Donald Trump has been president for less than five months, but his plate is already full: Iran, Russia “collusion” investigations, North Korea, global warming, the drive to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, tax reform, judicial appointments, key unfilled administration positions, bad relations with the media, Net Neutrality, sanctuary cities, trade—I could go on and on.
That’s an exhausting list. But it doesn’t end even there. Crucial controversies involving biotechnology and bioethics—issues with potentially greater importance for our collective future than anything else except all-out war—are lying fallow, barely addressed in the Sturm und Drang of contemporary politics.
On one bioethics issue, abortion, the administration has moved vigorously—reinstating and expanding the so-called Mexico City Policy, and issuing an executive order permitting states to defund Planned Parenthood. But the crucial bioethical and biotechnology questions we face extend far beyond abortion. Take human cloning. Little noticed by the public, scientists have created human embryos asexually, through the same process that was used to clone Dolly the sheep. The purpose of the experiments was to obtain embryonic stem cells that would be genetic matches to the person cloned. But the potential uses of “reprogramming” technology (as it is often called, to avoid the C-word) extend beyond stem cell therapies. They include the creation of organs or cell lines for drug testing; so-called “fetal farming” (gestating fetuses in artificial wombs as sources of special-order organs); and birthing babies engineered to possess a predetermined genome. This is important stuff. As the President’s Council on Bioethics under President George W. Bush once put it, human cloning “touches fundamental aspects of our humanity,” including “identity and individuality, the meaning of having children, the difference between procreation and manufacture, and the relationship between the generations.” More, it is a key that opens the door to genetic engineering and the potential to redesign ourselves.
As cloning techniques are being perfected, the means to reengineer ourselves have already been invented. The technique known as CRISPR allows technologists to alter genetically any cell or organism, creating fundamental biological changes that could in certain circumstances continue down the generations. Chinese scientists have already conducted CRISPR experiments on normal human embryos, and scientific committees have given the “yellow light” to pursuing such studies as a means of overcoming genetic disease. Meanwhile, scientists are preparing to create “three-parent children.” The potential to manufacture “synthetic embryos” presents itself as a darkly surrealistic dream from which we cannot wake, as reproductive technologies—such as egg freezing, surrogacy, and quality control of IVF embryos—proliferate almost daily.
One would think that such portentous research would engender intense democratic debate and regulatory concern. There is much to ponder—balancing the importance of free scientific inquiry and the potential goods to be derived from futuristic research with its feared material and existential harms. Instead, a great silence has descended. The discussions, such as they are, remain contained within the rarified atmosphere of scientific symposia, where they are conducted by the very people intent on pursuing these technologies.
Most of these and other bioethical controversies flash across our television screens so fast we cannot absorb them, or are the subjects of sporadic opinion pieces soon lost amid the white noise of public discourse. We need to focus. But how? Learned discussions by intellectuals and philosophers won’t engage the public’s imagination beyond C-Span. Nor are the issues sexy enough to qualify as news website clickbait. I can think of only one solution: We need to spark an old fashioned political donnybrook, a rumble, the verbal equivalent of West Side Story’s knife fight between the Jets and the Sharks.
President Trump can launch that attention-grabbing debate by appointing a “populist” bioethics commission, geared toward engendering the public’s interest in these discussions rather than providing arcane advice (though it could do that, too). A commission consisting of social conservatives and liberals, moderates and libertarians, science advocates and religious proselytizers, progressive academics and conservative think-tankers, would offer the public and government representatives a full range of opinions, helping us sort through our options and decide our society’s bioethical and biotechnological future. Would these policy and moral arguments become messy? Perhaps. But even chaotic debate is preferable to our current, aimless drift.
President Trump’s election was a rejection of stale governance and unaccountable bureaucratic policymaking. Enabling a rabble-rousing, populist bioethics commission is consistent with that goal. Not only would it challenge existing hierarchies, it would send a message that the many decisions we face in the areas of bioethics and biotechnology are too important to leave to the “experts.”