Bioethics accused of doing more harm than good

Jyoti Madhusoodanan in Nature:

Tumblr_nnzhiuGHIr1uv17mmo1_1280The latest biomedical technologies, from fetal stem cells to human gene editing, offer huge potential for treating disease. They also raise tricky ethical questions that can eventually result in guidelines on how to prevent their misuse. In an opinion piece in The Boston Globe, Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker argues that this sweeping ethical oversight delays innovation and offers little benefit. The article ignited much discussion on social media among bioethicists and researchers. Many disagreed with Pinker, including Daniel Sokol, a London-based bioethicist and lawyer, who wrote in a blog post that ethicists should at times ‘get in the way’. Research to alleviate human suffering is important, he added, but “misguided attempts to help can — and have — led to incalculable harm”. In his article, Pinker wrote that delays caused by bioethical regulations can lead to loss of life because potential treatments are withheld from patients. He added that the future of biotechnologies is so difficult to accurately predict that policies based on these predictions will not effectively reduce risk. “The primary moral goal for today’s bioethics can be summarized in a single sentence. Get out of the way.”

Bioethics is not meant to stand in the way of research, Sokol wrote — but the consideration of potential harms cannot be left to researchers alone. “Virtually everyone would, in good faith but quite wrongly, consider their research ethically exemplary,” Sokol wrote. Hank Greely, a law professor at Stanford University in California, pointed to an example of bioethics doing its job: the 1975 Asilomar conference, at which researchers, lawyers and physicians agreed guidelines on how best to use recombinant DNA technologies. “One might point out that maybe we didn’t have problems with recombinant DNA technologies because of Asilomar,” says Greely. “Some issues are worth thinking about because they could turn into concrete, real risks.”

More here.