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How scientists mold public opinion on controversial bioethical issues

by | Aug 25, 2023

By Michael Cook

One of the puzzling features of bioethics debates is how quickly the public changes its mind about controversial issues. This is particularly evident in discussions about heritable human genome editing (HHGE) and Mitochondrial Replacement Therapy (MRT).

If one were to ask whether scientists should be allowed to tinker with the human genome, most people would probably say no, absolutely not. This intuition has been codified in international agreements such as UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights and the Oviedo Convention. Both of these ban practices that encompass making heritable modifications.

Nonetheless, in the United Kingdom and Australia, MRT is permitted, at least in some circumstances. Even more ominously, a scientific consensus is building which supports modifying the human genome. In 2015 the International Summit on Human Gene Editing declared that it would be “irresponsible” to proceed with HHGE until safety issues were resolved. In 2018 a second summit called for a “rigorous, responsible translational pathway” and scientific consensus. In 2020 the US’s National Academies and the UK’s Royal Society declared that HHGE “could represent an important option” for parents if there was a risk of genetic illness.

The pace of ethical change has been relatively rapid. The stakes are high. Some scientists even believe that humanity needs to be reshaped and that modifying the genome is a necessity.

An excellent recent article in the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry by Shoaib Khan and Katherine Drabiak, of the University of South Florida, analyses the rhetorical strategies that scientists in the UK, Australia and the US have used to shape public opinion about this often-controversial research. They identify eight techniques.

1. Framing genes as the problem and genomics technology as the solution. “This rhetoric ingrains the belief that the human body is summed up by genetics and instead of our DNA being a part of us, it becomes the target to fix … when we perceive genes as the problem, biotechnology presents us with the solution. This framing ignores the complex nature of disease, including monogenic disease.”

2. Normalizing dramatic propositions by using familiar metaphors. Admittedly, communicating complex scientific notions is difficult. But over-simplifying them risks becoming deceptive. MRT, for instance, has been described as a “micro-organ transplant”, “a new form of IVF”, or a mere cellular “powerpack”. “These familiar metaphors portray MRT and HHGE as acceptable, necessary, and innovative medical procedures instead of risky, highly controversial experiments.”

3. Capitalizing on therapeutic misconception and promise fantastic speculative benefits. The new techniques are described as if they were proven therapies rather than risky, unproven procedures.

4. Relying on uncontroversial leading conclusions: everyone wants healthy babies. “This strategy exploits innate human compassion and sympathy as a means to generate stakeholder acceptance. It also presumes with minimal or scant evidence that the infants born following MRT or HHGE are indeed ‘healthy’.”

5. Downplaying or dismissing serious risks. “The risks of MRT are not simply ineffectiveness, but some research suggests that disrupting the interaction between mtDNA and nDNA could induce iatrogenic developmental disorders, latent fatalities, expedited aging, and increase risk of cancer.” But scientists have told legislators that the techniques are “safe enough” and “promising”.

6. Assuming the inevitability of adopting the technology. “Superseding society’s norms into controversial domains becomes the scientific frontier and synonymous with the concept of progress, presumes that more technology constitutes an optimal priority, and dismisses ethical dissent as an ephemeral effect of society lagging behind or failing to understand science.”

7. Distorting key terminology and presume legal exceptionalism. The international agreements banning germline modification are very clear. However, some scientists have merely asserted tout court that their techniques are altogether different. For instance, the UK Department of Health engaged in logical legerdemain to assert “that while MRT may constitute a ‘germline modification’, it did not meet the definition of ‘genetic modification’ of the human germline because there is no agreed upon definition of ‘genetic modification’”.

8. Obfuscating the role of commercial motivations. Novel IVF techniques are a marketable commodity. Bland reassurances from scientists “discount the financial incentives driving the fertility industry to expand practices for more indications, to more customers, entangled with the compelling desire that many people have for a biological child.”

Editor’s note. This appeared at BioEdge and is reposted with permission.

Categories: Bioethics
Tags: bioethics