

Rosen expresses (valid) worry that this sort of thinking coupled with the technology to carry it out could be abused. The phrase “designer baby” elicits responses in people ranging from a raised eyebrow to outright revulsion. A future of hospital nurseries filled with perfect newborns displaying pre-selected physical features is probably not the Brave New World most of us necessarily want. Well, I’ll speak for myself. It’s not a future I’m comfortable with. That some kind of oversight is needed is a point Rosen, Heinz (who calls the hypothetical oversight bodies “God Councils”), and I agree on.

However, I think Rosen starts to take the argument a shade too far, and here is where I would love to get some discussion going among the readers of this site:

In the past, improvements required a great deal of coercion, as the eugenics movement of the 20th century reminds us […] In place of government coercion, Heinz sees a future of private, individually driven technological selection. And he sees this as the ethical alternative to a world whose codes for human life contain glitches that lead to disease and death. “You’re an unethical person if you say babies should be born with single gene mutations,” he told me. “Those are horrible diseases. We shouldn’t be having children born with these diseases. It’s unethical. It’s irresponsible. It’s disgusting to say we should.”

As mentioned above, the alternate title to this article is “synthetic biology advocates are veering too close to eugenics.” In one sense, this may be true. “Promoting good traits” is one side of the eugenics coin, and the controversy of course comes because “good” in this instance is subjective. However, the other part of the eugenics movement is in limiting or preventing propagation of undesirable traits. Historically, this generally meant sterilization. Is Heinz’s vision really equivalent to this horror? Again, the potential for eugenic-type abuse is certainly there, especially in terms of positive eugenics where desirable traits are promoted. But is specifically targeting and repairing devastating genetic mutations “veering too close to eugenics?”

Ricki Lewis recently addressed a similar issue in another PLOS blog post titled, “Genetic Testing for All: Is It Eugenics?” Lewis says,

So yes, filtering out mutations with rigorous and actionable carrier tests can ultimately alter the gene pool. And because the selection is directional, this appears to be eugenic by  permitting only certain gene variants into the next generation. But this isn’t really eugenics, because the important descriptor of eugenics is INTENT; that of medical genetic screening and testing is CHOICE. The goal of the first is sociological, the second, biological.

Genetic screening and testing often aim to avoid a medical situation in a family, not to “improve” the genetic structure of a future population […] 

And so I don’t think that any medical genetic screening or testing is eugenic, and I welcome the coming expansion of the opportunity to learn what’s in some of our DNA to more people.

In light of all this, as well as my own ongoing thinking about these issues, I hand the discussion over to the readers. As Rosen says in her article, “God Councils notwithstanding, we need a more robust public discussion of the ethics of these techniques.” So please, jump into the comments and let fly. My questions above are neither rhetorical nor loaded, I’m genuinely interested in hearing how other members of the synthetic biology community think about these issues.

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