March 29, 2019, by Brigitte Nerlich

Scientists call for a moratorium on heritable genome editing. What do they want?

This is a guest post by Jim Dratwa and Barbara Prainsack.

Jim Dratwa, Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington, D.C., and Free University of Brussels’ Centre on Law, Science, Technology & Society. e:

Barbara Prainsack, Department of Political Science, University of Vienna, AT and Department of Global Health & Social Medicine, King’s College London, UK. e:; t: @bPrainsack


When Eric Lander and colleagues published their call for a moratorium on heritable genome editing in Nature earlier this month, commentators disagreed about whether this was good news or not. But: was it news at all?

Moratoria, laws and pledges

It is not the first time that we hear that “top scientists call for a moratorium on human germline genome editing”. Moratoria are a well-known policy instrument. In science and technology policy, they tend to be used when there are no objections to a technology in principle, but when more time is needed to find out under what circumstances the technology would be safe to use, or to decide whether certain fields of research, or specific applications of a technology, should be prohibited in general. Calls for moratoria on specific practices related to genome editing were voiced several times already, such as by participants in the International Summit on Human Gene Editing in December 2015 – who proposed a conditional moratorium on basic research into human germline editing.

What is specifically puzzling about Lander and colleague’s most recent call for a moratorium on clinical germline editing is their emphasis on the voluntary nature of the moratorium. According to the authors, it should be a ‘voluntary pledge’. But why? Moratoria are often passed as laws, and as such, are legally binding; an example is the moratorium on human reproductive cloning in Israel.

So perhaps Lander and colleagues do not want binding law on this topic. There is, in fact, a second type of moratoria, namely those where a group of individuals or institutions voluntary commit themselves to do something (or abstain from something) without there being a law requiring them to do so. An example of this latter kind is the voluntary moratorium on the use of genetic test results by the Association of British Insurers. This moratorium could be revoked at any time by the insurers themselves.

Another example of a moratorium as an instrument of voluntary (and revocable) self-regulation was the 1975 Asilomar Conference, where scientists committed themselves not to carry out certain forms of combining DNA from different organisms. Paul Berg, one of the co-authors of the Lander et al. piece, was also centrally involved in the Asilomar conference. Are the authors arguing for such a latter kind of ban, a commitment to voluntary self-regulation by scientists that is not enforceable by law, and bestowed with little public accountability? It is unfortunate that their article fails to clarify this.

Considerations, costs and benefits

Substantively, proceeding through a set of “considerations”, the paper follows the model of a classic cost-risk-benefit analysis. It improves on that baseline in two ways: firstly, by considering alternative ways to reach the expected benefits; secondly, by including a reflection on the uncertainties not only regarding risks but also benefits and costs. But it remains silent on a key question on whose answer all other answers depend: Who is, and how, to decide what is valid knowledge? How do we ascertain how safe is safe enough? In other words, how do we know?

Recommendations and questions

Going forward, we believe that four dimensions could critically enrich the analysis underpinning the search for governance frameworks.

First, the distributional question. It is of limited value to discuss costs, risks and benefits in the abstract. We need to unpack for whom benefits would accrue, and at whose cost. Who will bear the burdens? Which individuals, communities, groups, species, and forms of life will be affected? This debate should not be just about humans alone, be it present or future generations.

Second, the time dimension. This is a major plot twist with regard to the distributional reflection, but also bears on all the previous ones. As to ‘who knows?’, it draws attention to the ebb and flow of promises and uncertainties, and to intentionality and consequences – as well as unintended consequences.

Third, the dimensions of humanness and naturalness (and godliness). How do we relate – as individual people, as part of our respective communities, and as humanity – to nature (naturalised, tamed, exploited, or warded)? What is our part in ‘creation’?

And then there is the question which, jointly with ‘who knows?’, underlies the whole endeavour: Who ought to decide, and how? The development of adequate frameworks to govern genome editing needs to be informed by debates on how different groups, communities, professions, or nations, establish the validity of knowledge claims and the validity of the truths with which their decisions are shaped. The issue in its crispest form: How to agree? How to decide and act together? How to articulate knowledge and power? The answers to these questions cannot be taken for granted, or bracketed off. If we do the latter, then we fail to see the articulations of knowledge and power that are already ongoing: certain professions, certain fields of expertise, and certain parts of the world, have “taken control”. Are we faced with an epistemic and political power grab at the exact same time as we hear calls for broad societal debate and consensus?

Mapping and widening

At the end of the day the fate of humanity is not for a set of scientists to shape, be it “voluntarily” or even “altruistically” or “responsibly”. There is a need to map and track what is happening as well as a need for a widening of the basis of expertise, indeed of what counts as relevant knowledge in these endeavours. A form of networked global observatory, as suggested by Sheila Jasanoff and Ben Hurlbut, would be beneficial here. Furthermore, what is needed is a wider, more inclusive public deliberation on what world we want to live in. This may well be, more than anywhere else, where “more research and investment are urgently needed”.

We may not envision the one best way to govern these rapidly emerging socio-technical arrangements but, as we engage in these collective experiments, at least the must is to put in place the means to collectively learn from them.

Image: Pixabay


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