In July, I was a invited to make a brief presentation at the National Academy of Sciences. I was speaking to the Committee on Human Gene Editing: Scientific, Medical and Ethical Considerations. I think I surprised the scientists in the room, including some very distinguished researchers, with my suggestion that Christianity supports their work. SEE MY STATEMENT.
Of course, like everyone else, Christians are concerned about safety. So are the scientists. Precisely because the stakes in human germline gene editing are so high, everyone agrees that the standard of safety must be equally high.
With the advent of CRISPR/Cas technology, however, the high bar of safety may soon be achieved. What then? If modifying the DNA of future generations to avoid disease is safe, is it a wise or good thing to do?
I drew on a number of recent church statements to suggest that there is a strong reservoir of support in Christianity, not just for healing but for the research that makes healing possible.
In my comments to the committee, I suggested that religious people and scientific researchers share common ground: we want to see research advance with care and caution but without undue fear. I said to them: “Some people worry about the harm that science and technology will produce. I want to encourage you to worry about the harm these fears might do to science. If there is good to come from human gene editing, we do not want public fear to keep us from getting to that good.”
One way the scientists can help us all here is by being clear about the steps that lie ahead. Then make a promise to the public to stop long enough at each point along the way for serious, widespread public engagement. As I put it:
Clarity alone will not allay everyone’s fears. But clear identification of future stopping points, at which more reflection will be required before going forward. It will undercut somewhat the fear of a slippery slope. It will make it clear that rigorous expert debate and public review must precede any decision to go to the next step or to move from what is scientifically and medically justifiable today to what might be appropriate in the future. It will help reassure the public that those who develop and use these technologies are keenly aware of the current social and moral limits of their use. It will also help maintain the strong support of religious communities for medical advances and for the careful work needed to bring them from research to the clinic.
You can see a video recording of the session by going to the NAS WEBSITE. Once you are on their site, you will see a video screen. Use the arrow button on the right of the screen for my comments, or watch from the top.