Regulate Synthetic Life Science While the Horse is Still in the Barn

by The Center for Bioethics and Culture on June 10, 2010

By Wesley J. Smith, J.D., Special Consultant to the CBC

The media was all atwitter a few weeks ago when scientists announced that they had created synthetic life. Technically, that isn’t true—if by synthetic life one means creating life out of non life. Rather, scientists took a living bacterium, removed its genetic content, and replaced it with a manufactured genome of a different species. The new genome took control of the existing cell and created a new species that acted like its natural counterparts, including cell splitting. Thus, it might be more accurate to say that scientists have successfully mimicked life rather than literally created it.

Semantics aside, it was an astounding scientific achievement that could lead, the scientists said, to man exerting “a new power over life.” They weren’t kidding. The potential safety and ethical consequences of learning to engineer new life forms—including eventually of the human variety—is hard to overstate.

That being so, we had better get about the task of erecting legally enforceable safety and ethical parameters around this field while we still have time to act deliberately. And here’s an important truth: If society doesn’t decide where we want the science to go—and not go—the amoral inertial imperative of technological advance will fill the resulting vacuum with potentially terrible consequences.

We have already seen the moral and social anarchy that flows from refusing to rationally regulate the awesome power of emerging life sciences. When in vitro fertilization (IVF) became a possible means of treating infertility, critics worried about ethical and practical consequences that could result when we took reproduction literally into our own hands. But IVF boosters scoffed at these concerns, assuring us that scientists could be trusted to exercise prudence and self control without the need to resort to government regulation. Thus in her 1980 syndicated column “Making Babies,” syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman wrote:

A fear of many protesting the opening of this [IVF] clinic is that doctors there will fertilize myriad eggs and discard the “extras” and the abnormal, as if they were no more meaningful than a dish of caviar. But this fear seems largely unwarranted.

We now know that Goodman was wholly mistaken, that we do indeed “discard” the “extras,” and do view these embryos as “no more meaningful than a dish of caviar.” Worse, because we now have more than 400,000 embryos in hyper-frozen stasis, many view these nascent human beings not as potential babies, but instead, as a bounteous natural resource ripe for exploitation and destruction in medical treatments and various biological experiments, a matter that would have caused horror when Goodman wrote, but which she and much of the science sector now find perfectly acceptable.

Indeed by failing to regulate IVF, it has, in effect, regulated us, leading directly to tremendous changes in the norms of family life (e.g., Octomom and aged motherhood), the reemergence of eugenics values (for example, in embryo selection), and an overall utilitarian objectification of unborn life (human cloning, embryonic stem cell research, and advocacy to permit fetal farming). If that was true of IVF—which, recall, had the original limited goal of helping infertile married couples have babies—imagine the potential epochal impact broadly synthesizing life could exert over the earth’s biology and human morality.

The good news is that unlike IVF, concerns over the impact of synthetic life could become a rare field about which the political left and right, so often at loggerheads, could agree. Thus, we should applaud President Obama for directing his new bioethics advisory panel (Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues) to investigate the implications of this field and report back to him with proposed societal responses. I also urge the proposed conservative “shadow bioethics panel” now being formed —which seems designed to continue the splendid moral analytical engagement of the now defunct President’s Council on Bioethics—to engage the issue and publish recommendations for proper regulatory action.

This is not to say that the science should be wholly stifled. But it is to say that we should refuse to assume the posture of mere flotsam and jetsam floating on the currents. For once, as a powerful new science emerges, let’s control our own destiny. The last thing the world needs is a synthetic life science sector Wild, Wild, West.

CBC special consultant Wesley J. Smith is a Senior Fellow in Human Rights and Bioethics with the Discovery Institute. His most recent book is A Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy: The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement.

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