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Tough Questions and Reasoned Discussions About Genetic Enhancement

Double Helix

In the past, eugenics was conducted by the state, but in the future, it could be done by couples, lamented a participant of a break-out session at A Faith and Science Workshop on Ethical Issues in Human Germ-line Editing held at the Episcopal Conference Center in Salt Lake City on October 7.

During the conference, bioethicists, scientists, and theologians from across the country met with the community to begin a dialog around the complex issues about the future application of genetics in medicine.

A diverse group of attendees, ranging from a local chocolatier to students in genetic counseling, to a father of two deaf children, to scientists, met to discuss the prospects of genetic “enhancement of children” during the break out session. 

James Tabery, PhD, associate professor in Philosophy at University of Utah Health, who facilitated the session, began by differentiating between enhancement and treatment.

“There is normal state and an attempt to treat disease,” he said. “I want us to focus on enhancing people to be beyond normal, beyond what is needed to restore human health.”

With this definition in hand, the attendees began an hour-long discussion of the future application of genetic enhancements, including their fears and their hopes. They raised concerns associated with insurance and accessibility, freedom, diversity, hubris, and the need to ‘keep up with the Joneses.’

Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, PhD, director of Jewish Studies at Arizona State University and a conference presenter, encapsulated the greatest fear raised during the discussion. If these enhancements became widely available, it could devolve into a competition driven by capitalism where parents would embrace genetic enhancement to give their children an edge. “It could become an arms race,” she said.

The group concluded that open, honest, respectful communication is the only path forward. We benefit from diversity said one participant. We would lose something without it.

The chocolatier reminded everyone, “We don’t know what we don’t know.” Another participant chimed in with, once you let the genie out of the bottle, you cannot get it back in.